Omonoia Square — the most known, talked about, depicted, used and abused public space of Greece
Omonoia square (Concorde square) has been in the past the gate to the city for the migrants from the rest of Greece and foreign migrants arriving in Athens during all three major urbanization phases (the beginning, the middle, and the end of 20th century).
In 1922 the official records talk of 246.000 refugees from Asia Minor arriving and settling in Athens, this has been the first unexpected urbanization of the Greek capital. The post war, post civil war, national migration towards Athens has been the second “enlargement” of Athens and its periphery. It is in the 1990s that Greece and Athens were included in the migration map; this signified that for the first time in the history the country and its capital were receiving fiscal immigrants and refugees coming from neighboring and far away countries. The “foreigners” dispersed in the city but still they concentrated around and in the center where it was and is easier to find jobs and dwellings. In 1993, 500.000 Albanians, fleeing the political chaos in their country, arrived in Athens. The social shock that followed was a great one for Athens.
The square itself has a long and glorious history with many ups and downs; it is established as the most famous Square in all the country. It is the most known, talked about, depicted, used and abused public space of Greece.
The History of the Square
Omonoia and Syntagma squares were designed by Kleanthis and Schaubert in 1833 when Athens became the capital of the newly founded Greek State. From then onwards Syntagma square became the centre of formal politics surrounded by the Palace, the royal gardens, and the foreign embassies. On the other hand, Omonoia square acquired a blue-collar character.
In 1888, a subterranean terminal for the trains running from the port of Piraeus to the suburb of Kifissia via the centre of Athens was constructed almost underneath the square. Thus Omonoia found itself at the focus of a transportation system thus becoming a reference point. From the war refugees of the early 20th century to the immigrants of the 1950s and 1960s arriving in the industrialized city from the rural countryside, Omonoia always stood as the point of arrival. Cheap hotels and small coffee shops were set up around the square, becoming the places where people of the same origin met and interacted. Marginal groups, prostitutes, illegal traders and homeless people found a way to surviving in this “yard of miracles”.
In 1957, the square was completely transformed according to a new (circus) plan imposed by the ministry of Transport and Public Works. A new four-lane circular road was constructed cutting off the center from all pedestrian movement. A monumental fountain was set in the middle. The underground train station was renovated and the ground movement was directed underground. A wide sidewalk was constructed along the adjacent buildings to accommodate the newsstands, the ground-level shops, and the train station entrances. No provision was made whatsoever for urban furniture enabling people to stay longer. Frequenters to the area were forced to the sides. An underground shopping passageway was meant to replace part of the dislocated street life.
This decisive architectural gesture changed radically the image and the function of Omonoia square by bringing to the fore a different spatial model. The enormous size and the technological novelty of the fountain became the symbol of the state’s upgrading enterprise, while the four lane road celebrated the car as the symbol of post-war middle class. The concept of the new square was based on “seeing” rather than “acting”. The new design was addressed to passers-by rather than those inhabiting the surrounding area. Compared with the earlier model it may be called ‘global’ as it was addressed to a larger community which did not necessarily have a true physical experience of the place. In the early 1960s Omonoia’s roundabout became a landmark countrywide by way of the lens of modern Greek movies.
In spite of its physical inaccessibility, Omonoia occasionally hosted various public gatherings and celebrations. It became the traditional assembly place of political gatherings and demonstrations of the Greek communist parties. It also attracted the celebrating crowds of sport fans after victorious soccer games. In all these occasions, traffic was diverted as people kept flowing into the square. In 1988, the notion of the square as a place holding a symbolic value rather than a mere prosaic one was reaffirmed. An oversized glass sculpture – a large modern installation called “The Runner” by Costas Varotsos – was set in the middle of the square replacing the fountain, which had been non-functioning for many years.
Omonoia has always been a crossroads absorbing in its vicinity the aftermaths of social upheavals. In the 1990s, the political changes and the economic decline of the East European countries generated strong migration flows to Greece. In 1997, an estimated number of 500,000 migrants were thought to be living in Athens. For all these people, Omonoia served as a reference point similar to that of the internal migrants of the early 1960s. Due to the concentric public transport system, Omonoia has been easily accessible from all the parts of the broader metropolitan area. Cheap hotels accommodate migrants on a monthly basis, while coffee shops are meeting places for migrants from Africa, Asia and Russia. Travel offices in the area offer postal services, arranging for goods and letters to be sent back home. On Sundays the whole area becomes a mass meeting place where migrants on their day off come to meet co-patriots, to exchange news, to speak their native language and to feel at home.
From 1994 to 2003 the central part of the square turned into a large worksite because of the new metro line construction works and the square’s renovation.
In 1998 Athens organized an extended urban renovation program in view of the 2004 Olympic Games. This included the launching of an international architectural competition for redesigning Omonoia square. In January 2001, the Greek ministry of the Environment, Planning and Public Works (together with Unification of the Archaeological Sites of Athens S.A., and ATTIKO METRO S.A.) started construction of the project to remodel and upgrade Omonoia Square and its surrounding area. A key requirement was that the competitors comply with the recommendations of transport experts and provide for pedestrian movement through the middle of the square. Thus pedestrians regained access to the center of the square and the flow of people on the ground level significantly improved. Planning decisions in the 1950s confined human activity to the periphery whereas planning decisions of the 1990s seem to have promoted the opposite idea. “Seeing” and/or “hiding” seem to have been major components in the comprehension of the overall structure of the public site.
When the square opened to the public in 2003 a major uproar was prompted by the media, the municipality, and the state authorities. The design team was held responsible for what was thought of as an unsuccessful project. The authorities accused the architects of inexperience and incompetence. Most people protested and saw the architects who designed the plans as scapegoats. The authorities decided to appoint an experts’ team to rework the square to make it more acceptable.
The winning team received criticism on two seemingly distinct levels. The first was explicitly stated in the media at the time. It referred to the impact of certain architectural decisions, such as the materials chosen and the absence of greenery. Visibility came forward as another issue. The project was criticized for partly obstructing the views to the Acropolis. The second level of criticism was rather implicit and was concerned with the social aspect of the project. After the square was opened to the public, the authorities and the press expressed fears that the area had been taken over by ‘undesirable’ users; in other words, it was not used as originally intended. State officials were quoted to say: “…the square is full of drug addicts and migrants because it has not been properly designed”. Such a statement was never publicized. However the architects disclaimed responsibility by saying: “…no architectural project can change or hide social reality. The proposal aimed to accommodate the dynamics of the human puzzle to be found in the centre of Athens”. The architects have started a legal dispute, based on their beliefs that, there is no architecture to correct or hide the reality of a society. It wasn’t among their ambitions to push out of the square the everyday users whom the authorities don’t approve. Evidently, it was claims to architectural determinism that were brought forward, even though in a disguised way.
The users were only briefly referred to in the competition proclamation, maybe out of the fear of the state authorities’ to take a stand and openly declare that indeed there were socially undesirables occupying Omonoia square who should be removed and make this a criterion for assessment of the participants’ proposals.
Space configuration as a determinant of patterns of social activity is widely accepted in social studies. Various methodologies have been developed to assess the degree of mutual influence. For authorities to develop a method of evaluation based on measurable entities and logical criteria seems to be of great importance. What would have happened if a different team had gotten the prize and a different project had been implemented? Major urban interventions such as this of redesigning Omonoia square do have the power to transform the image of the city and, therefore, the nature of the shared civic identity. This is the reason why such projects seem to have an inherent political character. Making a choice means more than merely selecting a well functioning proposal, it means defining a political agenda for public space.
The History Behind the Current Omonoia Square
The winners of the first prize of the design competition were a team of four young architects (DKT Architects): Eleni-Maria Katsika, Ariadni Vozani, Grigoris Desylas and Theodoros Tsiatas. The team contended for the preservation of the existing multicultural character of the place. They insisted that the place should not be turned either into a monumental square or into an area for recreation and sitting. Communication instead was the focal point of their proposal, which was to impart a special character to the square.
The basic architectural features of the project were two sloping surfaces forming the two edges of the designed area. These slants defined an interior space for the square. The first reached up to 3 meters and was made of black granite. The second one was a linear feature of up to 1.5 meter high with sitting benches. The original proposal included a 10 m high semi transparent screen, for video projections rising behind and alongside the sitting bench. Between these two surfaces a water pond was designed.
From Design to Implementation: The Unspoken Issue of the User’s Identity
Most architects design open space having in mind a Corbusian human model. Inhabitants are considered to be neutral entities. Their way of using public space is taken for granted as a unique and universally accepted model. Seeing and being seen are identified as simple, normal and given phenomena. However, Omonoia square during its recent phase of renovation proved that this is not always the case. When the renovation of the square was completed, the place started to be used by two distinct categories of users, passersby and sitting people. Sitting people were locals, mostly migrants who up to then frequented the vicinity of the square. On Sundays, in late afternoon or at night, lots of single people, mostly men, was noticed sitting there watching the passerby.
As it was said earlier, the architectural proposal was blamed for producing a phenomena of unwanted presences in public space. The causes were sought in the absence of greenery, low quality of materials and the architects’ inexperience. Seeing and being seen, watching and being watched never occurred as an important issue in the debate between the municipal authorities and the architects of the implemented project. On the contrary, the team of experts who undertook the task of reparating what was thought of as architectural mistakes, focused on the absence of green areas. The architects of the winning team had already consented to eliminating two of the originally proposed three clusters of sitting benches, to adding a soaring steel art object, and to removing the projection screen. Finally two strips of trees and bushes were added along sides, the back and the front of the sitting benches. This decision seems to have been very distinctive because the trees obstruct the views the actual users of the place.
The sitting benches have been screened off especially from those moving in vehicles; the same holds true for pedestrians entering the square. Considering however that trees do not form a compact boundary, visibility is not completely eliminated.
Seeing is a mutual activity. Spectators, both moving and stationary, were becoming spectacles at the same time. Mutuality of gaze structured the presence of otherness. The experts’ intervention brought about a radical change to this structure. Any local identity has been hidden from the passers by. Urban life has been concealed from the migrants frequenting the place.
Summing up, expert’s intervention after the completion of the square had a double scope. On the one hand, it tended to reduce the emphasis on the local identity of the landscaping either by removing architectural elements meant for static activities (benches) or by creating visual boundaries that would obstruct the visibility of static activities (sitting people). On the other hand, it tended to reinforce the global character of the place by introducing art objects clearly visible from the entrances of the square and from afar. Considering the fragmented nature of these interventions and their minor role in the process of changing the overall character of the square, we may assume that the symbolic aspect of the improvement effort was much more important than the functional one.