Central avenue unchanged only in our minds

Vassilissis Sofias is the only real boulevard in Athens. With its handsome villas and grand apartment blocks, the broad avenue retains something of the neoclassical atmosphere of the small, quiet capital as it was in the early 20th century. In fact, it is a reassuring but distorted image of a long-gone Athens we never knew, but insist on seeing more in our mind’s eye than in reality. That aristocratic avenue of our imagination coexists with the real one, which has its own highly regarded buildings, such as the Hilton Hotel, the Athens Tower and the Athens Concert Hall. That’s what makes Vassilissis Sofias so popular: It is the most pluralist avenue in the city, with buildings that tell a charming tale of architectural styles, urban dreams and games of power and money. New images It’s a tale that never gets old. Just when you think it is done – after all it is in the center of Athens, one of the most expensive streets and there are no vacant plots of land to speak of – suddenly new images spring up. For instance, there’s the new headquarters of Aspis Pronoia, which practically hangs over the escalators at the Megaro Mousikis metro station. It’s a welcome new arrival, low-key but robust at the same time, which adds to that pluralism. Further along the street, new surprises are in store. One of the most talked-about facades of the 1990s, designed by the studio of Ilias Barbalias, is being removed for the new owners, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. The foundation wanted a less fussy facade, and to retain only the layout of the ground floor and the classical entrance. The same studio is responsible for the redesign. Almost next door, at 88 Vassilissis Sofias, the only vacant plot that remains on the avenue (left a few years ago by the demolition of a small, modest neoclassical house), is being rebuilt, also by the Aspis group. All this is opposite the US Embassy, designed by Walter Gropius, which acquired a companion building in 2007 on the plot that used to be a parking lot at the rear of the embassy. The new annex and additional installations allow the embassy to bring into the complex those employees who worked elsewhere in rented premises for many years. It was designed by the Boston-based firm of Kallmann, Mckinnell and Wood, who clearly intended the new building to converse discreetly with Gropius’s design. Of more interest is the refurbishment of the surrounds. What was an unattractive space in the center of Athens has now received the attention it deserves. Some 16,000 plants and trees have been put in, and there are small gardens on the terraces. The new annex has 20 contemporary works by Greek and Greek-American artists, including Stephen Antonakos. William Baziotes, Danae Stratou and Niki Kanagini. In the garden, a 21-meter sculpture by Michael Singer pays tribute to the archaeological history of Greece while providing a comfortable place to sit. Unusual facade What does it mean to design a building for the foremost avenue of Athens. Dimitris Papaioannou, an architect and professor at the National Technical University of Athens, designed the two buildings for Aspis. The first, on the corner of Aeginitou Street, is already visible. Work has just begun on the second. «It is a challenge to one’s sensitivity and a trial of one’s endurance, composure and, above all, knowledge of the particular site,» said Papaioannou. «It was not easy to incorporate the building into that sweep of the avenue, opposite Eleftherias Park and Lycabettus Hill, in between the neoclassical Aiginiteio Hospital and the densely built-up apartment blocks with marked horizontal effects. From the outset, it meant having to find a design that would discreetly connect with different neighbors, ensure the continuity of that particular urban fabric and at the same time turn toward the unique view, without in any way trying to create yet another landmark. «The client wanted a new profile that would be immediately identifiable but restrained. With this in mind, we created the two masses, one the height of the neoclassical neighbor and the other at the height of the adjacent buildings, but emphasizing their verticality and using narrow shutters as the connecting theme.» The combination of materials used on the facades, tufa stone and wood, which is very popular in Central and Northern Europe, create an overall sense of dynamism, confidence and moderation. Papaioannou has something completely different in mind for the second building, a transparent office block rising from the middle of an unbroken row of apartment blocks. It will create a gap that reveals the inner workings without breaking the unity of the row.