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There are several rocky pinnacles popping up out of an otherwise flat terrain in the city of Athens. A monastery rises out of the top of one, and then there is the Acropolis - from the Greek, of course. It is a word with a two-part meaning: “high” plus “city.” The citadel is perched atop a rocky outcropping, commanding attention from everywhere in Athens. Its height makes it all the more awesome, and it is so much more commanding in its presence when you stand below, looking up, as in the photo below.


Clear and simple. Using uncomplicated post and lintel construction, the Greeks stuck to what they seemingly felt was visibly logical. Moreover, they refined their construction over several centuries. The culmination of their efforts took place here on the Acropolis in the fifth century B.C.E., in a time that has become known as the “Golden Age of Pericles.”

The Acropolis is a hill standing 47.5 meters tall (156'), and in its early history, as with all high places, provided protection and a source of water for residents in time of attack. Throughout the history of fortification construction, virtually every such site had either wells or spring water. It has often been said that people can survive without food for some time, but not without water.

The rulers of the region probably resided on the Acropolis, and the nearby inhabitants of the area would go to the high place for protection in time of attack. The Persians managed to overrun Athens and the Acropolis in 480 B.C.E. The Athenians came back two years later, refortified the area, struck anti-Persian alliances with neighbors, and managed to sustain a period of peace. During that time a good amount of Athenian treasure went into restoring the dignity of what had been, for more than a millennium, the military, political, and religious center of the Greek mainland.

In 454 B.C.E., democratic forces elected as their leader an educated statesman named Pericles, who served as a general of the area for twenty years. It was under his direction that the new form of the Acropolis developed, remnants of which are what we see today. The entire 5th century is often ascribed to Pericles; the time from 479 B.C.E. to 323 B.C.E. (Alexander the Great coming onto the scene) is also known as the “Classical Period.”

All of the arts flourished. In literature, most notable among dramatists were Euripides, Sophicles, and Aeschylus. Aristophanes, the 'Father of Comedy,' was known for his political satires. The philosophers Aristotle, Plato and Socrates lived and taught during this period. The sculptor Pheidias flourished in this period (see below). Aspasia, mistress of Pericles, headed a literary salon, setting precedent for a long line of women who headed such rhetorical endeavors. The Greeks gave us “dēmokratia,” literally “people power” from dēmos 'the people,' and kratia 'power, rule.' One problem, as with our Founding Fathers: there were slaves. While greater freedom for average citizens did exist, the many slaves in Athens were dismissed as being nothing more than “prisoners of war.” The rise of the Macedonians, first under Philip, then his son Alexander, effectively put an end to the concept of self-rule, first on the mainland, then eventually under Roman domination. But the foundations of western architecture, sculpture, rational and critical thought had been established.

With the coming of the Romans, Greece lost its power. By the second century C.E., the statue of the goddess Athena, housed inside the Parthenon, was gone. It has been said that the Parthenon itself and probably the Propylaea as well, retained their roof construction until 1687 C.E., when Venetian cannonballs struck Turkish militia occupying the Acropolis. The most popular story is that the Turks used the Parthenon as a storage area for gunpowder, and the Venetians scored a lucky hit on the building, blowing it to bits. Other, perhaps more serious revelations, indicate similar cannonball landings, particularly on the north Pinokotek (apparently this building was a painting gallery in ancient Greece). Question is: Were there multiple explosive hits, and was their destruction sufficiently so severe as to blow the roofs off of buildings, thus obviating the legend of the gunpowder storage within the Parthenon?

The architecture of the Greeks echoed their thinking: clarity and rationality constantly refined. This thinking carried itself to the point that supposedly they would not build with arches, because such construction could not be easily grasped or considered logical. See the discussion above - Paestum.

There is a disturbing thought, however, amidst all of this preoccupation with logic and its excuse for the limited forms of construction. Arches, vaults, and domes are products of daring, bold, and experimenting designers. While obsessed with refining, the Greeks might have been a bit timid with regards to structural development. This is a bit iconoclastic, but think about it. The Persians - archenemies of the Greeks - were doing more with less, earlier. Persian columns are also taller, thinner, with a greater height to diameter proportion. Short of traveling to Iran or Iraq, check out the Pergamon Museum in Berlin for examples of Persian architecture.

This Golden Age of Pericles came about in a time of peace - as is so typical throughout history. Very little in the way of architecture gets built during times of war, although a lot of people in power have seemed to thrive on building things, lots of things! Pericles here, for example. But think back to the Egyptian Pharaohs, to Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, then the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Later, the Medici family in Florence, who helped bring about the Renaissance through their patronage. The Renaissance Popes who rebuilt Rome. The Louis' of France, think of Versailles, followed by an equally ambitious Napoleon, under whose direction the now complete Piazza San Marco in Venice was enclosed at its eastern end. In the 20th century there was, unfortunately, Benito Mussolini, who tore up three Roman blocks to create a vista of St. Peter's from the Tiber River (his fascist style of architecture produced three of the most boring blocks in otherwise exciting Rome). And, unfortunately, Adolph Hitler, who with his right-hand man, the architect Albert Speer, planned an architecture for the next 1,000 years (as pathetic with their fascist style of design as with their politics).

Changing the face of Paris in the 20th century, we have had François Mitterand and his 15 billion franc "Grands Projets," which have helped restore France's position in the world of art, politics, and economics. This cultural resurrection was achieved entirely by architecture and urban planning, directed by men with vision and common sense. Jacques Chirac, as Mayor of Paris, kept skyscrapers from blocking Parisians' view of their Eiffel Tower, by allocating specific locations for zoning such construction (the office tower area known as La Défense, first conceived in the 1930s, but actively worked on in the '70s and '80s, with more planned as of this writing). Chirac also eliminated car parking on sidewalks, and somehow got drunks and homeless people to find sleeping quarters other than the middle of those same Parisian sidewalks. He went on to become President of France. Sometimes we do elect intelligent leaders who know how to achieve positive results, at least architecturally in this instance. Paris got her skyscrapers and got to preserve the character of the city.

The French began planning for the 21st century and new millennium back in the late 1960's, with works beginning in the early 70's, and they accomplished their goals with the most forward looking modern architecture. See Le Centre Georges-Pompidou, La Pyramide du Louvre, the Grande Arche de La Défense, the new Opéra Bastille, science and music buildings in Le Parc de la Villette, and the new Bibliothèque Nationale, in which the function of a library was literally turned inside out and upside down. History does show that architecture can make a statement of immense significance; modern-day Paris has had leaders who understood this (politics aside), perhaps following the precedents set in Athens.

I have always wondered why - and you can puzzle this in a number of ways - why have those in power built and created so much? Which came first: the thirst for power or the delight in constructing? Did power enable the construction? Obviously, to a major degree. Without the power and its corresponding access to funding and labor, would there have been any construction? And in the cases of the most horrific personalities ever to walk the earth (some cited above), how could minds so obsessed with conquest and violence then proceed to design or have major designs created for them? Was it ego? Did these men seek an eternal legacy in the form of a cityscape? Architecture can be a powerful mental aphrodisiac. Realize that the word aphrodisiac has its root in Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of both love and beauty; the Romans knew her as Venus! Interestingly, didn't a recent President of the United States go for love in all the wrong places instead of the beauty of building? So much for that legacy!

Rudolph (Rudy) Guiliani, while Mayor of New York City, went for beauty of building. In November 2000, the Mayor commented on why he directed the City of New York to offer $30 million in cash, and donate land worth an additional $38 million towards construction of Frank Gehry's design for the new Guggenheim Museum on the East River. "Civic leaders have a responsibility to leave their city far greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us." Perhaps this is what the history of western architecture is all about; we have had, on many occasions, such leaders.

Back to Athens, where leaders, particularly Pericles, felt that way almost 2500 years ago. The Acropolis is about 1,000 feet long from east to west. Our view here is from the southwest, as we climb the stairs leading to the Propylaea. Entrance up to the Acropolis and through the Propylaea is from the west, while the true entrance to the Parthenon beyond is from the east or from the back as you walk towards it.

A block and tackle pulley system was used to fit a drum section during reconstruction about a hundred years ago. What you're seeing is left over from that time. Nevertheless, the system probably reflects the way in which the ancient Greeks did actually lift their stones because the drum section has protuberances, or knobs, left on the stone until that stone was lifted and put in place.

Here you can see the incision made into one piece of marble, which would match an adjoining piece. The cuts would be filled with molten lead, and ironwork inserted, holding adjacent pieces of marble together. Without doubt, the care and precision was extraordinary.

A detail from the Parthenon, to familiarize you with some very basic components of the Doric Order. The horizontal section we're looking at is part of what some call a frieze, a design element that runs around the outside of the building. A frieze is usually a continual design. Here the area alternates between vertical notched marble carvings known as "triglyphs" and, in this case, a blank section, but originally a "metope.” That blank did contain a sculptural representation of figures in conflict, usually out of Greek mythology, or antiquity, such as Thessalonian Lapiths versus Centaurs, Greeks struggling against Trojans and Amazons, gods against giants.

Stone and marble construction by the Greeks was intended to endure, as has been the case in all cultures. Throughout history, durable materials have been the ones that last longer, and better materials were allocated to structures that had more important uses and/or symbolism. Following ancient megaron designs originally of wood, the Parthenon was built to endure, and marble was chosen - not just for durability, but also for its beauty; the whitest marble (photos of present-day restoration show just how white and pure that marble is).

Original wood construction must have been composed of joists, beams, and rafters forming trusses. We might assume that trigylphs had been joists or rafters, with nothing but open space between them. Triglyphs - to push our assumption a bit further - might have represented three narrow joists placed together for greater strength, or might simply have represented carved (and decoratively painted) beam-ends. The open spaces between these joists or beams would have been filled with paneling of some sort, just to keep out the weather. Here, in stone, sculptural pieces were added, which integrated an art form with the architecture – the metopes.

Immediately below the Triglyphs are small drop-like projections known as guttae. Sometimes described as pegs, they conceivably imitate an earlier way of fastening wood elements together (without nails). The uppermost horizontal section shown is the cornice, and the lowest (where the guttae are located) is the architrave.

These horses form what is known as a quadriga (the Roman equivalent of the original Greek tethrippon, but known today by the Latin version) , a chariot drawn by four such animals. Made of marble, it is described as being a votive offering - that is, a gift following a pledge or vowel, probably to a god or goddess. Dating from about 570 B.C.E., the horses are composed of very plain outlines and simple surfaces. One hundred years later, the veins will be seen bulging from the necks of horses on the frieze inside the Parthenon. This grouping was probably from an earlier temple located on the Acropolis. The horses are displayed in the Acropolis Museum, situated at the extreme east end of the Acropolis.

Two busts of marble, one obviously the original, and the newer very white one the copy. Both are sitting at the foot of the steps leading up to the Parthenon. There is a wealth of art objects all over the site. The small museum sitting behind the Parthenon was begun in 1863 to assemble and display such works, creating some order out of chaos.

Now we will detail the individual buildings on the Acropolis, world famous for more than 2400 years, and origins of so much of what we are today.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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