Dimitris Pikionis & the landscaping of the Acropolis

This article, written by Robert Champion, was first published in February 2019 on the O2 Landscapes Journal

 

One sunrise in July 2018, people were beginning to queue at the entrance to one of the most important archaeological sites in the western world; the Parthenon, on the Acropolis of Athens. The emblem of the world's first democracy, a high-water mark of philosophical, architectural and artistic creativity, and the location where Paul first preached Christianity on European soil, was the place that I had come to worship the footpath.

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In the 1950s, the Greek government gave the eminent Greek architect, Dimitris Pikionis, the assignment of developing a large proportion of the 80,000 square metres of the Acropolis and its surrounds (including the neighbouring Philopappou hill) in a manner that would respectfully provide access to its archaeological sites.

At that time, the rocky klippe[1] was a denuded, heavily-grazed mound dotted with the occasional olive and some perfunctory paths; a state that did no justice to the significance of the site.

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Undertaken between 1954 and 1957, Pikionis' work included networks of stone paths and steps that connect various sites with the city below. The landscape that he orchestrated, which is widely acknowledged as one of the 20th Century's most significant works of landscape architecture, was the culmination of multiple strands of thought that he pursued throughout his life - including an acute awareness of Greece's position between East and West (in geographical and cultural terms).

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It also contains elements that express the somewhat pagan manner in which he revered nature[2], as described in his words below :

"I like painting in solitude, not only because one is often unwilling to expose one's weaknesses to others, but because art is for me a religious act, an act of veneration and worship of Mother Nature, whose sanctity may be offended by the ignorance of the multitude. This is why I usually went to the pine grove alone; it was my sanctuary."

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This project also expressed his appreciation of the vernacular sensibility of the craftsman. Rather than providing fully specified architectural drawings as was expected, Pikionis never specified the design in detail.

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The concepts and systems that were conceived (and beautifully drawn) in the design stage were instead used as a framework within which the final product could be executed in situ by small teams, with the architect encouraging their own initiative and celebrating unintended imperfections.

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His respect for the aesthetic judgement of craftspeople/makers was instilled at a young age, as evidenced in the following quote [2]:

 

"When we went walking along the waterfront on Sundays with my uncle Syriotis and my cousins, my father would always stop in front of a fine ship and draw our attention to the beauty of its lines. Frequently, too, he would stop in front of a house and explain why its proportions would be much improved if, for instance, it were a few inches taller. It was through my father that I became familiar with vernacular architectural terms such as 'garbos' (gracefulness, style) and 'houi' (adeptness, particularity)."

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In this sense, Pikionis seemed unconcerned with buying into the 'cult' of the artist, or the notion of a brand of hallowed, exclusive genius associated with artistic conception (as distinct from the equally important role of the maker). This was, after all, a time in which architects came to their craft via a varied training, which had its basis in other arts. His humility and broad perspective are encapsulated in another of Pikionis' quotes, in which he noted, self-effacingly[2]:

 

"The study of architecture was not in my nature; it was never among my central inclinations."

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Of his interventions at the Acropolis, those of foremost interest to the modern designer are the varied approaches to the paving. The patterns, composed of cut marble, salvaged stone pieces from Neoclassical buildings, and other found shards, exhibit varying degrees of regulation.

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An obvous hierarchy is apparent, which grades from refined rectilinear arrangements in high traffic zones at the base of the Parthenon through to the organic forms of ancillary paths that weave through olive trees, and between key areas. The rounded forms and asymmetrical arrangement of these paths are at times reminiscent of stonework from New Zealand’s Kauaeranga Valley.

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Certain areas see the paths disintegrate into mere pieces of stone set within bare ground. This transition from order to entropy also occurs at a smaller scale within particular sections of paving. The edge of a path may disintegrate into an organic form, or see certain stones subtracted entirely; a method that can leave one confounded as to what constitutes the original installation, and what is the result of subsequent decay.

In other areas, particularly on Philopappou Hill, paving morphs into bedrock of an almost identical tone in such a vague manner that the boundary can be, at first glance, indiscernible. At times, the reverse occurs, where bedrock is carved into rectilinear steps; yielding to meet the pavement in its transformed state.

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The ultimate effect of these interventions is that the visitor is unable to pinpoint where landscaping ends and where archaeology or geology begins - an approach that is fitting, considering the various layers of use and manipulation to which the Acropolis has been subjected throughout history.

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What is often ignored is Pikionis' influence on the vegetation of the site. In what must have been a progressive act in 1950s Europe, non-native plants were removed from the site, and replaced with those native to the Attic Peninsula; most notably, hundreds of European olives (Olea europaea), planted in woodlands of varying density and repeated en masse giving a hypnotic quality to the experience.

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As a final note, and as an example of the wonderful manner in which he communicated about art, architecture and the world (similar to Scarpa's poetic mode of speech), we will finish this journal entry with Pikionis' words :

"In Piraeus one day, as I was returning to my father's house, I was intensely aware of the sun scorching my skin; then I stepped into the shade and the coolness caused me to shiver ..... It occurred to me at that moment that the violent contrasts in the climate of our land, experienced over many centuries, probably helped to explain the sharp antitheses in the character of our race."

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Footnotes

  1. A klippe is a disjunct segment of a sheet-like body of rock thrust up due to plate tectonics. This particular klippe is composed of a layer of limestone overlaying a sandstone/marl known as Athens "Schist".

  2. The quotes provided herein are from Pikionis' own words in 'Dimitris Pikionis, Architect : 1887 - 1968, 'A Sentimental Topography'' (1989. London : Architectural Association), as reproduced (amongst other writings about, or by, Pikionis) on the website www.eikastikon.gr.