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The Past — and Future — of Athens’ Omonia Square

New Omonia Square
Athens’ restored Omonia Square, one of the beating hearts of the city. Credit: Greek Reporter

Athens’ redesigned Omonoia Square, with its signature fountain completely rebuilt, was handed over to the residents and visitors of the great city on Thursday evening, May 14, 2020 after extensive renovations.

The momentous day marked the complete transformation of Athens’ iconic square from an ugly concrete slab back to its former glory at the very heart of the city.

One of the largest water fountains in Europe in terms of water volume, the new 30-meter-wide Omonia fountain shoots water 20 meters (66 feet) high into the sky. It has a total of 188 water jets and 177 underwater lights.

Omonoia Square’s major restoration by the city of Athens was undertaken with the help of private sponsorships, with the specific aim of replacing the beloved fountain that had been removed in previous overhauls of the iconic area.

The new face of Athens’ iconic Omonoia Square. Photo: Facebook / Κωστας Μπακογιάννης – Kostas Bakoyannis

The work had been completed some time prior to that, but the entire square remained closed to public use due to coronavirus restrictions.

Athens Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis posted a panoramic view photo on Facebook showing the new visage of the city’s historic Omonoia Square just before it was ready to be presented to Athenians.

Omonia fountain
Photo: Facebook / Κωστας Μπακογιάννης – Kostas Bakoyannis

“I am very pleased that Omonoia Square is in the final stretch and will be delivered to the residents of Athens soon. Let’s fall in love with it again,” Bakoyannis commented in his post.

The renovated Omonoia Square, which covers an area of 4,500 square meters (more than 48,438 square feet), features the stunning new fountain, a revamped water feature that had been its highlight and heart until 1992.

Athens’ Omonoia has undergone various transformations throughout the years — most of them unfortunate in recent times — resulting in unending stretches of nothing more than unforgiving, gray concrete which attracted thieves and other criminals until its most recent metamorphosis.

1900s Omonia Square
Omonoia Square at the beginning of the twentieth century. Public Domain

The many faces of Omonia Square

The plot where Omonoia Square was to be built was allocated in 1846 and construction started the same year. It was first named Plateia Anaktoron, or “Palace Square,” and then “Otto Square,” after the first King of Greece.

The area was renamed Omonoia (“Concord”) Square in 1862, after the two rival political factions of the time shook hands, pledging their Oath of Peace for the good of the homeland, following King Otto’s dethronement.

Like the main center of Syntagma nearby, Omonia Square was originally designed by the architects Kleanthis and Schaubert after Athens became the capital of the newly founded Greek state.

Omonia 1930s
Omonoia Square in the 1930s. Public Domain

In 1957, the Square was completely transformed according to a new plan imposed by the Ministry of Transport and Public Works. A new four-lane circular road was constructed, cutting off all pedestrian traffic to the center.

In the 1960’s, Omonia was a true 360-degree rotary with the center having an attractive arrangement of grass, flowers, water and a fountain which served as a frequent picturesque backdrop of films set in Greece.

1960s Omonia
Omonoia Square in the 1960s. Public Domain

Athenians so loved the fountain for many years that it became emblematic of the city itself, with many sports fans jumping into it to celebrate victories throughout the decades. However, the popular water feature was removed in 1992 due to construction which was carried out for improvements to the Athens metro system, leaving many residents of the capital unhappy.

Concrete wasteland of Omonia before restoration
Omonoia Square in the 2000s-2010s. Credit: AMNA

City landmark’s torturous changes over the decades

One hundred years ago, Omonia Square had been filled with trees and benches and was a beckoning oasis in the middle of the city.

The first major reconstruction of the famed square took place in the 1960s, seeing it reduced in size so that more traffic lanes could circle around it — but the iconic fountain was placed at its center, quickly becoming a focal point for the entire area.

In the year 1988, the massive glass sculpture “Dromeas” (“The Runner”), the work of sculptor Costas Varotsos, was installed there, only to be moved opposite the Athens Hilton in 1992, when construction work on the Athens metro underneath Omonia Square began.

Then the beloved fountain disappeared in 1992 during the metro construction, just like the grand neoclassical buildings that had stood there, but no longer do, in order to make room for more cars and traffic — almost as if somebody got a cement contract to pave over the area.

The shading arc of palm trees that had survived in Omonia Square until the 1950’s had been taken out too, even before the fountain had been — taking with them any sense of esthetic integrity the area once had.

Treeless, waterless concrete slab transformed into urban oasis

In the decades after 1992, until just last year, thanks to the maladministration of successive mayors who ignored its degradation two blocks from the City Hall where they practiced politics — but apparently not urban planning — it became a treeless, waterless, fountain-less cesspool of graffiti, human trafficking, filth, crime, open drug dealing and prostitution.

During these years, Omonia become home to, and overrun with, immigrants, unlawful and otherwise, and few Greeks went there at any time of day.

Between the economic crisis and crime, the area had become so unattractive that a dozen hotels closed because word finally got out to tourists that once they stepped outside the door, they were fair game for criminals.

Over the years 2000-2006, Omonia was turned into the faceless concrete slab it was until its complete rebirth in the past year. When the square opened to the public in 2003, Greeks balked at what they saw, and what they didn’t see: the greenery that once had served as a much-needed break from the concrete jungle of the city.

The authorities accused the architects of inexperience and incompetence but many people thought the architects were scapegoats for the incompetence of the city officials, who hastily decided to appoint an experts’ team to rework the square to make it more acceptable, one year before the Olympics.

That reconstruction of the famed square, which took place as part of the preparations for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, was completed just before the Olympics opened that year.

Nothing changed, however, for the most part, until the gigantic transformation that was undertaken beginning in 2018, culminating in the joyous reopening of the fountain in 2020.

Omonia 2020
Omonia Square after its most recent restoration in 2020. Credit: Greek Reporter

The bright future of Omonia Square

The revamped Omonoia Square is now brightly illuminated by LED lighting fixtures, and will be adorned with an array of plants and new shade features. A new type of “green,” permeable pavement has also been laid down there. In an important break from the past, all the new features and materials are completely environmentally-friendly.

The project is a far cry from previous alterations, which had made the Square unrecognizable to Athenians, who had for the most part abandoned the area — even during the daytime.

New Omonia Square
The newest metamorphosis of Omonia Square as its new fountain is illuminated every night. Credit: Kompikos /CC BY-SA 4.0

Once the very commercial center of Athens, Omonoia Square is once more a center of life in the city, a landmark of which all Greek citizens can be proud.

With the restoration of the Square and the renovation and repurposing of the surrounding buildings, municipal authorities aim to revive the entire area once again and make it the showpiece that it deserves to be.

As the new millennium progresses, the historic square emerges from another of its many metamorphoses, one which gives a beautiful focus to the heart of the city; a metamorphosis that many hope will be the final one.

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