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Why the buildings at Areopagitou Street no. 17-19 will be reduced to ruins
Stelios Lekakis, archaeologist

Prologue
It has been some time now that much is being written about the two listed buildings at D. Areopagitou str. no. 17-9. The debate is more or less known: The buildings (an impressive example of 30’s Art Deco style and one of neoclassical style) obstruct the view of the New Acropolis Museum (NMA) to the Acropolis. In July 2007 the Central Archaeological Council of Greece decided (with the least possible majority in votes) to de-list the building at Areopagitou no.17, making its demolition possible and legal.

The arguments presented are numerous; Most of them are in favour of preserving the two buildings. Especially, the building no.17 designed by the architect V.Kouremenos -an academic and professor in the Polytechnics Scool- with its multicolour façade, the mosaics adorning the fourth storey and the marble reliefs of Epirus’ women flanking the entrance, round up many defending positions. On the other hand, those in favour of the demolition support the central thesis of Tschumi-Photiadis’ architectural proposal for the NMA, which is the «visual contact», the «unhindered communication», the dialogue in a nutsell of the NMA with the ancient Acropolis’ buildings.

However, what is originally the issue that will play the crucial role in the decision? Is it a matter of theory or of ideal light in architecture as Tschumi supports? Is it an issue of semiotics and visual contact or one of dispute between architects and archaeologists? Is it an issue of listing and de-listing a culturally significant building? Or is this all a political issue left with the Minister of Culture to decide?
All these has been stated and most of them are of significance according to the readers’ scientific, aesthetic or sentimental criteria. On my point of view, the issue is nominal and the decision has long been taken; Almost a century before the actual construction of the buildings at Areopagitou street.

The newborn Hellenic state, classical antiquity and Acropolis
In 19th c. Classicism was one of the central ideologies in Western Europe. The affluent bourgeois and intellectuals studied the ancient Greek civilization and argued the “unquestionably unrivalled superiority of the Greek wonder”, the presumed European past. These ideas were hastily adopted by the Greeks “enlighted in Hesperia” and soon became the centre of the national identity after the establishment of the modern Greek state. Imported Classicism or a longing mirror of the European society, 5th c. BC was raised to central symbol in the official national dialectic.
Acropolis -a fortress until the Independence- is the first archaeological site systematically tented to become gradually the emblem of the national identity. The first excavations took place between 1835-1837 whereas restoration attempts commenced in a climate of fiery enthusiasm, identified with “the restoration of the Greek Nation”.

Levelling buildings to sustain the dialogue

Amongst the first actions -for the emergence of the cleansed classical beauty- is the demolition of medieval, Ottoman and modern buildings that climaxed in 1875 after tearing down the Frankish tower at Propylaia. The obstacles hintering the dialogue with the heroic past are systematically obliterated and Acropolis is restored in a (supposedly) archetypical form; these practises reveal stong influences from the ideas of neoclassists and purists architects, prevalent in the restoration of monuments in that era.
In the next decades, the talking symbol of the national identity is systematically projected and sustained in the conciousness of Greeks and foreigners alike, being inflitrated in the public culture; As a natural consequence, all the issues concerning Acropolis gain priority.

Elgin marbles and the New Acropolis Museum

The issue of the return of the elgin marbles* -as old as their abduction- re-emerges in 1981 by the Minister of Culture Melina Merkouri. Due to the status of the Acropolis in the collective counciousness, the request acquired national importance and became the most popular stereotype of Greek archaeology in between Alexander the Great and the Olympic Games. Numerous demonstrations in Greece and abroad are still being organised whereas the quintissential issue of the return appears frequently in the political agenta.
NMA is presented as the catalyst in the return-of-the-marbles case. The most common mantra coming from politicians and archaeologists is that the new museum «poses the strongest argument for the return of the Parthenon sculptures».

Back to the present day

Today, a few months before the opening day of the NMA, considering the «return issue» in the political and archaeological context of Greece, it would be difficult to support that modern buildings (even if listed monuments) could stand in the way (literary!) of the museums’ completion; Today, 200 years later, the issue rising again is the dialogue; in a more post-modern and literar version though. On one side Tschumi-Photiadis’ self-referential edifice and on the other the ideologically laden monument of Athens. Again, the archaeological site of Acropolis is the carrier, the architectural purity the prerequisite and the levelling of the obstacles the medium, according to the analogies … the issue of course is not the acknowledgement of our national past from the western powers but its return to the homeland.

However, if the intended purpose is the dialogue let us give it a chance to be collective and through the history of the Athenian architecture to talk about «coexistance» and «concillation» rather than «rupture» and «purity».

*As “elginean marbles” -in contrast to the limiting term “Parthenonian”-, we consider all of the Acropolis’ architectural members and sculptures that were smuggled by Lord Elgin in the beginnings of 19th c.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Hamilakis, Y. 1999. Stories from exile: fragments from the cultural biography of the Parthenon (or ‘Elgin’) marbles. World Archaeology 31(2): 303-320.
  • Kotsakis, K. 1998. The past is ours; images of Greek Macedonia in Archaeology under fire. Routledge, London: 44-67.
  • Lekakis, S., 2005. Calls for Repatriation & Looting of Antiquities in Greece: Reflections of diverse perceptions of Cultural Heritage in Modern Greek society. Unpublished paper, University College London.
  • Lowenthal, D. 1988. Classical Antiquities as global and national heritage, Antiquity 62: 726-735.
  • Mouliou, M. 1996. Ancient Greece, its classical heritage and the modern Greeks: aspects of nationalism in museum exhibitions, in Nationalism and Archaeology. Cruithne Press, Glasgow: 174-199.
  • Παντερμαλής, Δ., «Έτσι θα πάρουμε πίσω τα γλυπτά», in Κ της Καθημερινής τ. 218, 05.08.07, 44.
  • Yalouri, E., 2001. The Acropolis: Global Fame, Local Claim. London.

stelios.lekakis@monumenta.org

2/09/2007
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The buildings at D. Areopagitou str. no.17-9 (façades)
Façade of the building at no.17
Façade of the building at no.17. The marble reliefs of Epirus’ women flanking its entrance.
The Frankish tower of Propylaia (NE view). P.Sebah 1872-1875 (Retrieved from Mallouhou-Tufano 1998, 19)
Propylaia after the restoration of 1834-1836 (Western view). Ed. Schaubert (Retrieved from Mallouhou-Tufano 1998, 28)