Athens ar­cade back in business

Two ar­chi­tects seek to re­vive ne­glected Stoa ton Em­boron with cre­ative ini­tia­tive

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY LINA GIANNAROU

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.

Sad scene

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 ig- nored by passers-by.

Two ar­chi­tects are now try­ing to re­vive this his­tor­i­cal part of the city. Haris Biskos and Martha Gian- nakopoulou have teamed up with the City of Athens and the Mer­chants’ Fund to bring business back to the Stoa ton Em­boron through an ini- tia­tive 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.

Cit­i­zen en­gage­ment

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.

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