A visit to Acropolis is somehow “mandatory” during a visit to Athens, but the long walk up and around this rock is an almost equally rewarding experience. Of course, the area surrounding the Acropolis and the Filopapou hill (facing across it from the southwest) has not always looked as it does today. It was transformed to the landscape you can currently see by one of the most ingenious and influential Greek architects, Dimitrios Pikionis (1887-1968), between 1954 and 1958.
When you get to the area take a moment to observe. As a friend once noticed, the way Pikionis carved the pathways and the small streets around Acropolis and Filopapou, alongside the few contemporary buildings, creates a very special feeling. Serene natural scenery interrupted by a sequence of wonderful, panoramic views of the location, one more beautiful and timeless than the other. It is all paved with stones, which seem to have “aged” with the place and have a rustic look, although they weren’t there six decades ago. This is no coincidence, as they were put there by old-school craftsmen from all over Athens, in order to achieve a more ‘organic’ result than cement, asphalt or industrial-grade paving slates would ever manage.
This is the core of Pikionis’ vision and approach to architecture. A painter at heart and an architect by “trade”, he maintained his love for the “soul” of buildings and their surroundings. So strongly that, despite the glorification of cement-building by post-war-era development and industrial modernity, he persisted on the importance of traditional architectural forms and concepts in modern architecture and the constant ‘dialogue’ between buildings and their natural surroundings. He would always highlight the spiritual needs of man, bringing the focus on the way the environment makes people feel. Not an easy thing to do in a country that had been destroyed during WWII – less than ten years before – and had to provide cheap housing for millions, in an ever-growing capital.
Nevertheless, he applied this concept in everything he built. Whether he was designing villas in Psychico suburb for the rich; a public housing project in “Asyrmatos” (a very poor neighborhood back in the day) opposite the Acropolis and below Filopapou hill; the church of St. Demetrios Loumbardiaris or the nearby kiosk at Filopapou, (unfortunately deserted now); the small settlement of “Exoni” – at Glyfada region of Athens – or even the grand “Xenia” hotel at Delphi and many more, including some unique summer-houses on Aegina island.
Among his most characteristic creations were some “unconventional” undertakings. One such was designing a public school in “Pefkakia” neighborhood, up Lycabetus hill, in the center of Athens. There, he created the perfect marriage between three very different architectural approaches: the “function over form” principles of Bauhaus, which were applied in the design of the main buildings; the ancient Greek functionality, evident in the amphitheatrically-built yards and its archetypical main gate; and traditional building techniques from the Greek islands, which were used in the construction of the auxiliary and outdoor facilities. All that in 1932!
In 1961 he was asked to design a small park for kids – now bearing his name – in Filothei suburb. Instead of a typical park with a ready-made playground, he delivered a miniature world for kids to explore, with many parts hidden, behind bushes, from the eyes of grown-ups and full of influences from traditional Japanese garden architecture. Instead of the typical playground items (swings, teeters, etc.) he created installations that would intrigue kids and motivate them to stage their own fantastical adventures; a small, half-broken wooden boat, a mountain shepherd’s hut, a tiny bridge over a small pond.
That was no coincidence. By reading his biography it becomes clear that he maintained the fresh look of a child throughout his life.
His parents sent him to study as a civil engineer in the Polytechnical school but his love for painting diverted him to the Fine Arts School. There he made many friends, like the painter Giorgio de Chirico, and soon he became painter Partheni’s first pupil. The master recognized his talent and convinced Pikionis’ father to let him go study art in Munich. There, after seeing three paintings by Cezanne, he packed his bags and went to Paris to attend the art school “Academie de la Grande Channiere”. But, with money running low, he joined the architectural school “Ecole des Beaux Arts” to do something that would be more financially viable. His teachers there were surprised and astonished by his talent, his problem-solving ability and unconventional thinking.
Later on, his methods as a professor in the Athens Polytechnical School, would cause equally surprised and astonished reactions. Contrary to conventional practices, he would ask his students to come up with their own solutions, rather than providing them with his own; following Socrates’ example, he would hold long conversations, promenading around the School’s campus – coffee mug in hand – aiming to spark the birth of novel ideas by his students, instead of lecturing them on existing ones.