A bridge from the future that never was

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By Harry van Versendaal

“We would romance the night away, watching the cars rush under the bridge. ‘Mesogeion River,’ we would call it. Later, when I moved into the neighborhood, I would cross it on my walks with the dog. If I was in a hurry though, I’d go to the street crossings.”

Gina became a mother and moved back to the northern suburbs of Athens, but the pedestrian suspension bridge designed by Spanish “starchitect” Santiago Calatrava spanning Mesogeion Avenue at Katehaki, like other monumental legacies of the 2004 pre-Olympic period, remains a symbol of dashed hopes for a new Greece, for a tidier, more modern and more European Greece.

The structure stands out for its metal pylon, arcing upward to a height of 50 meters. A row of 14 metal cables hold up the suspended – and now somewhat beleaguered – 94-meter footbridge over Mesogeion Avenue.

The architect’s design for the Mesogeion footbridge is said to have been inspired by the form of the chair depicted on the ancient funerary stele of Hegeso, found at the Ancient Cemetery of Kerameikos in central Athens.

It also recalls the bow of a futuristic trireme standing anchored in the past century. The beautiful contours of the structure continue to fascinate amateur photographers.

But instead of upgrading the ungainly architectural legacy of the 1970s, the Calatrava bridge is merely a reminder of that era. The western end of the bridge, for example, abuts the wall of an adjacent apartment block. Herein lies the first problem: The bridge has no breathing space, giving the sense that it was designed on a flat screen in a modern Zurich office, before a location was selected for it.

The bridge has never really been loved. In part this is because it is of limited use. It is longer than the distance of the pedestrian crossings it was meant to replace and, in combination with the time it takes to climb the staircases or ride the elevators to the top, crossing it is something of a lengthy process. Coming out of the nearby metro station, most pedestrians would rather take their chances with the street traffic.

The bridge has also seen little love because Calatrava, who reportedly conducted the study for its design free of charge, has been inevitably linked to the budget overruns of the 2004 Olympic Games and the nation’s post-Olympic decline.

Calatrava himself is not faring much better than his bridge. Recently, Italian judicial authorities notified the architect of citation for damages in the exchequer for 3.8 million euros for alleged errors on his glass bridge spanning Venice’s Grand Canal that have resulted in the need for constant repairs and interventions. News of the ruling met with snide comments by the Greek media.

Today, the white footbridge over Mesogeion Avenue has become a symbol of what could have been. In a twist of irony, the jet-black symbol of the new era has emerged just a few meters down the road, where the imposing office building of Golden Dawn confirms the penetration by the neo-Nazi party of the Greek middle class.

The Calatrava bridge is separated from the Golden Dawn offices by a few meters of asphalt – all downhill.

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