Transforming Athens, starting by the sea

The city of Athens can and ought to become a hip destination once more.

There are many who have written the Greek capital off and consider the city dead in terms of tourism. But things are not what they seem. The way certain parts of the city – amid the current crisis – have been given a new lease of life through the emergence of new neighborhoods and hangouts, is simply amazing.

The area between the Acropolis and the historic and commercial city center has changed dramatically over the last few years and could make Athens interesting again. Think how charming the city would be if Constantine Karamanlis’s plan of turning the entire archaeological area into one big promenade ever happened.

At the same time Athens enjoys the unique privilege of a glorious seaside which was nevertheless badly abused a decade ago. In sharp contrast to Barcelona, for instance, this part of the city was blanketed in distasteful and insignificant cement buildings. With the exception of the Flisvos Marina, the surrounding area was not put to good use and the city eventually lost both the view and its access to the sea. There was no plan, everything happened in a rush and no one ever considered what the city should look like in the aftermath of the Olympic Games. Despite it all, however, the desire of city dwellers for the sea is palpable, even within this unfinished, ugly landscape.

What we now see are more cranes appearing daily on the Stavros Niarchos Foundation’s construction site at Faliro Bay. Besides the obvious sense of optimism generated by the fact that something major and esthetically exciting is finally happening in the city, there’s an added expectation that the new cultural project could substantially alter the city’s overall image. Plans for the revamp of the Faliro coast exist and if this project were to materialize it would put Athens on a par with Barcelona. Hopefully the plan will get under way and those who keep going on about developing a cruise stop at Faliro will clearly explain what they have in mind.

The city’s zoning and esthetics are not just the responsibility of a deputy minister or a public relations executive. They are the responsibility of all of us and it’s about time we got it.

Athens needs a vision, a few major public works and some good taste.

Though Karamanlis might be held responsible for the capital’s unregulated construction, we must also recognize that he used the talents of architects such as Dimitris Pikionis to serve his vision of a tourism destination that was well ahead of its time.

This could be the case once more. The city is still very much alive. If two or three things were to be done simultaneously – the landmark unification of archaeological sites, Renzo Piano’s Faliro cultural center and the Faliro Bay revamp – Athens would become a city transformed.