ATHENS – If the idea of a city had to be captured in just two words, ‘people’ and ‘architecture’ would suffice, and the imminent return of Omonia Square to the people of Athens and its visitors from all over the world would serve as a prime illustration of their mutual importance.
Thanks to an energetic start to the term of Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis, after six months of activity that at times bordered on the feverish – Saturdays and even Sundays were work days – the heart of Greece’s capital which had decayed into a concrete wasteland known more for its pickpockets and muggers who gave it a repellant rather than the magnetic quality it once had will be reborn.
Vassilios Αxiotis, Deputy Mayor for Urban Infrastructure and City Planning shared the story of the resurrection of Omonia in an interview with The National Herald.
“Construction is finished and the Square will be opened to the public in the coming weeks,” he said on February 21.
In recent months social networking posts reflecting curiosity and optimism have replaced groans from those who missed “the old Omonia” which disappeared in an Athens Olympics-timed renovation that disappointed almost everyone – the iconic fountain beloved of Greek-Americans was removed 10 years earlier due to Metro construction. The Square’s vicissitudes reflected those of the nation as a whole during the crisis and its renaissance matches the renewed hope felt by many after the election of Kyriakos Mitsotakis last July.
The project, like crisis-weary Greece, has had its share of false dawns and pleasant surprises. Abruptly begun under mayor Giorgos Kaminis – ugly metal walls went up overnight in late 2018 – nothing seemed to be happening behind them until Bakoyannis took office. Local entrepreneurs long bemoaned yet another apparently ill-conceived and never-ending neighborhood-disrupting project.
And then, last September, activity seemed to burst upon the scene like a…fountain.
While the Kaminis plan called for the return of new water works, the original fountain was small, unimpressive, and pushed off to the side.
The spectacular new fountain is huge and is set in the center of the square with dozens of water sources. The central geyser will soar more than 60 feet high accompanied by smaller eminences and surrounded by many more around the perimeter, spouting water towards the center and forming a watery dome of changing flood-lit colors whose profile and 100-foot diameter evokes the noble curve that crowns the Aghia Sophia. All around the fountain there is now a lush green lawn.
“ONE OF THE MOST SOPHISTICATED FOUNTAINS IN EUROPE”
As proud as Axiotis is about the aesthetic gift to the people of Athens, he was eager to speak of the fountains technological laurels. “The fountain and lawn will generate a very nice microclimate – during the summer the square will be up to 3 degrees Celsius cooler than its environs. The design reflects the principle of sustainable development,” and he noted the water is continuously recycled.
Asked about the blossoming of the design from the unimpressive plan Bakoyannis inherited, Axiotis credited Omonia’s new grand benefactors, the Laskarides Foundation and the Fontana Fountains and HELECTOR (ΗΛΕΚΤΩΡ) companies. “They made their proposals and we accepted them.”
The gifts constitute a public-private partnership of the kind that are now found throughout the world and which analysts say should play a prominent role in Greece’s economic development. Axiotis said more such endeavors should be expected in Athens. “We are open to any proposal from foundations and the private sector, including from the Diaspora.”
The Laskaridis Foundation donated 430,000 euros and Fontana Fountain, a Greek company with an international presence that was founded in 1971, built the fountain at a cost to itself of 290,000 euros. ELLAKTOR, which did the rest of the work on the Square, donated some of the materials and services.
The new square will not include benches or additional trees and plants. “There is the lawn and the restored water sculpture of Giorgos Zogolopoulou and we are exploring the possibility of nearby cafes setting up tables and chairs,” Axiotis said.
An excited Mayor Bakoyannis posted a photos and videos last week.
OMONIA IS JUST THE BEGINNING
Axiotis, whose father is from Mytiline and whose mother is from Evia, wants the Diaspora to know that Omonia is only the beginning.
“The Municipality of Athens was resolved to do something good for Omonia, and it was accomplished,” Axiotis said. We are obligated to beautify and maintain not only Omonia, but all the common areas of the city. All we ask of the citizens is that they fall in love again with Omonia and take good care of her.”
Officials have also focused on the proper policing of the Square. While safety had improved over the past two years, Axiotis said better coordination between the municipal and national police forces that have been established since September will ensure security for citizens and visitors.
The Square’s environs will also be improved by the numerous hotels set to open, including the Bageion and Megas Alexandros hotels that were inspired by the plans of the renowned architect Ernst Ziller.
There is a vast technical program underway for improvements in the city that amounts to 270 million euros over the next four years, Axiotis added, and visitors throughout the year will be able to see works completed or underway – 30 million euros are allocated for much-needed sidewalk repairs.
Previously planned pedestrian walkways will be completed and more will be explored, and there are also plans for more pedestrian-friendly streets with reduced speeds for vehicles.