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Athenian transformations: Athens is undergoing traumatic transformations in preparation for the Olympics. Report by Jim Antoniou.

Greece is renowned as the homeland of the Olympic Games in honour of the god Zeus at Olympia, now the mute ruins of the Palaestra, or training ground. Training was gruelling work, so much so that the Greek word for competing games, agones, became the English word for 'agony'. Greece is once again frantically agonizing to create the right setting in Athens for the 2004 International Olympic Games, with over 200 countries competing. As a result of hosting the Games, modern Athens is undergoing a long-awaited renaissance to upgrade the capital to European standards. Athenians are suddenly realizing that ugly surroundings are not inevitable.


Jim Antoniou, Athens-born architect and urban planner, gives a personal account of urban improvements proposed in time for the Games. He died suddenly and unexpectedly earlier this year (see his obituary AR April, p36). Jim was working on the following text in his last days. The article was intended to be an analytical study of the morphology of the Greek capital of the kind Antoniou had done for the AR previously (October 1999, April 2001, March 2003). The sketches are his preliminary studies for more finished drawings.

Scarcely a city in ancient Greece failed to stage its own Games in honour of the gods, including Athens. Ancient Athens grew around its central landmark, the sacred rock of the Acropolis, with the splendid Parthenon built as a temple to the patron goddess Athena, when the city's monuments were at their zenith of power and beauty. Since then, Athens has gone downhill. Now, the centre is a cramped area between Lycabettus Hill, to the north-east of the Acropolis, and Philopapou Hill to the south-west, surrounded by an ever-increasing sea of concrete apartment blocks.

When the Games were revived in 1896, Athens seemed the right place to stage the Olympics. Now, more than a hundred years later, Athens is once again preparing to host the International Olympics. A decision had to be made on whether to house the Games in one concentrated area or park outside the built-up area, or share the event with the city on several well-located sites. Greek planners saw the latter as a unique opportunity to upgrade parts of the capital from dilapidated buildings, neglected streets and pavements, chaotic traffic and the now infamous nephos, or smog cloud.


The visitor's first port of call, the recent airport run with Germanic efficiency, leads to clean, cool and new metro lines, a state-of-the-art tram system, 130km of highways and a 100 million tree and planting operation, covering some 10 000 ha, thus making the largest green intervention in Greek history. Similarly, new pedestrian areas link the main archacological sights, museums and shopping streets. In the post-Olympic period, it is hoped Athens will reap the cultural and economic benefits of hosting the Games.

This is no mean feat for a small country with limited resources and an ego the size of Mount Olympus. Indeed, if the Greeks pull off this international event (and they think they can), it would be their greatest unexpected triumph since they beat the Persian invasion some 2600 years ago. However, Greek planners are understandably frantic to do as much as possible, before momentum and money evaporate in August 2004. Assuming these formidable tasks can be achieved in time, sustainability is crucial to achieving success. Public authorities need the resources (experienced staff and finance) to continue to maintain these operations on a large enough scale after this date. Also, pedestrianization on such a large scale will need to take account of the impact on vehicular traffic and alternative routes as part of a coordinated plan.


Moreover, Athens is cursed by two other limitations in achieving a pleasant physical environment. One is the complete disregard of the law by noisy motorbike riders: they mobilize pedestrian streets at their own convenience and park in batches with impunity. A policeman is more likely to harass and fine an old lady who wants to park and buy a loaf of bread than confront groups of easy riders in heavy leather. The other curse of Athens is graffiti. It seems almost the whole of the city is divided into graffiti zones by gangs who compete to see who can do the most damage to the environment. In the short term this is unlikely to change. It seems police and politicians are reluctant to confront the youth of Athens on such issues.

From Kleanthis to Calatrava

Modern Athens is a tale of development which began in 1832, with a fledgling capital of 4000 people. The Greek architect Stamatios Kleanthis, working with Bavarian Eduard Schaubert, produced a plan for the centre. Now, with a population of 4 million, the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava has used his own brand of architectural acrobatics to design the main Olympic Sports Complex in Halandri, a north-eastern suburb of the capital.

Other main sporting sites in the northern part of Greater Athens include the Olympic village (situated north of Halandri), the centre for wrestling and judo at Ano Liosia, to the north-west, and at Schinias, east of Marathon, in spite of dubious trials and the weather, events such as rowing, canoeing and kayaking will take place. Along the coast, within the fashionable resort of Faliron, facilities for beach volleyball are being provided. North Faliron is the new weightlifting centre, while to the south at Agios Kosmas is the sailing centre. Athens centre and the coastline facilities are linked, via Faliron, by the new tramline.

Acropolis now

The writer Cyril Connolly once described the Acropolis as 'a set of dentures on a broken plate'. In the last 160 years, there have been eight separate 'restorations' to the Acropolis, with buildings inaccurately located and broken columns out of sync. The Parthenon, probably the most refined building ever conceived by man on a spectacular site, now stands disorientated, devastated and partly demolished.

The Greek archaeologist Manolis Korres has been working on the Acropolis for 25 years, devising diagrams in accordance with the precisions made by the architects of the Parthenon, Ietinus and Callicrates. Now, 250 restorers armed with [euro]20 million are currently working on the Acropolis. Where necessary, building parts will be dismantled and accurately repositioned, reinforced with titanium. Buildings will be cleaned and gaps will be filled with some 180 tonnes of new marble. Some 1000 tonnes of ancient stones and pieces of marble currently peppered over the Acropolis will be cleared and relocated to their rightful places (mostly as restoration to the long wall of the Parthenon). The remaining 400 tonnes will be marked for safekeeping. By 2006, some 80 percent of the planned restoration work would have been completed.

Stepping stones

Street improvements that normally require 30 years to materialize in a city are falling into place rapidly in Athens. A snaking walkway is being built at a cost of [euro]90 million (75 per cent from EC funds and the rest from the Greek Government) to link the city's rambling ruins into one continuous park. As a heritage trail, the park includes a network of major cultural landmarks, principal monuments, historic sites and open spaces.


The pedestrian route, when completed, will start from the Panathenaic Stadium (where the 1896 Olympics were held). It will then skirt around the Roman temple of Olympian Zeus and on to Dionissiou Areopagitou Street, the wide path along the south of the Acropolis. The route will continue along Apostolou Pavlou Street, facing the Greek Agora (where a sculpture park is also to be provided). The walk ends at Keramikos, the site of the Dipylon Gate, where in ancient times, the Panathenaic Way began, leading to the Parthenon.

Noble Neo-Classics

Athens once had one of the most remarkable collections of nineteenth-century Neo-Classical buildings in Europe. Ironically, this style of building was brought to Athens by Bavarian architects, in an effort to reintroduce Greeks to noble replicas of ancient Greece. Many such buildings, particularly along Vasilis Sofias Avenue, have been demolished in the name of progress. Others, such as the Parliament building and Athens University have been cherished and revered as modern temples.

There are also buildings in the Neo-Classical style of geometry and purity that have been ignored, remaining dilapidated for decades. Many of these once elegant structures are now being given a new lease of life through tasteful restoration. Owners of buildings, particularly along the new heritage trail, receive grants up to 30 per cent towards the cost of restoration. They are also given advice and support to speed up the process in time for the great Olympic event. Where buildings are unlikely to be restored in time, there are plans to provide giant drapes, covering the entire facades until after the games.

The greening of Athens

Some 300 000 trees and a similar number of plants and shrubs are to be provided in time for the Olympics. The aim is to transform the streets and public places into a green spectacle and in so doing, increase the amount of green space per Athenian, from 2.5 metres square today (the lowest standard of all European capitals) to 4.5 metres square.

A variety of trees and appropriate greenery have been chosen to blend in with the natural environment in Attica and conserve water resources. In landscaping the main stadium, maples, poplars and oaks are being planted. In and around the Olympic village, acacias and evergreen Holm oaks are given prominence. Along the Olympic centres in Faliron, on the coastline, ash trees and mulberry plants are being provided. The streets of the capital are to be decorated with wild olive trees and ornamental golden rain trees.

There is no doubt that the logistics are awesome if landscaping is to make an impact by August. As a result of slow progress on the buildings, the programme has clashed with winter, with its low temperatures, rain and wind, making large-scale planting unsuitable. Consequently, the bulk of the operation has to be done in three or four months before the Games.


Plaka, part of the original nucleus of Athens, is the oldest inhabited area in Athens since ancient times. To know it well is to understand much of the city's history.

In developing modern Athens, one part of Plaka has become famous for the Greek island style of architecture. Here, immigrants from the small island of Anaphi in the Cyclades group of islands came seeking work and housing. These immigrants, many of whom were builders, took advantage of a Greek law, which said that if a house was built and roofed in one night, the person who built it was entitled to keep it.

Thus, the Anaphi immigrants quickly and stealthily built on the north slopes of the Acropolis. By the 1920s, all the people in this area were from Anaphi and their houses (together with two churches) were all in the Anaphi island style. The community became known as Anaphiotica, in spite of attempts by the municipality in the 1970s to demolish this neighbourhood as a slum, supported by archaeologists eager to dig away, but times have changed. The buildings are now preserved and revered as monuments to the development of Athens that can be visited.


The Parthenon sculpture

Early in the nineteenth century, Lord Elgin, British Ambassador to the Ottoman Porte, took the lion's share of the Parthenon sculptures and transferred them for safe-keeping to London. The Elgin marbles make up almost 60 per cent of the 137m long sculptures of the Parthenon frieze, the foremost monument of Western civilization built between 447 and 432 BC. The remaining 40 per cent is troved in Athens. However, the complex issues of the sculptures have moved away from the legal responsibility of pieces of marble to that of respect for their artistic merit.

What is not generally known is that these sculptures are not neatly separated panels to be viewed and admired individually in various countries. They are in fact hacked apart: heads without bodies, horses without legs and hooves and dismembered riders. Moreover, separating these pieces creates gaps of sacrificial animals, votive bearers and Olympian gods, thus disfiguring and breaking the flow of the Panathenaic Procession, the subject of the Parthenon sculpture.

That the work of Pheidias, one of the word's greatest sculptors, is left scattered in this barbaric way, says a great deal about culture in the twenty-first century.

Byzantine gem

During the Byzantine period, Athens was an unimportant town, with only churches being erected as significant buildings, some of which survive to this day. The eleventh-century Church of Kapnikarea stands in the middle of Ermou Street, one of the busiest shopping areas in Athens. This thoroughfare has remained a principal axis of the city since the early development plan was implemented in the nineteenth century. Pedestrianization was tried in 1988 during daytime, but Athenians were not ready for such niceties and ignored the regulations, leading to the abandonment of the scheme. Now, at last, Ermou Street has been pedestrianized from Monastiraki Square to the west and Syntagma Square to the east. So this well-loved gem of a church, with its terracotta cupolas and simple stone ornamentation has at last been rescued from the jarring effects of traffic, to be appreciated in a tranquil setting.

The Panathenaic Way

With so much restoration work going on and great efforts to make historic sites more accessible than before, it should be possible to walk along the famous Panathenaic Way. This was the ancient route taken by the procession at the end of the Panathenaia, the eight-day festival held each year in honour of the city's goddess Athena. On the last day of the festival, the procession (as depicted on the Parthenon frieze) carried the robe Athenian maidens had woven for the goddess up to the Acropolis, where it was dedicated to her.

The robe was taken in a ship on wheels, from the Dipylon Gate, via the Greek Agora and the Eleusinion (near where the small church of Aghia Anna is today) and on to the Sanctuary of Pythian Apollo, on the north-west slopes of the Acropolis. Here the ship stopped and the robe was borne by the maidens followed by the rest of the procession to the Acropolis, leading to the Parthenon.

With the hoped-for completion of all restoration work and infrastructure in time for the 2004 Games, Athens will be on its way to becoming the modern city that previous attempts have failed to make it. A modern equivalent of the Panathenaic procession would not be inapt. By re-considering the city through its urban landscape, Athens will have at last unified its previously alienated past and its more recent disarray into a new and unified fabric of a city that is workable for its historic reference within a most modern self-awareness.
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Title Annotation:Place
Author:Antoniou, Jim
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUGR
Date:May 1, 2004
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