Despite being a repository for some of the greatest built treasures in the world, Athens presents something of an architectural challenge. Unregulated growth of the city has led to a plethora of cookie-cutter housing developments and next to no green space. Small lots mean limited potential for large-scale landmark projects, and in the rampant development of the first part of the 20th century, scads of grand old villas fell to the developer’s wrecking ball.
And yet the Greek capital has its gems, beginning with, of course, the pinnacle of classical design, the 2,400-year-old Parthenon by Iktinos and Kallikrates. Skip ahead a few millennia and you’ll find that local talent, like mid-century architect Takis Zenetos, has left an architectural legacy that—–perplexingly—–the city has occasionally seemed intent on destroying.
Amongst the most famous of Athens’s mid-century facades is Bauhaus master Walter Gropius’s chancery for the American embassy. In 1957, Time magazine opined that the glassy, open structure "strik[es] a balance between monumentality and friendliness." A half century after Time’s glowing review, a rocket-propelled terrorist attack on the embassy birthed a security-over-design approach that still rankles some.
Santiago Calatrava’s Katehaki pedestrian bridge and the Athens Olympic Sports Complex for the 2004 summer games are recent architectural high points, proof that Athens still does retain an appetite for contemporary design.
The most pressing Athenian problem at the moment, though, isn’t arch-itectural: It’s a roiling currency and a flagging economy. Just a few years after the pre-Olympic boom, the building industry has ground to a crawl, though the slowdown hit just after one of the more inspiring additions to the city’s skyline took shape.
The New Acropolis Museum, designed by New York’s Bernard Tschumi with local Greek architect Michael Photiadis, opened in 2009. Situated as it is in the shadow of the Parthenon, the New Acropolis Museum could have been a thoughtless imitation. Photiadis and Tschumi carried it off nicely, however, designing and executing a clean glass box that manages the great mathematical purity of the ancient Greeks and a fair bit of architectural deference without bowing to warmed-over classicism. This is unsurprising considering Photiadis’s track record as one of Greece’s most vibrant and varied architects. For that reason we asked him to help us navigate shaky, shifting, history-minded Athens.