Thursday, 5 April 2018

How one architect changed
the shape of Thessaloniki

Aristotelous Square is at the heart of Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

The walk along the seafront in Thessaloniki, from Aristotelous Square (Πλατεία Αριστοτέλους, Platia Aristotelous) to the White Tower is a popular stroll in the evening for residents, students and tourists alike.

Aristotelous Square is the main square in the heart of Thessaloniki, and the like the White Tower it is virtually synonymous with the city itself. It is a venue for many cultural and political events, and is lined with hotels, cafés and bars.

The two quarter-circle sides of the square are occupied by two culturally important and imposing buildings: the Electra Palace Hotel, where I stayed while I was travelling to and from Mount Athos in 2004, and the Olympion Theatre cinema, the venue of the annual Thessaloniki International Film Festival.

Before the Great Fire that destroyed two-thirds of Thessaloniki in 1917, the city’s architecture of was more oriental rather than European, with many narrow streets and lacking any imposing façades, grand plaza or wide boulevards. In the wake of the fire, the square was designed 100 years ago in 1918 by the French architect, archaeologist and urban planner Ernest Hébrard (1875-1933), who proposed a number of large squares in Thessaloniki, including Aristotelous Square, which he planned to name after Alexander the Great.

The Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos commissioned Hébrard to redevelop the centre of this city. His vision was for a monumental axis for Thessaloniki, stretching from Aristotelous Square on the seafront to Venizelou Square and the Roman Forum. He wanted to name this axis after Alexander the Great, and to transform this into a city with boulevards and contemporary roadways, squares and parks.

For his monumental axis, Hébrard drew on elements in Byzantine and Western architecture rather than Ottoman architecture, to stress the city's connection with the Byzantine Empire. This style is most evident at Aristotelous Square, with a few building facades implementing some of Hébrard's original ideas. Additionally, a statue of Alexander the Great was to be placed in the middle of the square.

Hébrard designed the monumental axis so that looking uphill from the square we could see the Byzantine walls and the Upper Town. Facing out towards the Thermaic Gulf in the other direction, the square offers an outstanding view of Mount Olympus.

On each side of his wide boulevard there are arched pedestrian colonnades, reminiscent of the colonnades in Bologna and Milan.

The statue of Aristotle in Aristotelous Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

But since he first set out his concepts for the heart of Thessaloniki 100 years ago in 1918, Hébrard’s designs have been modified and simplified considerably, and have never been fully completed.

Most of the square was not completed until the 1950s, and the 12 key buildings that make up Aristotelous Square have been listed since 1950.

When I visited Thessaloniki as the European capital of culture in 1997, there was much talk of the city’s plans to redevelop the square and the waterfront. But none of these grand designs would see the light of day, although many of the buildings have since been renovated and restored in the last 20 years.

The statue of Aristotle was moved many years ago from the centre of the square to the side, and students say that if you hold the foot of the philosopher for a while some of his wisdom and knowledge will be passed on to you and you will pass any exam or test.

A Turkish inscription can be seen on a lintel in Valaoritou Street, between Syngrou Street and Ionos Dragoumi Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Here and there in the narrow side streets of Thessaloniki, there are remnants of the Ottoman past, in Turkish inscriptions over lintels or in some of the surviving hamams or baths, and one singular minaret.

But the heart of Thessaloniki owes its character to the imagination and vision of one French architect 100 years ago.

An evening walk along the seafront towards the White Tower in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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