Long before the current media attention for the prolonged political thriller that nearly culminated in ‘Grexit’, Greece enjoyed a more prominent position in architectural history. Athens is built above and within its ancient counterpart, and it is difficult to think of Athens without a mental flash of ruins.
Le Corbusier amidst the ruins in Athens
That flash is most likely of the Parthenon. But since Greek heritage is often viewed in an incomplete manner, let us turn to the second most famous, but probably most important, monument on the Acropolis: the Erechtheion. Eternalized by its six anthropomorphic columns – the Caryatids – the temple was dedicated to Athena and Poseidon, built on the spot of their mythological contest, and related to the holiest of Athenian relics: a wooden xonaon (heaven-sent effigy) of Athena.
A sneak-peak of our walk
At this point one may turn the page of “History-of-Architecture-in-100-Pages” or move on to the next exhibit. But this story of the Erechtheion scarcely rubs the surface of roughly 2,400 years of history. The building underwent damages and reconstruction during the Roman era, was transformed into a Byzantine church, a Frankish palace, and later a harem for the Ottoman commander. At the outset of the 19th century, the infamous Lord Elgin removed one of the Caryatids. And this is just our current understanding with our recent pursuit of preservation.
The Erechtheion with a view of the Porch of the Caryatids
The aim of this introduction is not to be didactic, but to draw attention to the architectural character of Athens. It is considered one of the oldest cities in the world, and has weathered diverse eras. Its population increased almost 1,000 times from the 1830s to today. The result is a multi-influenced, incoherent metropolis. Athens’ architectural history is revealed gradually, through sporadic secrets in today’s chaotic cityscape.
Bernard Tschumi’s New Acropolis Museum. Courtesy of Bernard Tschumi Architects.
A good place to start is Bernard Tschumi’s Acropolis Museum; a convergence of the ancient and contemporary at the foot of the Acropolis. Sidetracked for years, the museum’s construction was further complicated by the finding of a parallel city. The design had to be reformed to accommodate and protect the ancient streets and houses. Tschumi’s proposal stood on carefully placed pylons, and integrated a glass floor through which the old city is visible. The design prompts us to walk above the findings to really understand the cross-temporal relationship of the museum, its contents, and Athens.
The entrance to the Acropolis Museum, with a view of the ancient city. Courtesy of Bernard Tschumi Architects
Archaeological rescue is standard procedure. Constructing a metro in the center of Athens was an Olympian feat. In every station, there was discovery, sidetracking, and a need for preservation over construction. In Syntagma Station, we find a wall made out of glass, revealing the stratified earth. Here we can contemplate ancient graves, one of which still has the bones of its occupant. There we also find the free-of-charge Syntagma Archaeological Collection – an improvised gallery of artifacts found during construction.
The Syntagma Metro Station Gallery
An ancient grave found during excavations for the Syntagma Station
In both museums, things are displayed where they are found, whether a metro station or an ambitious building. The Acropolis Museum is in fact totally site specific. The appreciation of urban and historical context was key to the competition prompt, and deftly incorporated Tschumi’s design. The Main Gallery is reminiscent of a conventional space, but moving up to the Parthenon Gallery, we find ourselves in what might be the most context-specific gallery in the world. The entire level is rotated 23 degrees to parallel the Parthenon, which is always visible through glass walls. The artifacts are placed in a one-to-one position and scale as on the original building, with plaster copies in the place of the missing Elgin marbles. The relationship between artifact and site here is unprecedented and powerful.
The Parthenon Hall. Courtesy of Bernard Tschumi Architects
Site Plan for the Acropolis Museum, showing the relationship between the Parthenon Hall and the Parthenon Ruins
Even early on this walk, we notice that the layered architectural character of Athens does not stop at archaeology. Most buildings are haphazardly built, driven by the practical need for space with little or no design involved. Athens exists in a duality between ancient and modern, in which we forget that the contemporary Hellenic Republic is in fact a very young country negotiating the weight of its ancient identity. The intermediate stages of Athens’ development are visible amidst the concrete of modern Greece.
The unfortunate rapid development of Athens
Continuing the walk out of Syntagma, we come onto the crowded shopping street – Ermou Street. Dodging shoppers, walkers, and advertisers, we reach an open square with a small church called Kapnikarea. Built sometime in the 11th century, it dates back to Byzantium. As was customary with early Christian temples, it was built over an ancient pagan temple.
Church of Kapnikarea
The interior of Kapnikarea
Continuing down Ermou, we end up at Monastiraki Square, where there is another contrast of Athens’ histories. Above the shops on Pandrossou Street, there is an Ottoman building, known as the Tzistarakis Mosque but functioning as a Folk Art and Pottery Museum today. Right next to it, there are ruins from Hadrian’s Library, harkening back to the Roman era of Athens. On them there are hints of Byzantine mosaics, reminders of the Library’s later uses.
Ruins of Hadrian’s Library. Note the brown blemish to the right – a remain of a mosaic and reminder of the buildings Byzantine re-use
These observations fit the character of most of Athens, a gentle nod to the continuous and diverse inhabitation of the city, amidst the blaring reminder of modern building frenzy. The nature of this city is necessarily peripatetic. Treasures are hidden underground and amidst randomly constructed concrete box buildings. This is the key to the city’s identity. Unlike many other European cities, there is no consistent or harmonious style, but a gradation of images mirroring the city as a lively crossroads of histories and cultures.
-Guest Post by Aris Minaretzis