Celebrating the Greek Revolution – 1821 and the Architectural re-birth of Athens

In a series of articles, historian Jim Claven takes a look at some themes that could play a part in next year's Greek bicentenary celebrations

Next year we celebrate the 1821-31 Greek war for independence and the emergence of modern Greece.

Central to the celebrations will be the war itself and Greece’s modern achievements. One of the things we should celebrate as part of this story is the re-birth of architecture in Greece – especially in Athens – with the blossoming of Neoclassical building, its key elements reaching back to classical Greece. This article introduces the story of this re-birth and points out some of the great examples of the style in Athens.

Soon after the victory of the revolution moves were made to erect major new buildings to house the new public institutions of modern Greece. With the capital moving to Athens in 1834, a new parliament and royal palace were needed, as well as the educational, health and business establishments of a modern state. Much needed to be done. Athens at the time was no more than a medium-sized village, its ancient classical ruins a home for grazing sheep. And there was no doubt as to the architectural style that would be chosen in the home of classical Greece, beneath the great Acropolis.

Throughout the 18th century Europe had been swept by an artistic movement interested in returning to the purity of classical styles after the excesses of the Baroque and Rococo styles. Architects and artists flocked to Rome and Greece to visit the surviving classical sculptures, monuments and buildings, measuring and drawing them, producing major influential volumes filled with their clean and precise images of the achievements of classical architecture. Along with the architectural publications of Frenchman Julien-David Le Roy and Britons James Stuart and Nicholas Rivett, the writings of German historian and art critic Johan Winckelmann urged the revival of classical Greek style. The movement drew upon the precepts of classical Greek art and architecture (as well as that of Rome), aiming to re-imagine this style for the modern era – and so was born Neoclassicism.

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A new beginning for the city

The planners of the new Athens were also influenced not only by surviving classical architecture in the liberated regions that surrounded them but also by the Venetian and British public classical-themed architecture of the Ionian Islands. These Islands had been the home of Greece’s first leader Ioannis Kapodistrias as well as one of Greece’s first modern architects Ioannis Chronis, who had already created some of the Corfu’s most important neoclassical buildings as well as promoting the Neoclassical style in his 1862 architectural guide.

The new Neoclassical style was brought to Greece’s new capital with the arrival there in 1831 of the state’s newly appointed planners, the architects Stamatis Kleanthis and Eduard Schaubert. They had soon erected the city’s first Neoclassical buildings, including its original parliament. As the 19th century wore on more buildings in the style would be erected, including new private housing that emulated Neoclassicism across the city. The new style reinforced the connection between modern Greece and its ancient history, and would remain the dominant theme in Athens’ architecture for at least eight decades.

A few years ago I was shown a magnificent book, a collection of photographs of Athens, both ancient and modern, taken prior to the end of the 19th century, which had found its way somehow to Melbourne. Its clear images, so evocative of a traveler discovering the beauty of both classical Athenian architecture and its more modern re-birth, inspired me to experience some of these great buildings for myself. And so it has been a wonderful experience for me to have come across these 19th century gems when I have been walking around Athens in recent years.

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The Hellenic Parliament building in Athens. Photo: Jim Claven 2012

Starting in central Syntagma Square, we see the Hellenic Parliament building. The former Royal Palace, Neoclassical design is central to its architecture. Originally designed by the German architect Friedrich von Gartner, it was built between 1836 and 1842, setting the tone for the architecture of the city. Restored following a fire in 1909, the building was used as temporary housing for Asia Minor refugees in 1922 before finally becoming the home of Parliament in 1929. During its construction the site became a training school for local craftsmen and the ancient quarries of Mount Penteli were re-opened for the purpose. The building is a long one, its central portico, incorporating columns from in all three classical styles – from the simple Doric at the entrance, through Ionic and finally Corinthian, all topped with a classical triangular pediment, the whole roof decorated with traditional acanthus styled sculptures. Inside the theme continues, with classical columns, sculptures and friezes. And beneath the building is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and plaza, replete with classical imagery and design.

Located in the gardens near the Parliament is the Zappeion building. Designed and built by Danish architect Theophil Hansen, between 1874 and 1888, it was the first building erected to support Greece’s revival of the ancient Olympic Games. The entrance is contained within a central Corinthian columned portico, complete with classical triangular pediment, with its two symmetrical wings connected by a beautiful central colonnaded atrium. The exterior design of the building was followed by Hansen in his design for the new Austrian Parliament in Vienna. The building – and especially its atrium – is well worth a visit. The building hosted the fencing events for the 1896 Olympics and has hosted many events since, from Olympic awards ceremonies, through the signing of Greece’s entry to the European Union in 1979 to Athens’ Fashion Week.

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Located not for from here are one of the most important groups of buildings on our tour – what has been referred to as the “Athenian Neoclassical Trilogy.” This comprises the National Library of Greece, the University of Athens and the Academy of Athens, which stand together on Panepistimiou Street. The University building is in the centre, the Library to the left and the Academy to the right.

All were erected during the key period of Athens’ re-birth, 1859 to 1890. The authorities engaged one of Europe’s most famous architects, Denmark’s Christian Hansen who was an admirer of classical Greek architecture. Along with his brother Theophil and German architect Ernest Ziller, Hansen created this unique complex of Neoclassical buildings, with their classical-style columns, statues, themed murals, colonnade porticos and pediments with coloured friezes. They give new life to their classical ancestors, such as their design for the Academy drawing on that of the Propylaea on the Acropolis. The University itself had been established in 1837 and has the distinction of being the oldest higher education institution of the modern Greek state and the first contemporary university in the Eastern Mediterranean. These buildings have maintained their role as guardians of Greece’s cultural re-birth, the whole complex now part of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.

The Academy of Athens. Photo Jim Claven 2015

Theophil Hansen also designed and built the National Observatory of Athens, located in Thisseio on the Hill of the Nymphs. Inspired by classical Greek temples, with its four wings oriented to the cardinal points and its dome housing its telescope, the Observatory was completed in 1846. This is Greece’s oldest research association and can be visited by the public.

The National Observatory of Athens. Photo: Unsplash

If you have time you might want to take in a few more Athens’ neoclassical treasures – the old Hellenic Parliament House on Stadiou Street designed by French architect Francois Boulanger and completed in 1875, the Gennadius Library in Kolonaki built in 1923 with its impressive Neoclassical portico and entrance, the Iliou Melathron Mansion (meaning the Palace of Troy) also on Panepistimiou Street which was the former residence of German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann (now the Numismatic Museum) designed by Theophil Hansen’s assistant Ernst Ziller and erected 1878-79 or the Otto Stathatos Mansion on Vassilissis Sofias Avenue which was also built by Ernst Ziller in the late 19th century and now hosts temporary art exhibitions.

This is just a taste of Athens’ magnificent neoclassical heritage. Many others have been lost to time, uncared for, too expensive to repair or merely demolished to make way for some of the less attractive of modern developments. Sadly Monumenta – the Athenian association of archaeologists and architects – estimated in 2017 that as many as 80 per cent of Athens’ 19th and early 20th century buildings have already been lost.

Thanks to the efforts of former Culture Minister Melina Mercouri that as many as 182 buildings in the Plaka alone were saved from collapse in the 1980’s. No doubt as you wander the streets of Athens you will come across survivals of the many other public buildings, business houses and private residences which stand testimony to the architectural legacy of the modern Greek revolution.

The Acropolis, above the modern city. Photo: Jim Claven 2013

So next time you visited Athens – after visiting the Acropolis and its great new museum, enjoyed a walk in the Plaka or shopping in Ermou Street – maybe spare some time to enrich your experience of the city with a walking tour of some of Athens’ great Neoclassical buildings, the continuing legacy of the Greek Revolution.

The University of Athens. Photo Jim Claven 2016.

Jim Claven is a trained historian and freelance writer who has been researching the Hellenic link to Anzac for many years. He is Secretary of the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee, a member of the George Treloar Memorial Committee and author of Lemnos & Gallipoli Revealed: A Pictorial History of the Anzacs in the Aegean 1915-16. He thanks Liza Koutsaplis and Dimitris Boulotis for their help with this article. For further reading he recommends Neoclassical Architecture of Greece by Manos Biris and Maro Kardamitsi-Adami, published by the Getty Museum in 2001. He can be contacted at jimclaven@yahoo.com.au