Each of the buildings emerge at the summit in differently articulated ways, an archipelago of heavenly islands – Nike, Propylaea, Erechtheum, Parthenon. This type of atmosphere engenders a feeling that at a certain scale a building or complex of buildings should cultivate their own atmosphere distinct from the chaos of the city. An autonomy that will sustain and protect them as separate entities, a unique identity safeguarding their future. Grafted and grown from the very core of the city, but of its own energy and atmosphere.
On a recent trip to Athens, mainly to see the Acropolis, I found myself with a dead phone and no camera. Disaster. Until I exhumed an old sketchbook and an even older set of worn-nibbed pens buried unexpectedly at the bottom of my bag. Time to go back to school. No camera, no phone – just pen and paper. Things that may have lay dormant in my brain had I simply snapped a quick picture and moved on were forced out onto paper, albeit hurriedly and messily. Below are a few thoughts and rough sketches carried out while dodging the elbows, cameras, selfie sticks and the odd stray cigarette of the throngs who came to tell everyone they had been there.
The site stands proud above the city, a symbol of order and purity over a chaotic city. Pure, unified, gleaming – the site embodies a clear set of, not only architectural, but moral principles over the madness and immorality of the city. This is emphasized by strata of importance. The site rises out of the natural rock, the stone base is grafted into and built up from the site, and the buildings emerge proud and distinct from this base as delicately as a porcelain ballerina atop a wooden music box. Here, the man made grows from its natural base, stratifying into an elegant choreography of marble set pieces.
Despite its initial dominance over the city from afar, the closer you get the further away it often seems, hiding in the limits of vision and laws of perspective. The site reveals itself in stages, performing a tease through the trees, a portico here, a pediment there, a symmetry of columns – but never an entrance. It entices you to carry on and discover what lies within. Unlike the Pyramids of Giza or the Eiffel Tower, this is no blunt icon only increasing in detail as you get closer. This approach play compels you to ‘promenade’ looking for something more complex and hidden behind.
This sense of drama is reinforced by the use of asymmetry. Asymmetrically placed elements create more tension and complexity than if placed symmetrically. The asymmetric placing of these relatively simple collection of solids shapes – cubes, cylinders, tetrahedrons – on the site increases their relative dynamism in perspective much more than a frontal elevational view of it would. This asymmetry lends the pieces atop the site a sense of movement and of depth. This is particularly evident in the Temple of Athena Nike, whose relatively diminutive scale is heightened and accentuated by its asymmetric relationship to the approach. A forced perspective is created allowing the temple to appear grander and more imposing.
Each of the buildings that crown the Acropolis site retain an almost archipelagic atmosphere allowing them to retain an autonomy from one another while appearing as part of a detached (from the city) and rarified whole. When at the centre of the summit, the sheerness of the cliff face of the site allows you to feel almost as if there is nothing below and that you are in an elevated archipelago of buildings framed only by the sky. At most points of the summit, except at the edge, all you can see is sky and marble. Each of the buildings emerge at the summit in differently articulated ways, an archipelago of heavenly islands, Nike, Propylaea, Erechtheum, Parthenon. This type of atmosphere engenders a feeling that at a certain scale a building or complex of buildings should cultivate their own atmosphere distinct from the chaos of the city. An autonomy that will sustain and protect them as separate entities, a unique identity safeguarding their future. Grafted and grown from the very core of the city, but of its own energy and atmosphere.
On approach, the first thing that greets you is the base of the site. This is the unifying element of the multiple buildings across it. The plinth allows for a certain rationalisation of the natural topography, as it is grafts into and grows out of the slope of the hill. It is clearly a man made element of huge rectilinear blocks and never tries to assimilate with the randomness of the natural rock. The plinth provides the elegant, delicate buildings which sit upon it with an elemental grandeur, anchoring them with a sense of gravity. This sense of gravity moving upwards to a state of ascension is reinforced when towards the entrance of the Propylaea, the monumental gateway of the Acropolis, the plinth rises up to form steps through which the site is entered.
At the entrance to the Erechtheum, coffered ceilings force the building user to look up. A sense of arrival is created by the ascension through the steps that rise from the plinth base, the passing through of the threshold of the portico, as the dark rich coffered ceiling provides a sense of drama and enclosure. Of liminal space. The entrances are given the highest of importance and each provide this sense of ascension, arrival and enclosure. There is a sense that this first impression, this handshake, is of the utmost importance also typified by the hierarchy of heights displayed between the entrances and smaller adjacent windows of the Propylaea gateway.
Structure, Symbolism and Form
The buildings at the summit exhibit a sense that structure, form and symbolism combine to create an overall idea of building, of architecture, through their form and detail. As the eye traces upwards, taking a typical wall section, plinths become columns; become capitals resting below supporting lintels, framed by symbolic friezes in turn protected by cornicing and crowned by a roof. This typical journey upwards from plinth to roof is laden with structural, formal and symbolic meaning intertwined between these composite elements so much that each element carries each of these properties. A column is structural, but also defines the ordered form of the building as well as being used as a symbolic device of weight and power; similarly the cornicing provides a projecting horizontal capping and protection from the element for the stone frieze below most susceptible to weathering, which uses pattern to create a sense of symbolism. A sense of totality is created through the careful consideration of its components.
Structure, Symbolism and Space
At the entrance to the Erechtheum, layers of columns define a rational exterior, with a second layer framing the entrance and defining the portico. These externally placed structural elements not only create a liminal threshold space where one feels like they promenade towards the interior rather than simply enter into it, but also allow the interior space to become a largely column free interior. Surely this is one of the most sustainable way of creating space. To place the columns externally, such that the interiors can be adapted and reused with minimal disruption across the centuries. The shell, the structure, creating a free space while exuding a timeless and rugged beauty.
The Acropolis is not built to the abstract fallacy of the ‘human scale’, instead to a tangible ‘sublime scale’. The worst thing architects ever did was to start designing forms and spaces to a stunted and meek ‘human scale’ – its domesticity and lack of ambition pervades architecture today. Low ceiling heights, windows (not openings), doors hardly taller than ourselves, small ‘cosy’ rooms, all under the pretense of a ‘human scale’. The only elements of architecture that need an ergonomically designed human scale are elements that we feel and touch and use – door handles, seating, controls etc. Space need not be. Space and form should overwhelm us with its ambition and generosity, overpowering our senses like nature does. Like the buildings of the Acropolis do. As a very unscientific example, the height of the entrance portal to the Propylaea is around 4-5 times that of the height of an average person. The columns are roughly 5-6 times. This exaggeration of scale, the manipulation of its meaning and feeling are a crucial component of its beauty and power. Yet all the while this monumental scale is softened and tempered with detail, rhythm and repetition.
The archipelagic atmosphere described previously, this sense of a unified, distinct and elevated environment, is reinforced by the use of marble throughout. The plasticity of the stone is key, it can be fashioned into a multiple of uses and forms. Long slab like steps, fluted columns, decorative capitals, plain capitals, rich friezes, rugged entablatures, symbolic pediments, protective cornicing or minutely detailed sculpture. Few materials today could be employed with such variety and unity. This creates an overall impression of cohesiveness without monotony. Of purity tempered by calculated deviations. The fashion today for a ‘limited palette’ of materials often (ie. the use of one or two materials across large sites and buildings) neglects this facet. If you are using the same material throughout, it should be an essay in the possibilities and qualities of that material. Anything less produces monotony.
The buildings of the Acropolis are undoubtedly built with a purity and honesty of construction. Openings are always flanked by structural columns, window cills and reveals created by simple slabs of marble, solid walls of 1-2m thick have a sense of weight and threshold which match their formal and spatial design. This honesty is offset by a sense of visual trickery in their composition. The builders of the Acropolis used bowed out columns as a device, called entasis, to emphasize their rectilinearity in perspective; the smaller buildings exhibit finer more elongated proportions than the larger Parthenon; while each step is larger in scale than required giving the impression of distinct levels rather than mere steps.
What is incredible about the Acropolis in relation to other iconic buildings or sites across the world is that it surprises and delights the more you explore it. You are not visiting a symbol which affirms it is the symbol you were expecting to see, like the Pyramids of Giza or the Eiffel Tower. It offers more than that. It offers an exploration of atmosphere, space, material, proportion and time. The Acropolis exhibits a sense of place all of its own, a unique energy and atmosphere offering a threshold to eternity and a potential frontier to a more noble, considered future if we search for it. If you ever get the chance to go, my only advice would be switch off your phone, ditch the selfie stick, forget your camera and experience it.