Paving a Greek Path to a Western Monument
Instructor: Carter Wiseman
For centuries, the Parthenon has drawn countless visitors to the centre of Athens. Eager for a closer look at the monument that has come to define Western civilization, hordes of tourists march up the dusty slopes of the Acropolis towards the temple at its summit. The ascent is not an easy one, and the harsh heat of an Athenian summer can be relentless, scorching the ground and the exposed necks of the unwary. In classical times, the ascent to the Parthenon would have been punctuated by cleansing and devotional rituals at a series of small temples and votive statues along the way, stops that provided some shade and a space to rest during the climb. These have long since disappeared, and until recently, visitors to the site were at the mercy of the elements.
In the early 1950s, a little-known Greek architect - Demetris Pikionis - was commissioned to redesign the approach to the Parthenon (Figs1&2). It was a significant task not only because of its potential impact on the experience of the monument, but also because of the inevitable ramifications of intervening in such a historically and culturally charged site. His work goes largely unnoticed today, and few visitors are aware of what lies underfoot as they focus their attention on the Parthenon above. Pikionis was responsible for reorganizing and landscaping much of the Acropolis site, creating a new pathway for visitors to walk on, providing rest stops and viewing platforms, and linking together the many monuments of the Acropolis. There is no sign to announce his work and its presence is marked in few guidebooks. However, few visitors fail to breathe a sigh of relief as they rest on one of the benches Pikionis introduced to the site. Dappled shade and protection from the sun is provided by the hundreds of olive trees that were planted, their gnarled trunks framing views of the pure lines of the Parthenon and the edges of the path, so that monument and landscape are synthesised into a single experience.
Prior to Pikionis’ commission, the approach to the Parthenon was paved by a battered black tarmac pathway which was provided as a purely mechanical solution to the problem of walking up the slopes of the Acropolis. Constructed before the Second World War, the state of the pathway reflected the tumultuous climate in Greece during the middle part of the twentieth century. After the Second World War, the country had descended into a civil war fought between the Communist Greek resistance (supported by Albania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia) and the newly returned government-in-exile (supported by Britain and America). The civil war represented the culmination of a longstanding struggle between left and right, and was emblematic of the continuing influence of external forces in the country’s political landscape. The eventual victory of the western-supported government forces left Greece with an emphatically anti-Communist and nationalistic government that would eventually give rise to the Greek military Junta and seven years of dictatorship. In such a charged political climate, architecture was tasked with providing a visual manifestation of the country’s emerging identity. There was a renewed interest in Greece’s classical heritage and monuments such as the Parthenon played an important political role, instilling a nationalistic sense of pride in a populace fatigued by years of war and political uncertainty. It was in this context that the decision was taken by the Greek government to commission an architect to redesign the landscaping of the Acropolis and provide a new pathway to its summit, a project laden with issues of identity, nationalism, and historiography from its inception.
The Greek government’s selection of Pikionis revealed their confidence in his ability to resolve the numerous issues embedded in the project into a coherent and appropriate architectural language. This confidence was based on a limited portfolio of completed work, primarily due to the difficult economic climate at the time. Of these limited works, two schools completed in Athens and Thessaloniki between the wars provide an insight into Pikionis’ approach and the evolving architectural language that was to win him favor with the government and eventually lead to the commission for the work at the Acropolis.
The first of the two schools was constructed in 1933 in Athens (Fig.3). It was one of 4000 schools that were to be constructed throughout Greece as part of an ambitious education initiative that Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos had launched. Located on Lycabettus Hill, the school is a short walk from the Acropolis site in an anomalously steep and wooded part of central Athens. Glowing among the trees, the stark white forms of the school are characteristically Modern; like many young Greek architects, Pikionis was drawn to the aesthetics of the Modern movement, particularly since many modernist architects looked to the classical severity of the Parthenon and the simplicity of vernacular Greek forms for inspiration. The willingness to adopt the modernist aesthetic was not unique to architects; in 1933, the 4th CIAM conference arrived in Athens and was attended by the prime minister and numerous government officials, indicating the affinity between the ideals of the Modern movement and the government’s progressive political agenda. The conference was held at the prestigious Ethnikon Metsovion Polytechneion (National Technical University of Athens), where Pikionis held a teaching position, and which was to become a centre for the development of Greek Modernism. The government’s willingness to promote Modernism led to their commissioning a number of young architects1 associated with the university to design schools. Pikionis’ school in Lycabettus was one such commission and marked the beginning of a close working relationship with the government that was to continue throughout his career.
Though many schools were built, Pikionis’ stands out for its sensitivity to climate and topography. The landscape penetrates the building, which is composed of a series of staggered volumes arranged around a central courtyard. In its organization, the school evokes the dramatic vernacular houses of Santorini, whose cubic forms appear to tumble down the island’s rocky volcanic hillsides towards the sea. The Lycabettus school suggests an inchoate interest in the vernacular that was to be developed throughout Pikionis’ career and eventually lead him away from Modernism altogether.
Two years after the completion of the Lycabettus school, Pikionis was approached by the government to design a second school. This time, it was to be an experimental academy in a dense residential district of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city (Fig.4). Despite the brief interval between the two projects, his Thessaloniki school reveals the emergent characteristics of the architectural approach that was to recommend him to the government in the years following the war as the obvious choice for a project as sensitive as the Acropolis landscaping. In Thessaloniki, the building is not conceived of as an architectural object and the city is allowed to permeate the school boundaries. A large courtyard at its centre is bounded on three sides by the masses of the school buildings, but on the fourth side, it is left open to allow for a direct engagement with the city. In addition, Pikionis takes into account the damp, rainy climate of northern Greece and uses elements of the regional vernacular to adapt the building to its context. Low tiled roofs with deep overhangs protect from the rain and provide shade during the summer, while timber-framed balconies provide generous outdoor space on every floor.2 In combination with the modernist white walls and plate glass of the rest of the school, these vernacular forms appear rather uncomfortable, Pikionis’ close attention to ecological factors is remarkable at a time when much of Greece’s urban fabric was being destroyed to make way for countless modernist blocks that were oblivious to environmental and contextual factors.
The Second World War and the turmoil in its aftermath resulted in very few opportunities for Greek architects, and Pikionis realized only one other major work in this period - a studio and home for the artist Phrosso Efthimiades completed in 1949. The house represents his continuing attempts to integrate vernacular materials and design with a contemporary structure. Once again the result is somewhat uncomfortable, but the landscaping of the surrounding site and the reverence with which it is treated is significant, particularly considering the short period of time between the completion of this project and the commencement of works on the Acropolis. The garden is entered through a traditional propylon 3 gate and is organized as a temenos 4. Landscaped with indigenous plants, movement through the garden is choreographed by a series of winding paths, whose characteristic paving would later inform the paving patterns at the Acropolis (Fig.5). The prominence given to the garden and its quality as a meditative space reveals Pikionis’ growing interest in Eastern landscaping strategies, an interest which had begun with his exposure to the abstracted natural forms of Cezanne’s paintings as a student 5. Influenced by Cezanne’s ability to portray the essence of natural form without mimetic representational techniques, Pikionis became convinced that the symbolism and abstraction of Eastern art was critical to the creation of his architecture:
‘The whole future course of Hellenism depends on our ability to assume a responsible position at the place where the East and the West meet. I will add this: it will also depend on the appropriate synthesis of opposed currents and tendencies, on their fusion into a new form.’6
Pikionis’ evolving architectural language was closely aligned with the ideals of the Greek government in the years following the Second World War, and he was offered the commission to work on the Acropolis site in 1951 by Constantine Karamanlis, the Minister of Public Works and future prime-minister of Greece. The project brief called for a new access road to the Parthenon and the development of a connective route between the many monuments of the Acropolis and adjacent Philoppapou Hill, whose summit provides a spectacular view of the Parthenon and the sprawl of the city beyond.
Visitors to the Acropolis first encounter Pikionis’ project as a series of stepped terraces that lead to the theatre of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. The approach to the Odeon is perpendicular to the large paved pathway of Dionysiou Areopagitou, which runs east-west along the southern edge of the Acropolis site, connecting the busy streets of Leoforos Vasilissis Amalias and Apostolou Pavlou. It is framed on either side by a grove of trees that provide welcome shade and relief from the glare and heat of the harsh Attic sun. The facade of the Odeon is symmetrical yet Pikionis offsets the path from the theatre’s axis so that visitors only perceive its full scale upon arriving at the theatre forecourt. The approach is animated by glimpses of glowing marble that filter through the trees as visitors ascend the steps. Trees also conceal the view of the Parthenon until the moment of arrival, so that the mass of the theatre and the distant image of the Parthenon are presented simultaneously in a choreographed sequence that collapses the time and distance between the two monuments.
Beyond the theatre, the worn marble of the forecourt dissolves into the landscape, and fragments of marble and stone pave the ascent to the Parthenon. At the lower parts of the site, the pathway forms a continuous route, with relatively few rest points provided, since the terrain is not particularly steep. At these lower points, the pathway meanders through groves of trees in a seemingly random manner (Fig.6). Large rocks or boulders that lie in the way of the path are effortlessly absorbed by it and left untouched (Fig.7), so that they momentarily syncopate the rhythm of the paving pattern. At other points, the path seems to swell purposefully to incorporate features of the landscape, so that they become an essential part of its composition. The play between the apparently accidental and more purposeful integration of the landscape creates an ambiguous condition. This ambiguity leads many visitors to assume that the path dates to antiquity and that its current meandering form is a result of distortions due to the landscape changing over time. Pikionis’ ability to create this sense of ambiguity is due in large part to the construction methodology he promoted. He produced very few drawings of the scheme as a whole, and was keen to allow craftsmen on the site adapt to the minute particulars of the landscape and determine the pathway’s overall form.
Pikionis’ strategy is somewhat problematic if considered in relation to the broader scope of his work. The implementation of vernacular construction techniques necessarily delayed the project, and he was constantly harried by government officials concerned that the construction of the pathway was taking too long. His frustration with this interference is made clear in a number of letters to Karamanlis, where he writes,
‘Plans and instructions are insufficient here, for the plan is not applicable as it stands, but serves only as a model representing a general idea which requires constant interpretation...what should be kept in mind is the ancient Greek motto, ‘make haste slowly’. 7
Though Pikionis’ concern with the quality of the execution of the project is evident in the completed work, it also necessarily limited its potential to serve as a model that could be applied elsewhere. In the context of a city undergoing an urbanization as rapid as the one Athens was experiencing at the time, the pathway project is emphatically archaic in its method.
Despite Pikionis’ reluctance to present a detailed plan of the project before construction, a number of drawings exist that elucidate the complex formal strategies that are present in much of the work. One particularly interesting example is a drawing of a sequence of views presented to visitors during their ascent to the summit of Philoppapou Hill, adjacent to the Acropolis (Fig.8). Along the route, Pikionis marks out a series of ‘critical’ points that allow for views out across the landscape. In addition to these critical points, he identifies landscape features with the potential to frame or direct a viewer’s eye. Inscribed in Greek on the side of the drawing are descriptions of each element in the composition: ‘the Acropolis, the Parthenon, the mountains, the plants, the sunset, the rocks, the scenery and the trees.’ Two focal points are then defined, from which viewing segments of thirty degrees are circumscribed. These are then gridded into segments of 3:5 and 8:13 according to the Golden Section and objects are positioned at the intersections of the two grids. At certain intersections, the path distends and expands to create a wider open space designed to slow pedestrians down so that they might admire the view while at others a cypress tree or large rock frames a view of the Parthenon. These diagrams were further refined on the site by Pikionis, but reveal the presence of a systematic methodology in the work; a means of combining the phenomenological experience of a vista or the smell of a shrub with the physicality of a built work.
This strategy becomes more evident in the steeper parts of the climb, where rest stops are required more frequently, and shade becomes essential to the comfort of visitors (Fig.9). As the path continues its upwards climb, it becomes narrower, reflecting pedestrians’ desire to take the most direct route during the steepest parts. The paving patterns become more diverse and it is on these steeper parts of the climb that some of the most fascinating features of the path become apparent. Pikionis was aware that as the climb got more arduous, visitors would tend to look at the ground more. The demolition of numerous buildings in Athens’ city centre had turned many sites into neo-classical graveyards, filled with fragmented remnants of the destruction. Pikionis looked to these sites for building material; benches are made from the doorsteps and ornamental scrolls of Athenian mansions and pieces of lintels are recognizable within the paving (Fig.10). The presence of these pieces of Athens’ neo-classical past is at once the most poetic and the most troubling feature of the work. The fragments polemicize the work; embedding the ruins of nineteenth century Athens at the feet of a monument to the glories of its classical past is a poignant gesture, imbuing the work with a critical edge that was absent in most architectural work of the period. However, despite the evocative nature of the gesture, the objects appear to be somewhat arbitrarily located, apparently deposited at random according to Pikionis’ whim. Peter Smithson compares Pikionis’ strategy with the construction of modern Istanbul, where Ionic volutes can be found embedded in the fabric of the city, at once capturing that city’s impulsive, rapid growth and its rich heritage8. In Pikionis’ work, similar images are created by the embedded fragments, but can appear to be somewhat contrived, unconvincingly straddling the line between superficial sentimentality and evocative polemics. Pikionis’ reluctance to develop the critical elements of his work further may have been due to his proximity to the government or out of a respect for the monuments his work was intended to serve, yet there is a sense of truncation in the experience, and the ambiguity that is so effective elsewhere in the scheme is less successful here.
The ambiguous nature of the message conveyed by the embedded fragments reflects Pikionis’ continuing attempts to synthesise Eastern and Western sensibilities in his work. Time is a critical element in Chinese landscaping, and the presence of the fragments echoes the inclusion of time-worn rocks as compositional features in Chinese gardens. The fragments’ presence in the work as markers of time also draws from Pikionis’ extensive travels throughout Greece and his examination of vernacular structures in numerous towns on the Greek mainland and islands. Like many modernist architects, he was drawn to the simple massing and naive decorative symbolism of traditional house types, and sought to infuse his work with a similar sensibility. In a series entitled ‘Attica drawings,’ symbolic elements blend with landscape and monuments to form a synthetic composition that echoes his interweaving of symbolism, landscape and the monumental presence of the Parthenon into a single, continuous composition at the Acropolis. In one drawing of the ‘Attica’ series, a landscape dominated by the distant Parthenon is populated with symbolic figures drawn from the mythology of the founding of Athens. Serpentine elements, symbolizing birth from the earth and a process of eternal renewal, are interwoven with the sinuous curves of the Attic mountains (Fig.11). Despite the abstract nature of the drawing, it is an important point of reference when considering Pikionis’ approach at the Acropolis.
Similarly, the organizational strategy of the scheme as a whole draws from both Greek and Eastern precedents. The energetic movement of the path through the site recalls the narrow, dynamic streets winding through the towns of Mykonos or Kastoria, where Pikionis had led study trips for the society of Greek Vernacular Art (Fig.12). Despite the site’s location at the base of a monument to Western civilization, Western conceptions of space - defined by an interest in axiality and symmetry - are abandoned in favour of a more fluid mediation of the boundary between man and nature that is typical of the Greek vernacular or Eastern landscaping strategies. This can be seen at points where the path expands around a rock, or in the occurrence of steps where they are seemingly inevitable - where tree roots, rocks or a sudden change in topography requires their inclusion (Fig.13). Gestures as specific as these were made possible by the highly idiosyncratic approach Pikionis took to the construction process. A somewhat mystical and reclusive figure in the mold of Frank Lloyd Wright or Louis Kahn, Pikionis believed in the poetic power of nature as a source of continual inspiration. Believing in the site’s potential to dictate the precise nature of the landscaping at any single point, Pikionis resisted producing any complete drawings of the scheme. When he did draw, his sketches were blurry and ambiguous, allowing a great deal of room for creative interpretation by the on-site labourers to whom he gave instructions explaining ‘what to do, not how to do it.’9 As a result, it is impossible to discern a clear organizational logic to the path, but there is a distinct sense of unity in the work, a characteristic that is crucial to it’s success as a connective element between the moments as disparate as the Odeon, the Parthenon, the Acropolis parking lot, and the church near the summit of Philoppapou Hill.
The church effectively concludes the landscaped sequence, and provides an important view back to the Parthenon. Here, Pikionis added to the pathway by creating an entrance pavilion and small cafe for visitors to the church of St. Dimitris Loumbardiaris, and it is in these structures that an Eastern influence is most evident. Pikionis synthesizes a Japanese sensibility for construction with the presence of the Acropolis. The small pavilion structure is constructed according to techniques developed for bamboo. Here though, the simple trabeated structure is made from unprocessed local pine, carved on-site into rough columns. Like a Japanese temple, it is removed from the ground and rests on heavy stone blocks, so that the transition from the rock of the ground to the lightness of the timber structure above is emphasized. Pikionis’ approach here draws directly from the Parthenon, whose stylobate is hewn from the rock of the Acropolis, in an equally sophisticated transition between ground and building. Nature is used to complement the composition; the selection of planting is as deliberate as that of building materials, and regional trees and shrubs were selected according to their geographic propriety, as well as their compositional potential. This approach led Pikionis to remove large numbers of cypress trees that competed with the columns of the various monuments on the Acropolis and diluted the powerful effect of their vertically.
Standing on Philoppapou Hill, looking through Pikionis’ pavilion to the Parthenon beyond, the radical idiosyncrasy of his work is made explicit in a single frame (Fig.14). From this vantage point, it becomes clear why his work resists categorization and inclusion in the broader history of European Modernism. Attempts to define Pikionis’ approach are further undermined by the impossibility of conveying its atmospheric qualities through text or image. The effect of the dappled shade of cypresses dancing across the warm marble underfoot, or the smell of pine mingling with rosemary, complements the more formal aspects of the work, creating a truly immersive experience.
However, Pikionis’ sustained commitment to defining a fundamentally Greek architectural language and landscape strategy is a clear theme throughout all his work. In this regard, parallels can be drawn with architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, who was equally willing to abandon established forms in search of an architecture truly informed by its geographical and cultural context. In the landscaping of the Acropolis, the mythical and symbolic aspects of Eastern landscape design are absorbed into a sensibility developed through extensive study of the Greek vernacular and a thorough understanding of the Modernist architectural language. In much of Pikionis’ work, these themes collide rather uncomfortably, and it is only at the Acropolis, freed from the challenge of synthesising modern structural solutions with a vernacular ideology, that Pikionis is able to fully explore the potential of this approach. However, the lack of restraint engendered by the project brief also leaves the work open to criticism, as it exposes visitors to a somewhat whimsical landscape of symbolism, mysticism and abstraction that offers little in the way of clarity.
As contemporary architecture evolves into a discipline of pluralism and diversity, architects such as Dimitris Pikionis are continually rediscovered and their work reevaluated. Despite a growing interest in his work, it is inevitable that his landscaping at the Acropolis will forever be overshadowed by the majestic presence of the Parthenon. For the majority, his work will remain invisible, unfolding silently beneath countless footsteps marching uphill. However, Pikionis’ landscaping ensures that it is impossible to experience the Parthenon in isolation. Through the careful manipulation of nature, experience and architecture, Pikionis connects Phidias’ monument to the landscape and the city in the manner that was originally intended. Silently, Pikionis’ landscape gives a new voice to one of the great monuments of Western civilization.
1 These architects collectively called themselves the ‘Omada’ group. Many members of the group participated in the CIAM conference, including the architects Despotopoulos, Kazantinos and Papadakis, whose work was to create the template for endless replication and the countless facsimile Modernist apartment blocks that make up so much of contemporary Athens’ urban fabric.
2 Eleni Bastea. “Dimitris Pikionis and Sedad Eldem.” Keith S. Brown and Yannis Hamilakis. The Usable Past: Greek Metahistories. (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2003), 155.
3 The word Propylon refers to any monumental gateway, based on the model of the Propylaea at the Acropolis.
4 A temenos is typically a bounded piece of land dedicated as a space for worship. The entire site of the Acropolis is a temenos. The word comes from the Greek verb ‘?????’ “to cut.”
5 Agni Pikioni. “On the Life, Work and Thoughts of Dimitris Pikionis.” Kenneth Frampton, Agni Pikioni (Ed.). Dimitris Pikionis 1887-1968: A Greek Architect. (Helsinki: Museum of Finnish Architecture, 1993), 71.
6 Dimitris Pikionis. “Autobiographical Notes.” Architectural Association (Ed.). Dimitris Pikionis, Architect 1887-1968: A Sentimental Topography (London: Architectural Association, 1989), 37.
7 Agnis Pikionis. “Landscaping the Athens Acropolis” 75.
8 Peter and Allison Smithson. “Dimitris Pikionis.” Architectural Association (Ed.). Dimitris Pikionis, Architect, 65 9 Dimitris Pikionis. “Autobiographical Notes.” 35
Architectural Association (ed.). Dimitris Pikionis, Architect 1887-1968: A Sentimental Topography. London: Architectural Association, 1989.
Brown, Keith S., and Yannis Hamilakis. The Usable Past: Greek Metahistories. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2003.
Ferlenga, Alberto. Pikionis: 1887-1968. Milano: Electa, 1998.
Frampton, Kenneth. Modern Architecture: A Critical History. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1987.
Jencks, Charles. Late Modern Architecture. London: Academy Editions, 1980.
Pikioni Agni (Ed.). Dimitris Pikionis 1887-1968: A Greek Architect. Helsinki: Museum of Finnish Architecture, 1993.
All images are taken from Helene Binet’s photoessay in the following book:
Architectural Association (ed.). Dimitris Pikionis, Architect 1887-1968: A Sentimental Topography. London: Architectural Association, 1989.