Tuesday, 6 July 2010

The thinness of authenticity

Athens is now two cities. There's the huge, glittering, modern city that spreads itself in every valley bottom and plain between the great hills that carve the city.  And then there's the ancient city of Pericles, still visible at least in part - and more visible than it was to previous generations, cleaned of its grime, cleaned of the buildings that used to adhere to its pillars and walls, cleared of inauthentic additions and reconstructions.

From the top of Likavettos hill, the modern city twinkles in the sun. A pair of huge dark canyons run towards the distant cranes and chimneys of Piraeus and the harbour of Faliro. Patches of khaki park with dark cypresses stand out against the dirty white of the city, like Byzantine landscapes in an icon. Look at the street plan; each neighbourhood is built on a grid, rational and self-contained, but since each neighbourhood declared autonomy in planning, where the grids meet it's madness, streets weaving a basket of loose ends and spiky angles with no way from A to B except through Z and back again. A wave of buildings surges up the slopes of Hymettus, only falling back when the line of forest meets them, dark black in the pale haze of summer.

It's not picturesque, this modern city, and it's not lovely. But it's real, and from up on Likavettos, it glitters lazily, and you could almost come to like it. (Besides, if you're a nosy bugger like me, you'll enjoy counting the rooftop swimming pools in Kolonaki, spread out below in lurid turquoise.)

Then there's the city of Perikles; first and foremost the Acropolis, of course, but also the agora, and the roads running out past the cemetery in Keramikos towards Eleusis and Plato's academy.

The Acropolis is being new-built. Huge blocks of stone being recarved, and I don't know whether they're old stone given a once-over, or new stone. (That surprising band of grey across the Erechtheion's north face, the frieze blank grey against the creamy stone of the rest of the building; is that the authentic effect, or a mistake of modern rebuilders?)

In a way, I approve. There's a tiny ivory god in the museum in the Roman agora, made up of 300 or so fragments painstakingly pieced together; an Apollo, turning softly, his flesh round and firm, recognisable now and burnished again (though darkened with age to a rich brown). We remake pots, and sculptures, and inscriptions; why shouldn't we rebuild architecture?

But of course they're not rebuilding Pericles' Athens. They're rebuilding just three of its buildings. They're rebuilding the classical heritage, not the classical era city. So buildings that don't stack up with this classical, Hellenic ideal will be left erased - like the tiny round Roman temple to the east of the Parthenon, a dainty little rotunda that I fear will be left forever ruined. We'll never see the Parthenon the way the ancient Greeks did - surrounded by buildings, by treasuries and smaller temples and tripods and monuments - because we're not to be distracted. (Like the great medieval cathedrals of France, without their parvises and cloisters and bishops' palaces, marooned in space.)

And to rebuild this ideal, many sacrifices need to be made. So, for instance, much of Plaka was bulldozed to recover the site of the Roman Agora. Nineteenth century neo-classical mansions are being neglected, according to some accounts so they can be pulled down to expose better views of the Acropolis. The Turkish past which created Plaka - a rambling neighbourhood of gently curving streets and early nineteenth century houses - is being denied; the history books are being rewritten with a gap in it. Neoclassicism isn't classical enough, and so it too must go. Athens is trying to become a pure city - a city crystallised at one moment of its history - and to do so, it's picking away at everything that doesn't fit the picture.

The trouble with this is that it impoverishes the present. With a few exceptions (Brasilia, perhaps - even Milton Keynes contains within the new city nuggets of past villages and ancient mansions), cities are the creation of centuries - not five-minute stir-fries, but rich stews cooked long and slow, with ingredients added every couple of hundred years. Seeing a neoclassical mansion in Athens, you look across to the Parthenon, and see both the common heritage, and the different way that the neoclassical architect interpreted the canon of taste. It enriches our response to Periclean classicism to see how the nineteenth century interpreted it; to see how in Byzantine capitals, the graceful Corinthian flowers become stylized into spiky chiaroscuro.

I find Athens a city that is losing its richness. It's too clean, too pure. Too much of the past has been rejected and stripped away.

I'm glad I've seen the Parthenon. It is, simply, one of the world's great buildings, and one of the world's great inspirations; and so much huger than you could ever imagine.

But I'm sad that I've seen a city which has been Disneyfied; reduced to a simplicity that denies so much of what a city should be.

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