You don’t need to be particularly observant to notice the effects of the economic crisis on Greece’s commercial sector. From the faded “To let” signs on long-empty shop fronts and the abundance of clearance sale announcements to the darkened streets and dozens of makeshift homeless camps, the signs that have appeared in countless once-busy commercial parts of the center of Athens are clear to see. There are, however, particular spots in the Greek capital that seem to exemplify the process of this decline.
In the building which used to house the Merchants’ Fund, the Stoa ton Emboron, or Merchants’ Arcade, which links Voulis and Lekka streets just off Syntagma Square in the heart of the city, used to be one of the most dynamic commercial spots in Athens. Built in the inter-war period and designed by architects Leonidas Bonis (Army Pension Fund Headquarters, Rex Theater) and Emmanouil Lazaridis (Tomb of the Unknown Soldier), the Stoa ton Emboron is considered one of the most impressive stretches among Athens’s 170 covered walkways, as it is built on two levels and joined by a marble staircase. Indeed, the Lekka Street side of the arcade once hosted shelters used during the German occupation.
Up until the 1980s, the Stoa ton Emboron was home to some of the capital’s busiest stores, including a photographer’s shop, a haberdashery and a cosmetics store, among others. Yet its popularity did not spare it from the same fate suffered by many other such commercial spots in central Athens, with the final blow being delivered in 2006 with the relocation of the Merchants’ Fund to Academias Street. Since then, the arcade has become a sad scene of desolation, abandoned by businesses and ignored by passers-by.
Two architects are now trying to revive this historical part of the city. Haris Biskos and Martha Giannakopoulou have teamed up with the City of Athens and the Merchants’ Fund to bring business back to the Stoa ton Emboron through an initiative called Traces of Commerce (tracesofcommerce.com). The plan is to transform 10 of the arcade’s stores into hubs of creativity for a period of six months from December 1. Creative people of every stripe have been invited to put the unleased properties to use as production facilities and laboratories to explore new ideas and promote their work. In exchange for the free space, each enterprise has to open to the public at least twice a month over the duration of the project, with the aim of addressing the capital’s needs and reintegrating the Stoa ton Emboron into the commercial network of the city.
The first phase of the project was completed in May with the selection of 12 groups of creators who were picked after submitting their proposals on the concept of commerce in a bygone era. The response to the call was better than expected.
“The most important achievement was how well the idea was absorbed by the neighborhood,” Biskos told Kathimerini. “This was the goal: citizen engagement.”
Stage 2 of Traces of Commerce will run for six months, allowing enough time for the participants to develop their ideas as well as to provide a kind of residency for young people trying their hand at business for the first time.
If anything, the Stoa ton Emboron has significant symbolism, the architects behind the scheme explain, as it connects the fringes of the commercial hub to its heart, serving as a bridge between Syntagma Square, an area of intense activity, and a part of the city with a large concentration of small businesses, workshops and so on.
“In this sense, this particular building has been chosen as a symbolic depiction of the city’s commercial center, which needs to redefine itself in an environment of crisis,” said Biskos.