10 March 2012

The Great Reconstruction Project

We don't post too much about the major tourist sites. After all, what's the point? Chances are, you've already seen hundreds - if not thousands - of pictures of the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum. There's not much new to say.
But chances are, you haven't seen a lot of pictures of the Athenian Acropolis that show what it really looks like. Since 1983, Athen's great symbol has been undergoing a prolonged, much delayed fix-up. My thought, when we first arrived at the Temple of Athena Nike, was "why do this at all?"
Right now, Athen's heart is a messy construction site. The machinery's been here so long that it's gotten rusty; stacks of marble and crates of who-knows-what seem part of the landscape itself, like so many bits of Periclean rubble. This will all be cleaned up one day, I didn't mind it at all. It was actually interesting to see the cranes and the lifts, the drills and tin-roofed sheds. I didn't mind that the Parthenon was partly covered. What was troubling was that the whole thing had somehow lost its oldness. It felt too new.
What I'd imagined of the Acropolis was a windswept, sunbaked mess of rocks. In my image, the columns lay about like dead trees after a fire, some standing, some fallen, their foliage gone. The stone was blackened by time, the crumbling rock half-inset into the hard-baked ground. This, of course, comes from grand-tour romanticism - but what's wrong with that?
This isn't the first time that the Acropolis has been re-furbished, but it's certainly the most comprehensive effort. The Parthenon and the structures that surround it were actually in pretty good shape for their first two millennia. Initially built between 447 and 432 BC, it wasn't until the 17th century AD that it was significantly damaged. Ottoman held Athens was attacked in 1687 by the Venetians; the hilltop was fortified and used as a gunpowder magazine. Unfortunately, the gunpowder blew up during the fight and the buildings were almost demolished. Subsequent looting by Turks and, later, by the British further ruined the Acropolis and scattered its many important works of art.
An attempt, in the 1840's, to restore some of the columns went poorly and actually did more damage. Work carried out then focused primarily on the Parthenon, while the other buildings were mostly ignored. The marble was arranged haphazardly, the workmen didn't care which piece went where and the actual outline of the building was shifted, for some unknown reason. Worse, the iron pins and ties that they used rusted and split apart a few stones. As air pollution increased, the stone deteriorated even more. By 1983, the Acropolis was in a very sorry state.
Above, the massive crane, built to lift huge pieces of dense rock. It's designed so that it can retract beneath the Parthenon's roofline when not in use - so that people's pictures won't be spoiled too much.The process has been long, expensive and arduous. About three hundred tons of stone were taken down to be repaired, reassembled or put into their proper place. But the real work was done on the ground, where thousands of pieces of rock were catalogued, examined and re-fit into the various structures - like a giant, architectural jigsaw puzzle. Replacement stone, when it has been used, has come only from Mount Penteliko's marble quarry, which was the ancient source of most of Athen's building material (the quarry has been protected by law, and is now only used for providing material to the reconstruction project).
I should say, before going further, that visiting was spectacular. In the early hours of a cold March morning, we spent the first half hour of our time there virtually alone. Athens spreads out beneath the citadel in all its glory, the Acropolis - no matter how altered by the construction - floats above the city like Zeus' cloud made into rock. This is, after all, the starting point of our imagery for the ancients. It's a masterpiece of European architecture, the foundation of myth, one of the wonders of the earth! If you get the chance, of course you should go.But things aren't what they used to be. The statuary has been completely removed to the brand-new Acropolis museum, everything on view at the site itself is a copy. There's something dispiriting about that, and about the bits of strangely white replacement marble - some of it injected, "liquid" stone - that's visible in odd places around the compound. The officials have said that there are no plans to restore the site to it's pre-explosion condition, only to return the buildings to their historical layout and to protect against future damage. The columns are all standing, though, and the place looks well-scrubbed. New.
Even if it's being done in the most sincere spirit of preservation, the work still feels somehow fake. I would rather see it broken. The thing about the best ancient sites is that they're old. We want to feel that they're old. The cranes and scaffolding don't bother me because they're temporary. But so much about the reconstruction seems at odds with what it is to be the Acropolis, or any other timeless thing.
Isn't it sometimes more accurate, more real, to see something at the end of its evolution? Great things are built, they decay, they lie in scattered pieces in the sun. To see that is to come up against the past and marvel at the thousands of years between the builders and ourselves. To see this is to see a recreation - not the hand of Pericles, but the hand of... who? A scientist? Some architecture professor? The bureau of tourism? After all, you can always just fly to Nashville and see this.

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