Athens: The Nature of Interpretation

One of the central themes to what we’ve learned this past semester has been the iterative nature of Athens as a city. Athens is a city of innumerable layers, intertwined and stack upon one another to become the city that stands today. Throughout its history it has reinvented itself over and over, constantly changing and redefining itself. Most everything in Athens has a rich history, either literally or symbolically. How have Athenians and foreigners alike taken the objects of storied history in Athens and made them their own? What does it mean to reinterpret, repurpose, or reuse buildings, objects, and ideas? How does the manner of interpretation affect its relation to Athens, past and present?

Image 1. Angell Hall at the University of Michigan, with a classically inspired façade. Taken by Dwight Burdette, 2017.

            One of the most common and visible examples of the continuous reuse of Greek style and ideas in through the architectural proliferation of the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian building styles of ancient Greece throughout the West, best emphasized by what I would call the flood of the fluted column. The spread of the classical architectural style is widespread here at the University, with numerous academic buildings tying themselves to antiquity through colonnades and facades that imitate the Doric and Ionic temples of ancient Athens. One of the more visible examples of this is the Angell Hall entrance façade, a huge and striking interpretation of a Doric temple entrance. The Classical architecture is an attempt by the architect to legitimize the building and the University, by visually associating the building and therefore the school with what is to be considered the foundation of intellectual civilization. However, this imitation-oriented classical style is not the only, or most striking, way to engage in dialogue with Ancient Athens and classical Greek architecture.

Image 2. Megaron – The Athens Concert Hall, a modern interpretation of a great hall found in ancient Greek palace complexes. Taken by Stefanos Karamanian, 2010.

            The Athens Concert Hall, home to numerous performance venues where world-renowned artists of music and theater come to inspire and entertain the people of Athens, takes a more architecturally interesting approach. The style of the building is modern, from an elemental perspective there are no single piece which is distinctly classical, yet it is still a classical building in a sense. Structurally, the building is a “modern retelling of the great rectangular halls of a megaron (ancient Grecian palace complex)” (Sinanidis 2018). It heralds back to ancient Greece by combining classical structure with modern style. This confluence leads to a sense that the building is new yet timeless. It feels and looks distinctly Greek without leveraging any of the tropes of Greek architecture found over and over in Western architecture. In doing so it creates a place for modern Greeks which both acknowledges their link to antiquity and to their past without ignoring the present. For many, especially Westerners, Greece is a place frozen in a period that ended millennia ago; this building both acknowledges that past but also subverts it, revitalizes it for 21st century Greeks and 21st century Athens. The Athens Concert Hall is one of many buildings in Athens which brings Greek past into Greek present, all the while redefining it to fit into the modern age.

Image 3. The Entrance of the new Acropolis Museum, a synthesis of modern architecture and excavated ruins. Taken by Nikos Daniilidis, 2019.

            The new Acropolis Museum, built in 2011, features a striking modern entrance that heralds back to classical Greek architecture through its sheer scale alone. The massive stone columns and roof slabs inspire wonder and awe at the combination of size and beauty in a single building. However, the adaption of Athens in this entrance is not found the style of the entrance, but rather through the dialogue between the entrance and the ground it’s built on. The entrance is elevated above an architectural site, full of ruins of ancient Athenian dwellings, visible through the floor and over a railing below. There is an integration of old in new, not through style, but through physical juxtaposition of the modern and the ancient. There was deliberate choice to preserve the past, to honor it, while simultaneously reusing it for modern times. The site is both frozen in time and untethered from it, defined by the interaction of past and present, anchoring antiquity to modernity through space.

Image 4. A clay Greek vase. If broken, the ostraka from such pottery would be used to vote in democratic matters. Courtesy of the Kelsey Museum, Own Photo.
Image 5. Ostraka used to vote in the annual exile vote, when citizen could vote to exile a single citizen if they thought they had too much power. Courtesy of AKG Images.

            Physically, buildings and architecture are not the only symbols which are used to redefine and reinterpret Athens. Athenian pottery was constantly being reused and reinterpreted within Athens. Athenians in antiquity used ostraka, shards of pottery, as a medium on which to vote in their democratic process. These shards were often the remnants of a broken vase or bowl, no longer able to be used for its intended purpose. Ancient Athenians relied on the reuse of these pottery fragments to conduct their democracy, one of the foundational elements of their society. The act of recycling pottery demonstrates a fundamental tie of Athens to a process of reinterpretation, a connection which is continually reaffirmed throughout the history of Athens and is still practiced by modern Greeks today. Only through reuse and reinterpretation is it possible to meaningfully integrate the past and the present, otherwise the temporal difference between the two will continue to widen without ever having a bridge to cross it.

Image 6. The frieze from the Parthenon, known as the “Elgin Marbles” or the “Parthenon Marbles,” housed in the Duveen Gallery at the British Museum. Taken by Andrew Dunn, 2004.

Perhaps the most famous symbol of Athens, specifically with respect to antiquity, is the Parthenon Marbles which currently reside in the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum. The British Museum’s display of the marbles changed the way that Westerners viewed them entirely, they went from being building decorations to being seminal pieces of ancient sculptural artistry. However, this reinterpretation of the marbles in the context of art history is not the largest interpretive change incited by the marbles. The storied history of these marbles has served as a constant source of conflict, conflict which has been central to the redefining and refining of Greek identity with respect to Classical Athens. Ultimately, the process of redefinition and reinterpretation is the process of evaluating the past as it related to the present and future. The incessant conflict between the British Museum and Greece has forced everyone involved to not only reevaluate the cultural significance of the marbles to Greece and the world, but also how the past which those marbles symbolize interacts and remains a part of their own identity. The continuing outcome of the conflict the marbles continue to incite is the refining and redefining of individual and national identities with respect to the marbles, and by transition the interaction of modern and ancient.

Image 7. The Choragic Monument of Lysikrates. Taken by C. Messier, 2016.

            Architecture is not the only medium through which Athens is layered and iterated over. Athens not only as a city, but as an idea and a history is constantly changing. The redefinition of Athens through its history has been particularly through the interactions of Athens with foreigners. In the Byzantine period, when Christianity had spread throughout Athens and Greece, when Athens was flooded with pilgrims coming to see the Parthenon, now a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the history of Athens as told through its physical monuments was constantly being warped and redefined in order to create an interpretation of the Athenian physical landscape which resonated with foreigners and their obsession with classicism. A well-known Archbishop of the period, Michael Choniates, was taken of a tour of Athens when he arrived in there to serve his appointment at the Parthenon. In his writings he describes his near disbelief that he stood on the same ground as monuments built by the iconic Classical Greeks, monuments such as “The Lantern of Demosthenes” (Kaldellis 182). Interestingly, no such monument exists. What Choniates is referring to is a tripod, a monument to the winning production of an annual Athenian choragic competition. Someone, most likely an Athenian tour guide, told the archbishop that this monument was in fact built by Demosthenes. The reshaping of the history of this, and most likely other monuments within Athens, where attempting to emphasize the greatness of Athens as it was perceived by those who visited the city. Humans are often underwhelmed when they experience in real life what they have idolized in their minds, so it was redefinitions of the physical history of Athens where vital to maintaining the awe with which many Western visitors viewed Athens with. The upkeep of the Western reverent view of Athens is what helped to keep the city intact through the centuries of occupation the city endured at the hands of a revolving door of empires.

            What is a monument? A monument is a symbol of the past, representing a triumph, a loss, or just the existence of the past in general. In this way the city of Athens is a monument, it serves as a symbol of what has come before. As time passes, so does the meaning of a monument – as the temporal gap between two periods increases the nature of bridge between them must change. As time has passed in Athens, with each passing generation, the relationship between modern and ancient Athens has transformed. No matter the reason behind the transformation, it has been born, in some way, out of necessity. Although the past has already happened, to allow it to remain static is to let it define future. The continuous reinterpretation of the city, of the relation between ancient and modern, is what will allow Athens and its people to progress, grow, and prosper.

Works Cited

AKG Images. “Themistocles’Name on Ostraca.” AKG Images, www.akg-images.com/archive/-2UMDHURSOSOS.html.

Burdette, Dwight. “Angell Hall at Night.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, 10 Feb. 2017, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Angell_Hall_at_Night,_University_of_Michigan,_435_S._State_St.,_Ann_Arbor_-_panoramio.jpg.

Daniilidis, Nikos. “The Acropolis Museum.” Nikos Daniilidis Photography, 2019, nikos.daniilidis.gr/photography/architecture-portfolio/#group-41.

Dunn, Andrew. “Elgin Marbles at the British Museum.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, 24 Nov. 2005, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elgin_Marbles_British_Museum.jpg.

Franklin, Stuart. “Athens 2004 Opening Ceremony.” Getty Images, Getty Images, 13 Aug. 2004, www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/performers-dressed-as-ancient-greek-statues-acts-out-a-news-photo/51187136?adppopup=true.

Kaldellis, Anthony. The Christian Parthenon: Classicism and Pilgrimage in Byzantine Athens. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Karamanian, Stefanos. “The Athens Concert Hall.” Greece Is, Kathimerines Ekdoseis S.A., 2018, www.greece-is.com/8-contemporary-landmarks-athens/.

Messier, C. “The Choragic Monument of Lysicrates.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, 1 Feb. 2016, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%CE%9C%CE%BD%CE%B7%CE%BC%CE%B5%CE%AF%CE%BF_%CF%84%CE%BF%CF%85_%CE%9B%CF%85%CF%83%CE%B9%CE%BA%CF%81%CE%AC%CF%84%CE%B7_6122.jpg.

Sinanidis, Mary. “8 Contemporary Landmarks of Athens.” Greece Is, Kathimerines Ekdoseis S.A., 1 June 2016, www.greece-is.com/8-contemporary-landmarks-athens/.