by Meghna MehtaDec 19, 2019
The Acropolis has been an example of one of the most inspirational learnings of classical and modern times, where a lot has been talked about its architectural, social as well as political history. From the time it was first built until progressing centuries, the monuments of the Acropolis complex including the Parthenon and Erechtheion underwent innumerable changes due to multiple human interventions as well as natural causes. Architecturally, in-depth discussions have taken place in literature, research and theory about various aspects including its axial movement, visual perception, panoramic views and optical emphasis to govern the visitors’ perspective leaving a benevolent impression.
It is believed that many great architects have been influenced by these visual and analytical chronicles, their comprehension often expressed through sketches and seemingly enquiring, “How would they have designed it?” or “What would the structure have originally looked like?”
One master architect of the modern movement who has vividly and constantly through his lifetime delved, investigated and mentioned the importance of the Acropolis on various accounts is Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier. Young Jeanneret first travelled to Greece in 1911 and is believed to have maintained a travel diary, which was modified in 1914 and what happened to be the last book he published in 1967 right before his death, Le Voyage d’Orient (The Journey to the East). The book accounts his first encounter with the Parthenon as, “The first shock was the strongest. Admiration, adoration and the annihilation.”
Architect and urban designer, Christopher Benninger shares his insights about Corbusier’s visit, “In 1911, Le Corbusier and a young friend named August Klipdtein made the ‘journey to the east’ over a six-month period. Their highlights were Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and the Acropolis Vin Athens, where they spent three weeks almost in meditation, moving about in different lighting conditions, late at night and at sunrise.
It was like a scientific study in which Le Corbusier learned that architecture and poetry have a basis in mathematics and the logic of proportion. This visit was articulated by Le Corbusier through sketching and in the form of carefully framed black and white photo images. What he internalised re-emerged throughout his life, years later in his writings and theories of place of buildings in space, linking the landscape with sculptured forms, and the kinetic experience of spatial arrangements to illicit human responses. Through this experience, he gained an understanding of the links between the past and the future; between classical knowledge and futuristic thinking.”
Corbusier’s first book, Vers Une Architecture (1923) shows multiple references to the Parthenon, perhaps suggesting that the architect thought of it as the ultimate exemplar of architectural beauty and related it to something much larger, possibly transcendent.
Kulbhushan Jain, architect, educator, author and publisher based in Ahmedabad notes, “As early as 1923, in his first book, Corbusier professed that the ‘house is a machine to live in’. He titles a chapter in the same book as ‘Architecture, Pure Creation of the Mind’, where he elaborates on the Acropolis and the beauty of the Parthenon… learning much from history without ever imitating it.” The perception of the ‘picturesque’ through movement of people in the complex is discussed by him in the book through four illustrations adapted from Auguste Choisy depicting the views one envisages while manoeuvring right from the entry until the exit of the complex.
William Curtis in an article for the Architectural Review, ‘The Classical Ideals of Le Corbusier’, dated September 21, 2011, re-affirms the impact the visit to Athens had on the father of Modernism, where Corbusier also compares the temple to a machine. Curtis mentions, “Refusing to trap the building in the dry categories of structural rationalists, he rather saw it as the sculptural embodiment of an idea: a sublime expression transcending all simplified notions of the Classical.”
In Le Voyage d’Orient, Corbusierdiscusses how the axes mattered, “If we stop in front of the Parthenon, that is because the sight of it makes the inner chord sound; the axis is touched.”
Le Corbusier’s sketches illustrate various ideas of movement, axes, symmetry, asymmetry, depths of fields, connections between architecture, base and ground, emphasis on perspective, the element of surprise, however rarely mentioning dimensions. They communicate a keen interest in the relation between temple and ground, especially in the degree of separation or integration between the two and what effect this may have on the perception of the temple in its context. He approximates the actual scale, which differs from the description in his book, probably due to an inevitable realization or perhaps the constant search for the ‘ineffable’.
Le Corbusier’s drawings are a testament that he used his sketches as a structured method for his own personal investigation of the Acropolis and not to illustrate pre-formed or borrowed concepts.
Architect Soumitro Ghosh from Bengaluru investigates the sketches mentioning three deductions, “1) The ground as geological, the sky as ethereal (especially in this historical context), the horizon as a space rather than a line and the architectural edifice as the expanded silhouette of the ground; 2) Disposition of forms as a negotiation with the ground; 3) Elemental architecture, mathematically precise; here the columns make referential visual frames that bridge the sky and ground. Cognitively invisible, it remains a reference plane for seeing the other - becoming the new man-made vertical horizon.”
As mentioned by an older Corbusier, “The essential moment came for me at Athens in 1911. Decisive light. Decisive volume: the Acropolis. My first picture, painted in 1918 was of the Acropolis. My Unité d’Habitation in Marseille? Merely the extension.” [Ott, Randall. “Le Corbusier At The Parthenon.” Transcending Architecture, edited by Julio Bermudez, Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 2015, p. 88–110] “…the apotheosis of the theme is surely the roof terrace in the Unité d’Habitation at Marseilles: the abstraction of an Antique ruin in ‘béton brut’ […]” says Curtis. “The Unité embodied a collective ideal and the image of an ocean liner as a floating city but its roof terrace was the architect’s homage to the Acropolis, experienced, drawn and internalized during the Voyage d’Orient 40 years earlier.”
The sketches are from a series of drawing studies made in August 1995 as an architecture student. Having spent the day at the Acropolis, what I remember most was the light. The entrance creates a sense of the complex growing out of the limestone rock on which it is situated. What struck me first while sketching was the manner in which the buildings are sited, the relationship of the buildings to each other and to the manner in which we were moving. The Parthenon, for example, is a symmetrical building, however, it is rotated framing its first view at an angle, making one see two sides of the building together rather than just its ‘face’. I noticed that ramps and subtle shifts in ground level with respect to the buildings changed the sense of their scale and the effect of their geometry. I believe that a sense of building and earth being one is a very strong image of the Acropolis from the city of Athens.
On my return there was no immediate sense of having learnt any architectural ‘lessons’. I gradually realised the importance of the experience. It was a slow process of recollecting, studying, drawing over a period of time. I believe this is the hallmark of great architecture - you internalise many different dimensions of their significance, which leach out into your processes from time to time, nourishing your (architectural) imagination. This was not a ‘one-time act’, a case study that one ticks off a bucket list. This is one of those places you keep going back to.
Though not directly, however intuitively, issues of setting, relationship to the ground, movement and building orientations from these realizations have and continue to inform many of our designs.
Despite teaching Greek architecture every other semester, when asked to reflect upon the Acropolis, I was pleasantly surprised to see it in a dramatically new light. A few old photographs of the Parthenon approached from the Propylaea and some sketches of Corbusier suddenly reminded me of the text of Jacques Derrida that I was reading during the early days of my doctoral studies and the two houses we had designed in the late 1980s, modelled on the Cardboard Houses of Peter Eisenman.
For one, the Acropolis strangely seemed like Derrida’s undecidable oscillating between the one and the other that I had not noted otherwise. And two, the place also appeared to provide an in-between character similar to his texts showing how to undo the priorities of one over the other in everyday thought and language. I tried to depict these undecidabilities in the sketch of the Acropolis through layers for ‘sketching’ and ‘writing’, ‘design’ and ‘theory’, ‘memory’ and ‘present’.
The temple, I now realised, is neither ‘architecture’ nor ‘sculpture’, neither ‘frontal’ nor ‘oblique’, neither ‘enclosed’ nor ‘open’, but in between the two. Similarly, the peristyle is either its ‘structure’ or ‘ornament’. So, in a way, it is neither its ‘structure’ nor ‘ornament’, but in between the two. It is neither ‘light’ nor ‹dark›, neither ‘inside’ nor ‘outside’, but in between the two. The one and the other simply do not take place. What takes place is the in between, which is nothing. It is a place where nothing takes place but the place.
THE ACROPOLIS EXPERIENCE
The beautiful, stark, white limestone hill of the Acropolis emerged with stolid grace from the thick vegetation and the town below. Its commanding, strong presence seemed to beckon the young architect in me, way back in 1976. The Acropolis sitting on the steep hillock was a predominant aspect that struck me the most.
The manner in which the Acropolis revealed itself with surprises and views during the ascent has always stayed at the back of my mind. I have tried to capture this idea of exploration, mystery and surprise in some movement corridors in many campus designs of my own. The transformation of the natural, uncut hill at its base to the man-made fortified walls and further into elaborately crafted buildings was extremely inspiring and this metamorphosis has been the central idea in many of my designs. I was particularly astonished by the colossal scale of the structures, the columns of the Parthenon as well as the open spaces.
There was a vast difference in what we learned in history class; an isolated example of a complex of imposing buildings, almost out of context, to what I experienced at the site; a complex that snugly fit in and grew out of the socio-cultural and physical context of the city. I was highly enamoured by the views framed between the pillars. It was mesmerising to see the carved out ancient amphitheatre working perfectly even today, different versions of which have found its place in various contextual scales creating varied spatial qualities and experiences.
(The article was first published in Issue #19 of mondo*arc india journal – an initiative by STIR.)