On Traffic Flows and History

Jacques Soulillou

Cities are not "machines for living", but they are "machines" in that they manage two types of flux: internal flows that may take collective or private forms, and external flows that move either from the interior towards the exterior through the play of traffic access routes --highways, river ways and railways, airports (which are extensions of these access routes)-- or from outside to inside. Regarding these latter flows, old cities such as Thessaloniki or Cambrai have long been confronted with the dilemma of having on the one hand to allow certain flows to enter and exit: men, merchandise, - while on the other hand to stop certain others that undermined security: enemy armies, epidemics. Until the nineteenth century, the most universally adopted means of preventing the intrusion of threatening fluxes was the town wall.

In this respect it is interesting to observe how these ancient city walls which were originally aimed at turning away flows that could undermine security, have since been effectively projected outwards, with their replacement by circular roads ("boulevard pèriphèrique"). These "peripheral" roads, which in the case of Thessaloniki is semi-circular due to the presence of the sea, are collectors and regulators of fluxes. Indeed, in the twentieth century, one of the most difficult flows to manage for ancient cities is the automobile.

Inside the city, internal flows are regulated by the combination of collective or common spaces-- traffic routes, squares, stadiums, etc-- and private spaces-- individual houses, apartment buildings, stores. One of the most striking morphological characteristics of a European city such as Thessaloniki is the extreme difficulty with which it manages and contains the externalization of the private space which the automobile is, as a very direct extension of the private apartment. Since it is not possible to build sufficient roads inside a city in order to regulate this flow, the classically modern solution has consisted in installing surface or underground parking lots.

Thessaloniki has neither surface parking, for want of space, nor underground parking, due to difficulties encountered each time it is a question of excavating, when one is immediately confronted with something that is of a collective nature. This "collective" order, or this common place, which rises to the very surface of the city founded by one of Alexander's generals, is called history. Paradoxically, in all cities: Athens, Rome, Alexandria, Cairo, Thessaloniki - this common place with very ancient sedimentation forms an obstacle to the functional articulation between that which belongs to the collective order: squares, traffic routes - and that which belongs to the private order. Thessaloniki is one of those European cities where the automobile, an externalization of private space, is the most massively present, in public squares, at intersections, in double or triple lanes in the streets, on sidewalks, as if it had been repressed by the "monumental" common Place on which the entire old section of the city stands (the part that Mikael Levin has taken, essentially, as his field of investigation), mortgaging the harmonious equilibrium between collective and private spaces, producing slippage, overlapping, fractures, the whole length of the line that separates these two types of spaces.

The "monumental" dimension - "monument", the root of which is "memory" both in Greek and in Latin - of this common Place is the principal obstacle to a collective reappropriation aimed at allowing the city to regulate its internal fluxes in an optimum way. Thessaloniki is a highly interesting European case of massive monumentalization from below: its historical underground surfaces at the first blow of the pick-axe - and of monumental de-monumentalization from above, which here took the form of the rise of often hastily built collective apartment buildings. The two major events that, in the twentieth century, accelerated the process of de-monumentalization from above were, on the one hand, the great fire of 1917, which destroyed almost the totality of synagogues and mosques and seriously damaged numerous Byzantine churches, and, on the other hand, post-war "wildcat" urbanism linked to intense real estate speculation and to large population movements. That urbanism engulfed nearly all of the patrician homes that dotted the sea shore. Nevertheless, one notices that the setting up of a bold city planning (unique in Europe in that period) just after the 1917 fire, resulted in a re-monumentalization of that part of the city that was rebuilt according to the plans of the French architect Ernest Hèbrard. These tensions between monumentalization and de-monumentalization, between private and collective spaces, can be seen in Mikael Levin's photographs.

Every city is caught in a race run between a process of de-monumentalization of its spaces (the Voisin plan for pre-war Paris is an extreme expression of this) and of re-monumentalization. If a ratio expressing the relation between these two processes could be established, it would become possible to classify cities according to their greater or smaller rate of de-monumentalization. At both extremes of the scale one would find Tokyo and Los Angles on the one hand, and Rome, Venice, and Paris on the other. With respect to this one might say that Thessaloniki (and Cambrai in many respects also) is situated in the middle -in Europe- with the particularity that the process of re-monumentalization is occurring mostly - but not exclusively - from below, to the extent that the de-monumentalization from above (the wholesale destruction of the entire old city) occurred in a very violent manner, and in a quasi-irreversible way in the course of the twentieth century.

Jacques Soulillou


Essayist and art theoretician, Jacques Soulillou has written about architecture and urbanism, in particular with regard to sub-Sahara Africa. From 1995 to 1999 he was Director of the French Institute of Thessaloniki.

(Translation by Susan Cohen)