Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

This site uses cookies. By using our services, you agree to our cookie use.
Learn more here.

The burden of antiquity: veneration of the past becomes stasis

Dimitris pikionis acropolis walkways architectural review

Development is stymied by reverence for the Acropolis in modern Athens, a city where the past still casts its heavy shadows

In November 1944, the Greek artist and poet Yorgos Vassiliou Makris announced his plan to destroy the Parthenon. ‘Detesting the temporal and historical entrenchment of the Acropolis as something unheard of and foreign to life’, and ‘Hating National Tourism and the nightmarish folklore literature around it’, Makris wrote in Proclamation No 1, ‘Our first act of destruction shall be [blowing up] the Parthenon, which is literally suffocating us’. This was written in the aftermath of the Nazi occupation of Greece, during which the country had been devastated and its people faced with famine. 

‘All cities are defined by their histories, but the shadow the Acropolis and Periclean Athens casts is particularly heavy’

The Acropolis and other antiquities, meanwhile, had survived unscathed. While for the re-established Greek national government these sites were symbols of a resurgent Greek identity, for Makris and others they reflected something else. ‘The Parthenon was the primary symbol for the reconstitution of Greece, suffering the effects of poverty and war, and a focus for national morale,’ wrote curator Marina Fokidis in South magazine. ‘It also symbolised the development of the tourism industry, while serving as a solid excuse for all the iniquities happening in its shadow.’

Marta minujin parthenon of books architectural review

Marta minujin parthenon of books architectural review

Marta Minujín’s Parthenon of Books on show in Buenos Aires, 1983

Makris and his associates, the Union of Aesthetic Saboteurs of Antiquities, were relatively obscure members of Athens’ creative community. Their proclamation had little impact and the Parthenon was not blown up. Yet this peculiar text from the mid 20th century speaks to a broader relationship between the urbanism and architecture of modern Athens and its ancient heritage that has played out over centuries, and continues to do so. In 2019, more than 70 years after Makris’s denouncement of ‘national tourism’, the Institute of the Greek Tourism Confederation (INSETE) reported an economic over-reliance on the sector, with visits to sites of antiquity forming a central pillar of this. In addition, the Acropolis and Greek antiquity retain a role in political diplomacy: Chinese President Xi Jinping, as part of a trip in November to establish trade deals out of the ancient port of Piraeus, visited the Acropolis museum, weighed in on the Elgin Marbles debate, and cited the Sophists in an editorial for a Greek national newspaper. 

All cities are defined by their histories, but the shadow the Acropolis and Periclean Athens casts is particularly heavy. Kostas Tsiambaos of the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) describes the ‘ontological relationship’ between Athenians and antiquity, defined by both the quotidian, even casual omnipresence of those landmarks, but also by the foundational urban planning of the modern city. Following Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1828, successive geometric plans for Athens – drawn up first by Stamatis Kleanthis and Eduard Schaubert, students of Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1832, and later adapted by Leo von Klenze in 1834 – orientated the main avenues and Neoclassical institutions in the direction of the Acropolis. 

Alex filippidis architectural review

Alex filippidis architectural review

Source: Alex Filippidis

‘The whole city developed looking towards antiquity’, explains Panayotis Tournikiotis, dean of the architecture school at the NTUA. The contemporary consequences of this spatial and symbolic centring of these sites produce what Tournikiotis describes as the ‘burden of antiquity’: ‘the understanding that we have to live with antiquity’. This burden manifests as a sort of responsibility, a custodial role for the patrimony of Western Europe and its foundations in democracy, culture, philosophy and theatre.

Quite how this antiquity is defined and preserved, however, is an ever-unfolding conflict between archaeology, architecture and competing histories. As demonstrated by Xi’s visit, this custodial role is useful for drawing a simplified narrative between a unified idea of antiquity and the modern Greek state which tends to erase, for example, the Ottoman legacy of the city, something which has only recently begun to be archaeologically addressed in earnest.

The persistent overlap between a contemporary metropolis and a city-scale archaeological site also means the ‘burden of antiquity’ has very real material consequences. ‘The old city will always appear when you don’t want it to’, explains Giorgos Mitroulias of Architecture Research Athens (AREA), whose work tends to confront the city’s dense morphology. Anyone who digs deeper than a metre or so in the city is likely to come across fragments of the city’s past – public property and potentially invaluable artefacts. If anything is discovered in the digging of foundations, the materials have to be assessed by the Central Archaeological Council (KAS) and either removed to a museum or displayed and made accessible to the general public. For example, Bernard Tschumi’s Acropolis Museum and Mario Botta’s National Bank of Greece, bombastic public projects born in a different, pre-crisis Athens, prominently display sunken ruins beneath glass floors. And, more casually, the Zara store on the busy Stadiou Street features the remains of a Roman tomb open to the public in its basement. 

Omonia rooftop pool point supreme architectural review

Omonia rooftop pool point supreme architectural review

Source: Point Supreme

‘The best part is you have to pay for [the archaeological works]’, says Konstantinos Pantazis, co-founder of Point Supreme Architects, with a wry smile. ‘So if you don’t have the budget, your project is stopped.’ The KAS thus wields significant power to shape the architecture and urbanism of Athens. Yet their approach has been criticised for its lack of interest in the potential for creative synthesis between different eras, increasingly prioritising rigid preservation and perfunctory archaeological consumption over architectural innovation. 

Case in point is the disabled access lift for the Acropolis; an unwieldy, cage-like structure that hangs off the hill’s north-west side. This addition, although necessary, seems particularly uninspired when compared with the cinematic landscaping work of Dimitris Pikionis on the walkways leading up to the Parthenon and neighbouring Filopappou Hill. Pikionis’s pathways, constructed via an improvisatory process during the 1950s, are masterpieces in cultural and chronological synthesis. References to multiple eras with Classical and Neoclassical building fragments, Byzantine elements and building techniques borrowed from Japan and beyond are littered among the paths laid ‘to be experienced as much by the body as by the eyes’, as Kenneth Frampton put it. 

Rooftops yannis drakoulidis architectural review.jpg

Rooftops yannis drakoulidis architectural review.jpg

Source: Yannis Drakoulidis

‘He would never be able to do that now’, says Mitroulias, on account of the conservative tendencies of the KAS and their emphasis on pure preservation over adaptive reuse or reinvention. AREA have had their own run-ins with KAS, when a hotel project in a Neoclassical building was stalled on account of the council’s strict demands for preservation at all costs. ‘That was a missed opportunity to understand the power of creating a dialogue between different layers of history’, Mitroulias argues. ‘You can still be respectful without pretending that you’re in the 19th century.’ 

Another approach for contemporary Athenian architects is to avoid this confrontation altogether. One of Point Supreme’s break-out projects in Athens was the six d.o.g.s. cultural centre, where the architects chose to leave the natural topography of the site, in close proximity to the Acropolis, untouched. Yet elsewhere Point Supreme’s work, particularly their research, displays a nuanced embrace of antiquity and all the complexity it projects onto contemporary Athens. An ongoing photographic series of Athenian life overlooked by the hill, 100 Views of the Acropolis, neatly illustrates the ‘ontological relationship’ that Kostas Tsiambaos describes. ‘The project is a series of views of that thing, but actually the point is not that thing at all. What we’re looking for in those pictures is the thing around it. The city, our life around it’, explains Pantazis. Another, a collage titled Athens by Hills, reframes the Acropolis as a hill among others that constitute the Attican landscape: ‘At the moment I think of the Acropolis not so much as an object which could be a burden or an inspiration, but more as a way of setting up a city, a way of organising life in space’.

Yannis drakoulidis architectural review

Yannis drakoulidis architectural review

Source: Yannis Drakoulidis

Point Supreme were one of a group of young architects, alongside AREA, and architects such as Aristide Antonas, who came to prominence in post-crisis Athens with projects to redefine the city away from narratives of antiquity, but also abandonment and despair. The polykatoikia, the multifamily housing type, for example, was the subject of particular focus, as a generic and ubiquitous anti-Parthenon, where the lives of normal Athenians unfolded. Similarly, AREA’s Athens Charting project, displayed as part of Greece’s contribution to the 2012 Venice Biennale Made in Athens, which neatly catalogued this movement, was a set of planning strategies and public space interventions to enhance the densely residential, Modernist sprawl of the contemporary city. 

Despite the rich offerings, both with and against Athenian antiquity of this period, the projects are largely preserved on drawing boards alone. The more pressing socio-economic problems in contemporary Greece mean that the most significant built works of the post-2004 Olympics era have been characterised by crude readings of antiquity or luxury interpretations of island vernaculars. Chief among the former category is Renzo Piano’s Stavros Niarchos Foundation, which sits isolated atop its own acropolis, with an ‘agora’ facing out towards the Saronic Gulf and beyond. 

The networked ruin angelidakis architectural review

The networked ruin angelidakis architectural review

Source: Andreas Angelidakis

The Networked Ruin (Casino), 2012, is a provocation by Andreas Angelidakis depicting the burnt-down casino atop Mount Parnitha reconstructed as a billboard. Once a Modernist masterwork, the Mont Parnes hotel along with the Acropolis, was used in campaigns promoting tourism in Athens before its doomed fate caught up with it. In a last desperate attempt to save itself, it was repurposed as a casino, a cynical symbol of a drowning economy 

Freed from some of the burdens of antiquity, this coast, with its port city Piraeus, will likely be the site of significant developments in years to come; not just due to the ‘pro-business’ government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Chinese investment, but also to a major development at Hellinikon. Here, six miles east of Piraeus, the former international airport sits semi-abandoned after its closure in 2001, and a number of proposals, both public and private, have failed to materialise. Most recently, amid great concern in the Greek architectural community, an Inspire Athens proposal for a casino and resort was launched in a promotional video featuring soaring strings and the hand of an architect converting the form of a caryatid from the Erechtheion porch into a lifeless skyscraper. If this is what the architecture of ancient Greece inspires today, maybe Makris and his Union of Aesthetic Saboteurs of Antiquities had a point. 

Lead image: Dimitris Pikionis’s Acropolis walkways from the 1950s. Image Courtesy of the Benaki Museum Athens – Modern Greek Architecture Archives, Dimitris Pikionis Archive

This piece is featured in the AR December 2019/January 2020 issue on New into Old and Preservation – click here to buy your copy today