2015 | Dec
If we were to describe roads based exclusively on their geometry, position and vehicle movement, we would omit a very important aspect: the activity that develops on them. The road is, or at least was, public space for thousands of years in previously compact cities – operating as a front yard for the vast majority of houses, which only had limited interior spaces, only a few square meters in size. Staying indoors was thus unpleasant, while plots did not have any open, unbuilt space. Access to the road was immediate since construction was low in height and mainly ground-level. At the time, the road was a place where one could walk but also stand, meet and receive information. Distances were small, because the size of cities was always proportional to transport availability. Because at that time people mainly walked, the radius of the city’s limits was very small.
The area of Athens remained about the same in size from ancient times until its liberation from the Turks, when the wall of Haseki was demolished. In 1830, Athens did not even have roads for carriages. The means of transport were mules and camels. The first carriages were introduced during the era of Kapodistrias and they were the reason for the first roadworks. Thereafter, until the early 20th century, when cars were introduced and shortly after the influx of refugees from Asia Minor, the size of the capital was extremely limited. The city’s radius barely exceeded 4 kilometres, measuring from Omonoia Sq outward. Initially, the city relied on trams (originally horse-drawn) and later on buses. In the early 60s, with car ownership rapidly increasing, everything changed. Images of trees, people standing or walking by, children playing begun to wane while single family houses were replaced by apartment buildings. The city expanded rapidly, both in height and horizontally.
As the car played a significant role in the new urban reality, there was a growing need for radial roads, connecting the periphery to the centre. Large urban roads had been planned since the 19th century, originally based on the plan of Kleanthis and Schaubert. These included roads such as Stadiou, Pireos, Athinas, Ermou … Their layouts did not foresee the advent of the car. They were created to enrich the irregular medieval street system of the city with boulevards, i.e. linear public spaces both for traffic (mostly walking) and for standing. Their additional purpose was to overcome the city’s Byzantine – Turkish image and replace it with linear and symmetrical interventions based on neoclassical layouts, associating it directly with its classical past, to better serve the new role that Europe had assigned to Athens.
Panepistimiou Str. was quickly added to the plan as a road parallel to Stadiou Str. Together with the road mirroring it -which today has been shortened and scaled down to Kerameikos Str.- it would circumscribe the northern neoclassical part of Athens. The south part, including the areas of Psyri, Monastiraki and Plaka, essentially maintained the Byzantine grid system. Their purpose was to define the historic city, giving it an easily understandable and regular shape, consistent with the rationalism of neoclassical city planning that had allegedly embraced the design principles of the ancient classics.
In 1878, Athens acquired two more much larger-scale, straight, non-neoclassical but functional layouts: Alexandras and Syngrou Avenues. The former, which was absolutely urban and finite, between Patission Avenue and Kifisias Avenue, progressively became a large cultural boulevard in pre-war and post-war Athens. The latter turned into a highway, causing serious permeability and environmental problems to the neighbourhoods of Kallithea and Nea Smyrni.
Syngrou Avenue is one of many examples -perhaps the most spectacular- of ancient or Byzantine routes linking the Byzantine city to its periphery, which were turned into radial roads of the modern centre. This road infrastructure also affected the distribution of activities in modern Athens, which developed linearly along radial roads, in order to ensure optimal access. The translocation of business activities to the periphery, as happened in most cities in Europe, was impossible, since there were no highways or bypass motorways, such as Attiki Odos.
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