Cyprus boasts very interesting buildings in the style of modernism, which for their time were a unique innovation and following global trends, and for our days have become a monument to how the Republic of Cyprus sought its identity after independence.
One of the many buildings in the style of Cypriot modernism is the Zena Complex in the very center of Nicosia.
The block, bounded by Mnasiadou, Stasikratou Streets and Archbishop Makarios III Avenue, was once the main commercial area of the capital of Cyprus. Today, after the completion of many years of landscaping, it has become one of those rare places where everything is done in accordance with modern urban trends, albeit with some touch of Cypriot life. For example, sidewalks and the roadway are on the same level, and on the road, priority remains for electronic transport and bicycles, and not for passenger cars.
In the middle of this commercial quarter stands a huge gray array — the building of the Zena Complex.
Outwardly, it resembles either a fort, echoing the Venetian walls of Nicosia, or some kind of giant bunker.
Because of its volume, the building puts pressure on pedestrians and is imposed on them as a dominant, overwhelming all surrounding large and small buildings. The already dubious impression is compounded by numerous signs "decorating" the walls and making it difficult to perceive the Zena Complex as something whole.
What is this complex and how is it connected with one of the most mysterious women in Cyprus?
Zena Complex was built in 1966 according to the project of the architectural bureau of the brothers Philippou and architect F. David by J&P. The building in the plan is an irregular trapezoid with a courtyard covering an area of 780 m2.
It was originally planned to make an 8-story hotel here. With this calculation, the foundation was laid, but customers began to experience financial problems and decided to stop construction after the third floor. Strictly speaking, the Zena Complex building belongs to a style called brutalism (it is considered an offshoot of modernism that appeared in European architecture in the 1950s).
Brutalism characterizes the massiveness of forms and structures, the dominance of reinforced concrete, the absence of decoration and in general any finishing, the so-called béton brut (untreated concrete). The most famous examples of brutalism around the world are the city Court building in New York, the Trellick Tower apartment building in London, the Salyut Hotel in Kiev.
Trellick Tower (source)
It is noteworthy that the current owners of Zena Complex did not really appreciate such aesthetics and painted the walls with gray and beige paint in places.
Who was the customer of the building and the mastermind of this project?
It is easy to answer this question — the name Zina/Zena in the name of the Zena Complex can only indicate one person, Zena Gunther de Tyras (Zena Kanther). She was a woman of amazing destiny who rose from the very bottom to the top of Cypriot society thanks to her beauty, ingenuity, intelligence and acumen. Streets in Limassol and Nicosia are named in her honor in Cyprus (actually, the Zena Complex is placed on Zena Kanther Street).
Zena, who was named Theognosia at birth, was born in 1927 in the village of Tala, Paphos.
She had nine siblings. Her father was in prison. After being released and returning home, he often let his hands loose and drank heavily. To help her unhappy mother maintain the house, little Theognosia worked as a cleaner and nanny in rich houses since childhood. When she turned 18, she got engaged to a young man from her village, but the guy left her pregnant and went to an unknown destination. Theognosia was left alone with a child in her arms and out of desperation went to work in a cabaret. It was there that she was given the short and sonorous pseudonym Zena.
In the book of her memoirs "Life in the middle of a hurricane", Zena Kanter wrote that she exclusively danced in the cabaret and never sold her love for money, but it is unclear how much one can believe her testimony, especially considering what kind of audience gathered in the cabaret and for what purposes. In the cabaret Zena met her future husband. The American millionaire Christian Gunther (in the Hellenized form his surname became Κάνθερ, Kanter), who made a fortune in the extraction of oil and precious metals, was a regular of Cypriot seedy establishments, who spent his life in the company of girls or over a glass of whiskey.
A new life began for me from the moment I met my future husband. I consider his appearance to be the providence of God. I drank the cup of suffering to the bottom and God considered that my torment was enough, it was time for me to enter the narrow gates of paradise. He sent me my savior," Zena Kanter wrote in her autobiography.
Christian drew attention to the pretty dancer and began to take care of her. However, this fairy tale could end very quickly, as Christian was in a car accident. All the time he was in the hospital, Zena was nearby, helping him recover from the shock and recover physically. They got married in 1952. The news about the marriage of an American rich man quickly hit the front pages of newspapers, which did not fail to write about the Cypriot Cinderella, who seduced a rich prince. Zena herself assures readers of her memoirs that she did not know with a dream or a spirit what the financial condition of her boyfriend was, and she learned about millions of dollars three months after the wedding from her husband's lawyers. They had two children in their marriage.
However, Christian and Zena's happy family life was often overshadowed by his drinking. He spent a lot of time in drug treatment clinics, trying to get rid of addiction.
I watched as I lost my husband day after day. I was in a lot of pain. This is not how I imagined family life," Zena Kanter wrote.
In 1967, a rather strange story happened in Zena's life.
The famous adventurer and impostor Pavlos Paleologos-Krive (Paul Theodore Paléologue-Crivez), who called himself "the deposed sovereign of the eastern Constantinople Empire," wished to "spiritually adopt" Zena and declared her his spiritual daughter. This dubious procedure for some reason gave Zena Kanter the right to the princely title. It can be safely called "doubtful" (this is the mildest characteristic), since, firstly, there are no "spiritual" adoptions.
Formally, only a priest can be a spiritual father or confessor. Even if some kind of spiritual adoption has happened (whatever it means by itself), this kind of relationship does not give the right to inheritance or assignment of a title. In fact, it was about the usual scam of an enterprising Frenchman who got his quasi-title in the same way.
Paul Crivez in the 1940s seduced Alexandrina the widow of Grégoire Paléologue, who adopted him and gave him the surname of his spouse. Crivez himself convinced everyone that in this way he became the heir of the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos, but in fact Gregoire Palaiologos, like his more famous uncle Maurice Palaiologos, who served as French ambassador to the Russian Empire on the eve of the revolution (and left very valuable memoirs to descendants), came from the Wallachian nobility, and not from the Byzantine emperors. However, it didn't cost anything to convince a rich but simple Cypriot woman, who didn't understand anything about titles, of the legality of her plan. Zena Kanter became quite unreasonably called the Princess de Tyre and that is how she entered the history of Cyprus.
Zena, however, generally liked all sorts of dubious initiatives and secret societies. In the 1970s, she is said to have sponsored the EOKA-2 organization and had a hand (or rather, her purse) in overthrowing President Makarios. In 1978, she was accused of allegedly participating in a "German conspiracy" that was being prepared by an employee of the German Embassy against President Spyros Kyprianou. Zena ended up in prison, but thanks to her influence and connections, she was released after eight days.
Zena Kanter died in 2012 at her home in Nicosia. She remained in the memory of Cypriots as a philanthropist who helped build schools and museums, supported poor families, foundations, municipalities and villages.
The Zena Complex building is now managed by her son Theodoros Kanter.
The complex was quite a popular place for the youth of the capital's hangout in the 1970s and 1980s. There was a Zena Cinema, there were several trendy cafes, for example, Piccadilly. The inner square was buzzing, and the capital's life was boiling around.
Today, most of the shops are closed, for which we need to say thank you to the coronavirus pandemic and the protracted work on the improvement of this quarter, which scared off the last customers. Although the offices on the upper floors are still being rented, the building, according to Theodoros Kanter, does not bring income, but only requires constant repair. A few years ago, there were rumors that a certain investor from Russia wanted to buy the Zena Complex in order to demolish it and build a luxury hotel from scratch. However, it never went beyond the rumors.
Is this giant asleep or has he already died? Will it be able to revive and become an important center of city life again?
The answer to this question will become clear very soon. The landscaping of the commercial quarter has been completed, it has become pedestrian-friendly and is ready to be revived as the core of a new, modern, prosperous center of one of the European capitals.
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