Thessaloniki:The Myth of the linear City

1.         Introduction.
Thessaloniki a city of one million inhabitants stretches out along the northern coast of the Aegean Sea, on the gulf of Thermaikos. Its wide horizons to the sea and the surrounding low mountains bespeak a peaceful dialogue between land and sea. This relationship has been a constant aspect of the city throughout its long history, from the first pre-historic settlements of about 3000 B.C. to the present day.
A city of advanced industrial activity in the past, Thessaloniki is currently fostering low rates of development, in spite the efforts to enhance economic relations with the Balkans, south-eastern Europe, the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean countries. Always in strong administrative and symbolic competition with Athens, Thessaloniki is still trying to formulate its modern identity, reassuming the role and prominence it enjoyed for many centuries (Fig.1).
2.         The Myth of the linear city.
Thessaloniki conceived as a linear city, is the monotonous and unimaginative refrain on which all local planning, whether organised or latent, has been based until today. Extending, of necessity, between its natural boundaries of Mt Hortiatis and the Thermaic Gulf, the city is supposed to have its activities – recreation, housing, administration and trade, craft industry and industry – arranged more or less in a line along the sea-front. And the transport network, a band which unites and feeds these activities, could theoretically resemble nothing other than a straight thread, a tightrope on which the reciprocal wave of commuters has to balance every day. Since the mid-fifties, when the tram-lines were ripped up, the road network of Thessaloniki has been articulated in parallel linear axes around two basic routes: the “low route” (Vasilisis Olgas – Tsimiski Sts), to link the Depot district to the harbour, and the “high route” (Papanastasiou – Stratou – Angelaki – Egnatia Sts), which linked the Charilaou area to Vardari Square and the railway station. It was traditional for the extensions of those axes to function as links into the inter-city network. The Vardari Square intersection was used by travellers heading for Athens, eastern or western Macedonia and what was then Yugoslavia to the North, while the other extremity of the network served only traffic to and from Chalkidiki. The construction of the new Western entrance from Athens and the eastern section of the ring road, avoiding the city centre had the effect of classifying traffic to some extent, separating internal traffic from passing intercity and heavy traffic. In fact, the same trunk is still in place today, with the completion only of the Egnatia network while traffic capacity was improved initially with the one-way system introduced during the seventies. These measures demolished the superb circular junctions in the large city squares (by the White Tower, YMCA, the Syntrivani Fountain, etc.) which were split up into groups of intersections, each with its own traffic lights.
Apart from being aesthetically displeasing, these junctions are now responsible for long delays on some routes unless the traffic policeman required by tradition is present to help out. (Recent traffic surveys have shown that at important junctions where two or three streets with high traffic loads converge, the flexibility provided by a roundabout, which functions in accordance with the demand of each street, can reduce delays while at the same time creating the sensation of a small yet central square).
Even today, the short-sighted view of the city as linear can be detected lurking behind the new proposals and plans for transport systems which are discussed or put forward from time to time. The initial proposal for the Metro that would be operated by the Municipality of Thessaloniki is the most characteristic example of such a system: it was consisting of one short straight line, running underground (and therefore rigidly), joining two points at the extremities of the central Municipality. Apart from the bias involved in providing a service for the residents of only one of the 14 Municipalities in Thessaloniki conurbation, and apart from being unprofitable for private investment to construct and operate, the anticipation that the existing transport system of the city will have to be distorted so as to serve the new project was even more dangerous. Rather than enhancing the system with new and varied links and means of transport, this procrustean project dictated compulsory bus transfers, thus depriving bus routes of their autonomy, in an effort to justify its own viability. After twenty years of easily predictable delay, this project is now under construction based on public funds and extending to the east and west to serve the adjacent municipalities of Kalamaria and Stavroupoli. Although improved and more consistent now both financially and technically, by the time of its possible completion (by 2014 approximately) the metro of Thessaloniki has definitely limited the arcs, extrapolations and curves of a more diversifying multimodal transport system, by impeding de facto the planning and implementation of alternative complementary projects discussed in the following paragraphs.
3.         Thessaloniki as a curving city.
This approach is undoubtedly much closer to the truth. Sticking close to the marked curve of the Thermaic shoreline, the city spreads out its sea-front as a concave frame capable of providing greater depth and thus more scope for the construction of varied and complex natures. As to the question of the nature of the curve, of course, a different approach would be needed: is it regular or exponential, a parabola or a hyperbola, an ellipse – or, perhaps, all of these at the same time? One could argue that it is in fact a combination of all the types of curves, given that literality is rare in the city and its stories tend to become the subject of narratives in a decidedly exaggerated manner. At the same time, this is a proper city, and the excessively accommodating disposition which prevails could expose the city’s inhabitants to a suspicion of decay. Lastly, we are all well-acquainted with the city’s shortcomings in all sectors, and not just the infrastructure networks which we are now discussing. To start on the side facing the sea, this observation could immediately allow for urban transport sea connections between the coastal suburbs and the centre for everyday journeys, given that the chord of an arc is obviously shorter that its periphery.
It has been proved (ref.4) that a network of medium-sized speedboats (carrying 150-250 persons) could cover the distance from Perea, the Airport and Kalamaria (Yacht Club) to the harbour (Eleftherias Square) in approximately 20 minutes, as opposed to 40-45 minutes for the buses running on the same route and 30 minutes by car or taxi during the rush-hour. If we also take into account the financial advantage and reliability of such a system, which apart from weather conditions does not depend on traffic or other parameters, think what a pleasant trip it would be (with a view of the amphitheatrical city) and the relief it would bring from problems of parking, congestion, delay and stress, it is reasonable to wonder why it has not so far been introduced. At the end of the day, this network would provide commuters with an extra alternative without depriving them of any of the others, in terms both of the networks (since it would create a new “sea route”) and of the means of transport themselves. In addition, the operation on this self-financing system that has attracted the interest of private operators would relieve local government or the central authorities from financial obligations or investment risks of other kinds except of the construction of the passenger piers. The financial and technical study has shown that even with the most conservative estimate, the new system could serve at least 10,000 journeys per day, thus reducing the traffic load at Vasilisis Olgas and Kennedy Avenues by 10% and providing a better service (less congestion) on the buses. Lastly, the system would restore and to some extent consolidate the disordered relationship between the city and the sea, replacing the current stage of mere proximity and fragile friendship with the creative interweaving of a more permanent co-existence, with all that that implies. The sole reason for the delay, or even the annulment, of this prospect is, once more, the insistence by those who have been administering Thessaloniki in recent years on the antiquated notion of the linear city. According to this view of matters, disturbing penetration into the sea can only finally be avoided by depriving the city of its provocative curves.
4.         Eight European Architects in Thessaloniki
Based on this proposal, the programme of Architectural Projects for the Cultural Capital of Europe – Thessaloniki 1997- created an event of great significance for international architecture: eight important architects from eight different European countries and from a variety of generations and schools of architectural thought, each designed one small project to honour the city of Thessaloniki. If implemented, could be a living museum, representative of contemporary European architecture. The presence side by side in city’s seafront of Aldo van Eyck and Giancarlo De Carlo, two figures who, with their designs and writings, were among the first to shake the complacency of triumphant post-war Modernism; the poetry in masonry of Alvaro Siza; the secure geometry of Mario Botta; the de-constructionist expression of Coop Himmelb(l)au; the desperate resource to mid-war Modernism of Rem Koolhass; the defence of the physical architectural experience by Enric Miralles and the constructivist minimalism of the new Lab Fac group, paints an accurate picture of the wide landscape of contemporary European architecture. (ref.2 – figs.4-11)
The eight piers could also inaugurate a new relationship with the sea. Regardless of their size and architectural style they all attest to the inalienable identity of a city by the sea, and a constant confirmation of its relationship with the water. And its citizen, could view her from a position of privilege, from the sea, watching the buildings grow larger, as they do when they are returning from the summer dissipation of the islands.
5.         Thessaloniki as a butterfly.
Once we have escaped from the bonds of linearity and bearing in mind the curve of the sea-front zone and the layout of the East Ring Road, which almost mirrors it in the woods, more careful observation of the urban hinterland will inevitably lead us to a butterfly pattern, whose mechanical skeleton consists of the public transport networks. The city does indeed seem to balance symmetrically along the sides of a much lower central axis. This axis clearly divides the city into two approximately equal sections. The eastern section consists of the oldest quarters and also of some more modern residential districts: Ayia Triada, the New Sea-Front zone, Botsari, Toumba, Triandria,Charilaou, Pylaia and Kalamaria, with a tendency to extend outwards to Thermi and the airport. On the northernmost extremity of this section is the hill of Panorama, saturated with aristocratic and above all nouveau-rich housing. On the edges of this section are constantly developing small soft industrial units, hospitals, commercial centres and educational facilities, with a clearly marked band of summer recreation centres closer to the airport. The area to the west of the central axis contains all of Thessaloniki “within the walls” historical city-centre and the densely-inhabited working-class suburbs, stifling in their social and environmental problems: the Upper City, Ayios Pavlos, Sykies, Polichni, Evosmos, Evkarpia, Stavroupoli, Ambelokipi, Eleftherio-Kordelio, and Menemeni, with Dendropotamos and the Slaughterhouses rounding off the circle in the direction of the Thermaic Gulf and the harbour. Between these two sides, which attempt to communicate, the road axes resemble bridges which have to span the gap left by the intervening central axis; mirabile dictu, it is not densely built-up and is in effect the torso of the city as a single body. The brain is in that torso, too, with antennae reaching out to include the University, history (the Archaeological and Byzantine Civilisation Museums), the Trade Fair, sports (the Alexandreio and YMCA indoor stadiums), the White Tower with the new city museum and almost all the city’s green areas and parks. One would have expected this central torso also to have contained the decision-making centres. This is not so, either because no important decisions are taken in Thessaloniki as they are in Athens (the city functions on the basis of interlocking and balanced small-scale offsets), or because even decisions of a local nature have to be simultaneously checked and ratified by a dual centre consisting of local government and central administration that creates a demonic bipolar system which usually cancels out rational planning. By way of contrast, the statutory planning authority – the Thessaloniki Master Plan and Environmental Protection Organisation has gradually become marginalised, and is in danger of being abolished altogether. It was not by chance that in 1989 this agency and the University of Thessaloniki originally produced the most complete proposal for the city’s transport system: a medium network in a fixed trajectory (a modern surface tramway system) (ref.1 – fig.12).
With a central trunk line running from Kalamaria to Ampelokipi and Menemeni (the length would be 13.4 km) and with branch lines feeding and supporting the mechanical wings of the butterfly (along Langada and Papanastasiou Sts), the light railway system (electrically-powered and thus both clean and flexible) would have transformed the image of the city along its route. In the historic centre, in particular, the centre of gravity represented by the Prinkipos Nikolaou St/Ermou St axis, along or near which the walker will encounter numerous monuments or interesting spots (the Arch of Galerius, Navarinou Square, St Sophia, Kapani, Frangon), the exclusive co-existence of the tram and pedestrians would have created the much sought-after linear axis of culture.
But since the Metro line was decided to be constructed along Egnatia street, the new tramway route should necessarily move along the parallel in Tower axis of Vas.Olgas and Tsimiski street (ref.5 – fig.13).
Three “archaeological walks”, for which plans are being made, could have been articulated at right angles to the tramway and the Metro system and fed by them: the route above Vardari Square along the west wall, the Aristotelous Square – Roman forum – St Demetrius – Upper City axis, and the eastern route which descends from the Eptapyrgio via Rotonda, the Arch of Galerius and Dimitriou Gounari St to reach the sea at Nikis Avenue, which would have become a pedestrian precinct.
If all this strikes as Utopian or highly romantic, one should remember that those proposals are very carefully studied both from financial and operational point of view. And if the thoughts of the local authority administration could be graphically represented in the shape of a monotonous line, the reality of a modern European city of the 21st century, should stimulate Thessaloniki not only to look like, but also to fly like a butterfly (fig.14).       

1.         Laboratory of Transport Engineering , (1989) “Research study of an average capacity public transport system for Thessaloniki”, Thessaloniki Master Plan Organisation, Greece. (Study)
2.         Lois Papadopoulos,(1998) “European Architects in Thessaloniki on the waterfront”, Marsilio editory, Venice, Italy.
3.         Netherlands Architecture Institute, (1998) “Between sea and the city-eight piers for Thessaloniki”, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
4.         S.Vougias, (1998) “Traffic feasibility for an urban sea transport system in Thessaloniki” Thessaloniki, Greece. (Study)

5.         S.Vougias, (2000) “Research study for a surface tramway system in Thessaloniki”, Urban Transport Organisation of Thessaloniki 

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