The Jedi Will Rise Again
Introduction: The setting
After a long period of anticipation, one of the biggest buildings in the Balkans and the biggest of its time back in the 1930's and 40's has re-opened for business bringing with it an aura of "belle epoque" into what seems to be a frantic re-generation of central Athens which began before last year's Olympic Games and still continues non-stop resulting into a much needed upgrading of what might be called "public space" be it for work, leisure, shopping or entertainment.
One of the major handicaps that made Athens look rather uninviting in the pre-2004 era was the fact that there was not a full-sized department store to constitute an glamorous icon to attract serious spenders. However, all this is past since 2001, where a new generation of sizeable, luxurious and classy department stores like the Hondos Center in Omonia Square (10 stories with a rooftop restaurant / café with the best view of the city-yes-I'm a regular) and Patission streets, the F-Focas stores in Ermou and Stadiou streets, the Notos Galleries in Stadiou street and the Municipality Square (this one has the best interior design in my view and offers EXCELLENT VIEWS through the large glass windows of its staircases).
However, still something was missing. These stores are big but they still do not convey the iconic value that –say- other department stores like the Harrods or the Selfridges in London, or the Printemps and the Galleries Lafayette have for Paris.
In addition, the small area occupied at present by most of the Athenian buildings did not allow for many unified areas that would allow a number of integrated functions to co-exist, although, since the 1950's many new buildings were constructed with interior arcades allowing them to have what might be called "internal traffic". Furthermore, since the 1980's many buildings were built with atriums and I very much like it to see all those cafés with their inviting plazas waiting for their customers in many unbelievable places in the backyards of the densely built 10-storey blocks constituting most of the new constructions in the center of Athens.
Still, the main event was that until recently, the city lacked a central point of reference so strong to epitomize its urban identity (besides the Acropolis but that's too old, I guess).
2. Early history of the building ("Army Shareholders' Fund Building" -Mέγαρο Μετοχικού Ταμείου Στρατού-ΜΤΣ ), 1928-1940
The particular building was built following a competition that took place in 1924, which was calling for construction on an estate of some 9,000 sq. metres in total to accommodate state and public services at the site of the then royal stables. The total area to be built was –and is even by today's measures- large, and for this reasons, only serious players have been able to participate. Finally, the Army Shareholders Fund (Μετοχικό Ταμείο Στρατού-guys, if you know the name in English please correct me), the insurance and financial department of the Hellenic army was the winner and constuction began in 1928, following the designs of the architects Vassilios Kassandras and Leonidas Bonis.
Below: Scene from the construction phase, some time in the mid-1930's
(C) "TA NEA" Newspaper
Upon completion in 1940, some 12 years later, a unified complex of 9 building blocks, which, albeit not separated functionally, they were distinct both in terms of completion times as well as architectural styles. Indeed, the southern side of the buildingof the building clearly reflects the art-deco style and is representative of the mid-30's "belle époque" while the northern side presents characteristics of 1940's early modernism. The total floors area was (and still is) some 65,000 square meters in total, distributed in 8 overground floors (including what we call in Greece the "ground" floor) and two basements (or three?) making it the biggest in the Balkans at the time of construction (the Athens International Airport main terminal is the biggest independent built unit in Greece now with a total area of 150,000 square meters BTW).
Unfortunately, upon completion, the building did not see the glory days it deservedsince the 2nd World War has reached Greece and after several months of hopeless yet heroic struggle, the Axis forces occupied the country and –guess what- the building was the perfect candidate for becoming one of the Nazi HQ in Athens.
Next picture: The building during the Nazi occupation with the svastika flag clealy visible on its flag pole
(C) "TA NEA" Newspaper
After the war, the building became a core element of the Athenian life since, among others, it included the utterly luxurious "Palace" movie theater (2000 seats) and the 'Maxim" Cabaret which later was transformed into the "Aliki" (500 seats) theater, named after the great Actress Aliki Vouyouklaki who owned it and performed there from seceral years. Also, in the northern side, the famous Café-Restaurant "Zonar's" became a meeting point for the high society of the city and until the time that the building closed for restoration, there was no VIP person in Athens who hasn't stopped for a snack or coffee in it.
Over the years, the building started losing its polished finish and although one could still pass his time browsing at the windows of the biggest Athenian Jewellers on the east side of the building or still stop by Zonar's, on the other hand, it was becoming increasingly clear that the building was in need of a facelift; True, there were clear signs of underutilization of its resources even since the beginning of the 1990's
3. The Revival of a myth in central Athens- a huge undertaking
The project of the revival of this gigantic complex was finally undertaken by a mega venture joint investment grpup including the Piraeus Bank Real Estate (member of the Piraeus Bank Group), and the most prominent department store owners in Athens already. For the re-generation, one of the most prominent Greek architects, Stelios Aghistratitis, who already possesses one of the best portfolios of completed commercial development projects, was appointed. The decision of Aghiostratitis and the developers was to maintain the original exterior design and thus to limit the overall intervention and space layout re-arrangements for the inner spaces of the building. So, externally, the building will maintain (thank God!!!) its original architecture, although what goes on in the inside is a totally different story…
Anyway, the idea was that the building would be re-developed into a Commercial Centre combining office, retail and leisure/entertainment activities. At various stages of the planning process, a number of prominent names of International caliber were rumored to have approached the developers in order to participate in the scheme, including the original "Galleries Lafayette" from Paris (and what a collaboration would this have been!!!). However, the complex nature of the venture, and most of all, disagreements with regards to the details of the contractual terms, prevented the G.L. to invest in admittedly one of the hottest projects in South-Eastern Europe to date.
In any case, the works began in the beginning of the millennium and are expected to be gradually completed until the fall of 2005. Below is a black and white view of the northern side (Panepistimiou street) of the building
© Copyright "O Kosmos tou Ependiti" (Investor's World) newspaper
Also, here's a small pic (unknown copyrights) from a neighbouring building, just to show the size and shape of it.
The final usable space allotment of City Link Commercial Center will be as follows:
-First, a new department store occupying some 25,000 sq meters at 8 levels, the "Attica Department Store (click link for more) has already opened with a bang since early April, signifying the beginning of the inauguration ceremonies which will gradually make the news in the months to come in this part of town. The store, which will be the major "anchor tenant" in the estate, occupies all the northern side of the project and aims at providing Athens with an iconic department store which will bear the same gravity as the Galleries Lafayette in Paris, the Harrods in London or the Karstadt in Berlin. It contains 300 "shop in a shop" units where 800 brand names are available, including men and women's fashion, cosmetics sportsware and footware, some of them sold in Greece for the first time.
I have been twice already there and although the cafeteria on the top floor is not yet ready, I must say that I was impressed by the overall image of the store already. Lives up to the expectations although to proceed to the cashiers you need to really be loaded in cash or credit allowance since this big fat lady is no Chinese €5-a-piece street corner shop. However, those Hugo Boss and Armani suits were worth considering… for later .
-The regeneration of the theatres, where "Palace"'s seating capacity will be reduced by 500, resulting in 1,500 seats of ultra luxury and comfort, allowing also for the latest in sound and vision technology to be installed there. Also, the "Aliki" theatre will re-open with a small museum dedicated to the great actress that gave her name and reputation to it.
-Also, considerable space will be devoted to cafes, restaurants and gymnasiums, including also a spa facility. The famous Zonar's will be ready sometime towards the end of the summer although chances are the name may change for legal reasons.
-There are also going to be various combinations of shopping arcades and public spaces, especially with regards to the impressive central atrium of the building, which is totally reconstructed with the addition of a new glass roof. The ground floor spaces of the atrium will be given to famous luxury shops and restaurants giving it a Western European touch (Err, a touch of Milan in Central Athens to be precise).
- Finally, Piraeus Bank Real Estate will occupy significant space with their offices, thus filling office space previously occupied by the General Bank (the Hellenic Army Bank that now has been acquired by the French Société Générale and has relocated to the untra-modern " Politeia Business Centre[/img]" since 2000)
So in essence, we are talking about a new multi-functional commercial center occupying a full block in the heart of the city, served by many metro stations (I can name "Syntagma" and "Panepistimio") and also close to many luxury hotels (the Hyatt Grand Bretagne, the King George II and the Athens Meridien are just around the corner)
4. Pictures of the exterior
Of course, I couldn't have finished this post without posting some of MY pictures (allowing also views of central Athens). Here they are:
-View from Panepistimiou (northern side), looking east, with the signs of the "Attica-The Department Store" clearly visible in the front of the building, just 2 days after the store's opening. Watch the austere modernist characteristics of this side of the building which –as mentioned earlier- was completed in early 1940.
-View of the same side looking to the west
-View of the west side of the building from the crossroads of panepistimiou-Amerikis streets. And yes, there is a motorcycle doing stunts in the middle of the road…
-…as it can be seen in the following pictures. I know that we Greeks are loonies but I wouldn't expect to record our lunacy in the middle of a central street in Athens at 14:00 hours in the afternoon. Jeez…
-View of the southern side from Stadiou street, next to the old parliament. Watch the size and the art deco details of this earlier (late 1930's) built side of the building.
-View of the building from the same perspective also depicting another, much smaller neo-classical building which is under construction.
-View of the southeast corner of the building as seen from the Syntagma square. Still, the art-deco elements of this early built side of the buildins are visible.
I certainly don't know whether the wish of the renovators to recreate this aura of "belle époque" in the center of the city will flourish aesthetically as it will commercially, although the building's reconstruction has received positive comments of dithyrambic proportions. For sure, an old jewel is shining again in the center of Athens and it certainly has people's love with it. At least, this is proven by the 100,000 visitors of the "Attica" Department store in the first 7 days of its operation alone… . Been there and I liked the views and aesthetics. However, let's wait until the full package is ready in order to issue a final conclusion. Up to now though, looks like the result justifies the expectations of the public (and the incestors probably ).
Also, next year another 40,000 sq metres or so will be added with another legendary department store, the famous "Minion" which is also undergoing extensive reconstruction. Not to forget another 60,000sq metres of retail and entertainment space in Maroussi to de delivered next fall too…
It's about time for a shopping spree in Athens, I think…