Greece’s second city had much of its rich built heritage removed following a ‘Europeanising’ modernisation a century ago, but now faces industrial decline with its economy strangled by European policy, writes Owen Hatherley
One potential criticism of the European Union is that, for all its pretensions to be universal and post-ideological, a model for the world, it’s really a rebranding of something much older and much more exclusive: Christendom. Even given the geographically disputable borders of Europe as a continent (are Russia or Turkey in Europe? Is the Caucasus? Why isn’t the Middle East? If it stops at the Urals, does that mean bits of Kazakhstan are in Europe? Why is Israel in Eurovision?), it’s clear that the EU excludes, for the most part, the large chunk of south-eastern Europe that spent hundreds of years as part of the Ottoman Empire. The only exceptions are Greece, Bulgaria, and partly, Romania.
From 1453 until 1912, Thessaloniki was the second city of that empire, as it had been for the Byzantine Empire before. A hundred years ago, Thessaloniki (or Salonika, Salonik, Solun) was the home to a majority population of Spanish-speaking Sephardic Jews, with the rest divided nearly equally between Greeks, Turks and Bulgarians. It was famed for a picturesque skyline of domes and minarets. In 2015 it is an almost entirely Greek city, and has one of the bluntest, flattest skylines of any European metropolis.
As the second city of the Hellenic Republic, it’s a declining industrial centre, a university town, and a strongly left‑wing city. Syriza won the city comfortably at both elections in 2015. During the September elections, when I visited, the city was dominated by posters and graffiti for groups further left, such as Antarsya and the Communist Party of Greece. Syriza’s manifesto, on which it was elected in January, is known as the Thessaloniki Programme. It promised a decisive break with austerity, in favour of public ownership and public works. There’s little doubt that it had much support here, as did the ‘No’ vote on the bailout referendum - some streets are still lined by a repeated, spraypainted ‘NO NO NO NO’. The current bailout terms, however, make it legally impossible for Syriza to actually implement the Thessaloniki Programme.
20th-century planning meant stripping Thessaloniki of any shred of exotica
Thessaloniki was liberated from the Ottomans in 1912, and - entirely coincidentally - suffered a severe fire in 1917. The city’s new authorities got in the Beaux Arts planners to provide a replacement for the chaotic, unplanned streets. According to historian Mark Mazower, in his book on the city, this provided a decisive ‘Europeanising’ change, but he notes that the city had already undergone modernisation - wider streets, trams, sewers - under the Ottomans for some decades. The French architect Ernest Hébrard placed a grid over the city’s Jewish and Greek lower town and largely left the, then largely Turkish, upper town alone. The main thoroughfare of the city since the Roman era, Via Egnatia, was widened, with the curious consequence that the Roman triumphal arch that once straddled the street became a relic at the foot of a pedestrianised square instead.
Typical housing around an archaeological site
Hébrard’s project entailed de-Ottomanising the city, removing minarets at such a rate that, eventually, only two survived, and orienting the new streets around the city’s Roman, and more interestingly, Byzantine monuments. Its mosques and synagogues were neglected, and during the Nazi occupation the latter were almost entirely destroyed. So it’s not too strong to suggest that Hébrard’s plan assisted, albeit passively, the city’s eventual homogenisation. However, something happened in the 1960s that meant all his efforts to create an elegant Beaux-Arts metropolis came to little.
The common sentiment that the city is ugly, is Europe looking itself in the mirror and recoiling
Greece’s transformation between the 50s and 70s into an urban and industrial country had fairly drastic effects on Thessaloniki. Hébrard’s planned lower town, originally filled with Art Nouveau and streamline Moderne blocks of four storeys, was suddenly taken over by a rash of speculative blocks, almost all of 8-10 storeys, in concrete with glazed balconies. It is an interesting contrast to other parts of the Balkans. Here, developers, rather than Communist bureaucracies, were the drivers of urbanisation. In the same era in nearby Bulgaria you would find largely preserved old towns and slabs in green space on the outskirts; in Thessaloniki the historic city centre became the space for riotous speculation, with cramped tenements to the street, shops and cafés to the ground floor and shabby courtyards behind, where nobody’s looking. It’s what would have happened everywhere else had they read their Jane Jacobs, and maybe it’s best they didn’t. It also has the unintended effect that Hébrard’s axial planning only makes sense in a tiny handful of places, because the Byzantine domes the streets are meant to lead to are dwarfed by the ubiquitous cliffs of flats.
Interior of Hagia Sophia church
Although they look a lot more diminutive than they ought to, the Byzantine churches of the city are genuinely extraordinary - the city is on the UNESCO list as having the best preserved Byzantine legacy of any city anywhere. Hébrard’s plan was actually quite enlightened for its time in valuing Byzantine work as much as Roman or Ancient Greek - it’s unfortunate maybe that he didn’t get round to making a similarly revisionist judgment on Ottoman architecture.
The central church is another Hagia Sophia, considerably smaller than its Istanbul namesake and built much later, in the 8th century. Approached from the west, it’s a Greek cross plan with a dome, with a flat front, painted a worn yellow; from the east, its apse is in the bare local red brick. It is given lots of space, with a big square around it, which makes it even less dominant, rather than more, in the tall streets around, but the interior is staggering. It is rich and dark, lit by strategic shafts of light from windows just below the dome, its structure marked out by green and red patterns. Gold mosaics, in the severe Byzantine manner - staring straight and clear at the worshippers - cover the apse and the dome, which is much more impressive inside than it looks from the street.
Hamza Bey Mosque
You can track the development of Byzantine architecture across the city if you want to - from the long, double-height arcades and clear open spaces of the early 7th-century Hagios Dimetrios, to the cluster of multiple domes and decorative brick patterns in the remarkable St Panteleimon, from 500 years later, united mainly by their intricate red brick and the Orthodox mosaics and wall-paintings. All of these were converted into mosques after the conquest, and reconsecrated as Christian churches only after 1912. Given the polarisation of the politics - Muslim residents were ‘exchanged’ with Christians from Smyrna/Izmir in the 20s, in an act of mutual ethnic cleansing - it is worth noting that the two major surviving Muslim monuments are architecturally clearly of the same family as the Byzantine churches, although they’re both much less well restored. These are the Bey Hamam, a bathhouse, and the Hamza Bey Mosque, both built soon after conquest in the 15th century. They’re both on Egnatia, and their multiple domes and raw, unpretentious red brick is clearly derived from the city’s architectural traditions, which you can date as early as the 4th-century Rotunda of Galerius, a massive structure, which has been mausoleum, church, mosque, and now, occasional concert hall. Outside it is the city centre’s only surviving minaret. As for the Jews, who were the largest group in the city right up until the Holocaust, they’re remembered only in a small museum and the Monastir Synagogue, a surprising presence in an unassuming side street.
Twentieth-century planning meant a stripping from Thessaloniki of any shred of exotica, the slightest whiff of the ‘Orient’. Because it also lacks, say, the quiet, brightly painted Neoclassical streets you can find in the centre of Athens, it’s never going to be a tourist draw, which may explain why it has quite so many exceptionally pleasant and cheap cafés. It also, to give Hébrard his due, has one great moment: Aristotelous Square, planned in 1918 and completed after the second world war. It leads from a statue of Greece’s unifier, the liberal politician Eleftherios Venizelos, to the sea, and is planned on an axis with Mount Olympus. Arcaded blocks lead down towards the water, with (very welcome, in Greek weather) colonnades, before spreading out to form a ceremonial open space. It’s the obvious icon, if you will, of the city, a triumph of authoritarian planning.
The major Ottoman survival is actually the city’s fortifications, which begin by the sea with the isolated White Tower. From here you can survey that flat skyline, a single, unbroken file of 10-storey blocks, or you can explore some public buildings that say a great deal about Thessaloniki’s self-presentation. There are two major, purpose-built museums in the city, both to the narratives that are considered most important. The Classical heritage is dealt with in the Archaeological Museum, completed in 1962 to designs by Patroklos Karantinos. It is post-war and Modernist - light, elegant, without any kitschy references to Ancient Greece. Its slim columns lead to a series of gardens; some of them with sarcophaguses and sculptures left around, others with cafés. Its brightness and openness contrasts with the nearby Museum of Byzantine Culture, which is, fittingly, a much more murky affair, in concrete and, of course, red brick. The 1977 design by Kyriakos Krokos - finished in 1993, by which time it must have been incredibly unfashionable - is best described as Byzantine Brutalism, though it is careful to avoid any obvious monumentality, consisting instead of shadowy pathways across overlaying levels.
These two excellent Modernist museums show the city’s 20th-century self-confidence better than the Hébrard plan. The recent City Hall, designed in 2006 by Tassos Biris continues the museum’s interest in fragmentation, informality and the always-useful shading. It’s one of the few buildings from the more recent boom - Thessaloniki does not, from its architecture, appear to be a city that was in any way spendthrift before the Greek economy’s immolation in the Eurozone crisis. Like the Byzantine Museum, Thessaloniki City Hall verges on Brutalism, with two hard-edged concrete structures linked around a square. It is Brutalism of a more imaginative kind than the 1960s buildings of the Thessaloniki trade fair, where the usual Corbusian bullhorn profiles and grids do their thing around what must be the world’s shortest telecommunications tower, a fun proto-High-Tech design, which only slightly exceeds the seemingly mandatory 10 storeys inflicted on the city. When you make it up to the upper town for a panorama around the city, you can barely even see it.
The upper town is something of a ghost. Any route uphill will get you there. You could detour via the State Museum of Contemporary Art, housed in Moni Lazariston, a former late Ottoman hospital. It boasts a terrific Soviet Constructivist collection, courtesy of the Moscow-born Greek diplomat and art collector George Costakis. From Hagia Sophia, it’s easy to know when you’re reaching the upper town, as you pass one of the few original houses - preserved by the Turkish government (whose embassy is next door) because it’s where Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Republic of Turkey, grew up. The majority of the houses in the old town have been rebuilt in 80s approximations of the original designs, rebuilding in painted concrete their cantilevered balconies and irregular skylines, though there are a few survivors, and the fortress itself gives spectacular views of mountains, sea, and endless flat tenements.
Looking at this, you could admire the way that Thessaloniki’s architects and planners have avoided either monumentality or sentimentality. The lack of tourism, and the common sentiment that the city is ‘ugly’, is Europe looking itself in the mirror and recoiling. However, like the rest of Greece, Thessaloniki is in profound crisis - its economy strangled by the debt repayments insisted upon by the European Central Bank, and geographically, the first port of call for migrants - from those nearby places that are not Europe - on their way elsewhere. Even that Thessaloniki Programme, on which the ruling party was elected, is officially blocked by European officials. Thessaloniki has staked a lot on being European, and residents might well ask whether it was worth it.
Date entered EU 1981 (UK: 1973)
Population 11 million (UK: 64.1 million)
GDP $242 billion (UK: $2.678 trillion)
National debt (percentage of GDP) 175% (UK: 89.4%)
Unemployment rate 25.6% (UK: 5.4%)
Life expectancy 80.6 years (UK: 81.5 years)
Political leader Prime minister Alexis Tsipras (Syriza)
Population 800,000 (urban) 1,080,000 (metro)
Head of council Yiannis Boutaris
Density: people per km2
Thessaloniki (urban): 7,200
(Data source: Wikipedia)