Thessaloniki sees vigorous growth despite years of state focus on Athens 2004 Olympic facelift

Thessaloniki’s ring road at sunset, the best time in any city, has views of the Thermaic Gulf bathed in an orange-red glow. To the right are the new housing complexes of Menemeni and Evosmos, not exactly ugly, perhaps because they are very new. Balconies are draped with minimalist displays of laundry hanging out to dry and stocked with satellite dishes and plastic cupboards. They are mostly the homes of Russian and Albanian immigrants and ethnic Greeks from the former Soviet bloc. To the left, bare hills covered in spring grass are home to new structures sprouting up even along the summit ridges. It’s a familiar sight in Turkish cities such as Istanbul and Izmir. Further on, in middle-class Kalamaria, the construction fever continues. New buildings are going up quickly in the new extension to the refugee settlements. The new neighborhoods aren’t as dense as Menemeni and are built better, but they are separated by unsurfaced roads. The sense of haste is obvious. Thessaloniki got lost in the Olympics shuffle, when the spotlight was on the nation’s capital during the runup to the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, which profited from public works, new infrastructure and the designs of Santiago Calatrava. Yet during those four years, Thessaloniki has been forging its own destiny. Although it has not seen the same amount of growth in infrastructure, development there has not remained static. Quiet transformation Instead, as the new century has dawned, Thessaloniki has undergone a quiet transformation. The eastern entrance – the triangle formed by the airport, Kalamaria and the Pylaia district – is the site of a business and entertainment park with shopping malls, multiplex cinemas, hotels, major retail outlets such as Ikea, and large businesses. A similar trend has prevailed in the western part of the city, which once reeked of the stench from tanneries. The suburbs are sprawling relentlessly but it is the center that still reflects the city’s ambitions. The recent dispute over the restoration of Aristotelous Square has been an indication of conflicts that have been simmering (and sometimes reaching boiling point) at a local level for some time. A much larger project – the construction of an underwater road tunnel in the Thermaic Gulf – has also caused ripples as it appears to challenge the relationship between the city and its seafront. Thessaloniki in 2006 appears split between the need for infrastructure projects that will boost its urban image and important ideological concerns related to town-planning issues, both large and small. The decision to erect permanent structures in Aristotelous Square for the purpose of facilitating order clearly has a specific goal. At the same time, the restoration of the Toumba lane by two young architects introduces another dimension. So it will be very interesting to see how this undeclared war develops. Restoration of shoreline One shouldn’t be deceived by the rhetoric of Mayor Vassilis Papageorgopoulos and his gripe about the «Athenian state that does nothing.» A lot is happening in Thessaloniki at the moment and not all of it is due to any initiative by Athens. The signs of development and the push to improve the city can be seen just by taking a stroll along the waterfront. The area around the White Tower is being excavated for refurbishment, delayed due to the discovery of ancient ruins on the site. The Central Archaeological Council ruled that these could be covered over, but then former deputy culture minister Petros Tatoulis seemed interested in reviewing the issue – to no purpose, as it turned out. Nevertheless the Municipality of Thessaloniki, which is funding the project, took the initiative to amend the original design in order to include traces of the ancient foundations within the new ground cover. The White Tower renovation is being done in accordance with an older design (by Katerina Tsigarida and associates) commissioned for the city’s term as Cultural Capital of Europe, something which was not done for Aristotelous Square. The new coastline’s restoration will reach from the White Tower to the Concert Hall. The design (by Nikiforidis, Castro, Denisov and Cuomo) aims to retain the city’s familiar shoreline and the continuity of the landscape. A central feature of the design are the 16 areas of greenery inside the coastal area forming a chain of «green rooms,» areas where an attempt is being made to preserve the familiar atmosphere of a private garden within public spaces – not large parks, but small spaces recalling gardens in village houses that used to be scattered along the eastern shore before the land reclamation of the 1970s. As with every other town and city in Greece, it is not modern architecture that is changing Thessaloniki’s image. The Cultural Capital organization resulted in no major new buildings, only the restoration of a few older ones (such as the Royal Theater, the Lazariston Monastery). There are none of the aggressive architectural statements seen on some main streets in Athens (such as Kifissias Avenue), although this is not necessarily a bad thing. It might just reflect the waning of the economic dynamism that was a feature of the city in previous decades. In contrast to what is happening in Athens, architectural activity is more evident in public buildings than in private office buildings – the new Town Hall, the Planetarium (designed by Panos Tzonos and Associates), the Technopolis near the airport (the world of Prodromos Nikiforidis and Bernard Cuomo), the Sports Museum at the Kaftantzogleio Stadium the Limani commercial center (by Rena Sakellaridou and Morfo Papanikolaou) at the city’s western entrance. The complex transformation of the Toumba lane (by Tassos Biris) is also under way, as well as public spaces (a cultural center and multimedia center, Olympic-sized swimming pool) and outdoor sporting venues and parks.