Ancient Greek architecture has been a model of inspiration for centuries. But what has happened in the past 20 years? How have the Greek architects taken advantage of their cultural baggage and applied it to modern times? I asked Loukas Karenzos- architect and docent for Context Travel, to walk us thought the development of architecture from the Agora to the brand new Acropolis Museum by Bernard Tschumi.
The architecture of ancient Athens, reaching a pinnacle of achievement with the building of the Acropolis in the 5th century B.C., has been linked in popular belief for the last twenty five centuries with the emergence of the first democracy in the West. The spaces of the Agora, the various temples, the rock of the Acropolis held various historical, religious, and civic associations that, when seen side-by-side and in their context, make a convincing case about the conditions that made this particular city in the ancient world stand out.
All this was not lost to the armies and individuals that conquered Athens in subsequent centuries, starting with Alexander the Great; continuing with the Romans and their later incarnation as the Byzantine Empire; the Frankish armies ostensibly on their way to end Arab rule in the Holy Land; and ending with the Ottoman Turks. Renaissance intellectuals visited and sketched the ancient building and ruins; sometimes they would even invoke the art and architecture of Athens without actually ever having been to the city itself, the name only being enough to become a convincing argument in their attempt to revive classicism in Italy. The architecture of the place was studied by its visitors, and then adapted to suit the conditions of their own places of work, but always with a very direct, visible reference to its origin. This practice grew proportionally in the late eighteenth c. and throughout the nineteenth century, as more countries in the West embraced a form of governance that, while not always a full democracy, came closer and closer to allowing the will of the people to be taken into account.
The country of Greece was one of the last in Europe that moved towards this direction. After five centuries of Ottoman rule, the people of Greece sought independence and self-determination and in 1821 they rose against their occupiers. By the end of the decade a series of agreements brokered by the powerful nations of Europe (France, England, Germany) were put in place, and a Greek independent state emerged. Athens was chosen as the capital of the state. A very small town by then, full of the ruins of ancient buildings, it had to rapidly accommodate the functions of a capital city. A building program was thus launched that was to last for almost a century. The city needed everything that makes a capital: government buildings, places of art, places of learning, places of worship, roads, public spaces. Fortuitously, the inspiration for the men who were called upon to design the new city was already there. The architecture schools of Europe that provided the talent that came to contribute to this project were all celebrating the achievement of their Athenian counterparts of 24 centuries later, regarding it as an expression of pure, geometrical architecture that suited a civic ideal. As a consequence, and very fittingly, almost every important building commissioned, designed, and built between the 1820’s and 1920’s in the capital of modern Greece references the architecture of classical Athens. Later on in the twentieth century this city, as others around the world, experienced different design approaches in important commissions that abstract or defy the classicism favored by earlier generations. Important modernists like Walter Gropius, and later post-modernists like Mario Botta and -most recently with his Acropolis Museum- Bernard Tschumi contributed new and interesting proposals to the architecture of the city.
The walk that takes the Context visitor from ancient to modern architecture in Athens encapsulates the development of the city in the last two centuries, as it became the capital city of the Greek state. It begins with references to the ancient nucleus that is crowned by the Acropolis, and it quickly moves through some select examples from the following centuries to really start focusing on post-independence Athens, and its transformation from a sleepy provincial city to a metropolis. There are many fine examples that attest to the eclecticism that prevailed in the design decisions for important buildings in the city, some of which are presented and discussed. Of particular note are the great civic buildings in Syntagma and Kotzia Square; the University / Academy / Library ‘triptych’ on Academias Street; the “Rex” cinema / theater on Acadimias Street towards Omonia; the Athens Hilton hotel; and the U.S. Embassy, by Walter Gropius, which marks the end of the walk.