Art: Architecture for Athena

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The U.S. Department of State had a commission to challenge any architect: 1) build a million-dollar U.S. embassy in Athens just one mile from the Parthenon, 2) make it a showcase of U.S. modern architecture, but let it be classical enough to fit its surroundings, 3) give it a warm, friendly, inviting atmosphere expressing U.S. democracy. For the assignment, State picked German-born Walter Gropius, 74, founder and onetime (1919-28) director of the Bauhaus, later chairman of Harvard's department of architecture, and founder of his own cooperative architectural firm in Cambridge, Mass., The Architects' Collaborative (T.A.C.).

Many a tradition-minded Athenian, knowing Gropius only as the high priest of modernism, with its flat roofs, ribbon windows, concrete, steel and glass functionalism, promptly got set to dislike what he suspected was coming. Last week plans for the building were outlined, and the pessimists were pleasantly surprised.

"A Sacred Place." Gropius' T.A.C. had designed a building (to be started this fall) that will be Athenian in feeling, elegant in proportion and yet modern in design. It will stand on a 66,000-sq.-ft., $500,000 site (donated by the Greek government) on Vassilissis Sofias Street between Mount Hymmittos and pine-covered Lycabettus Hill. At a press conference in Athens, Gropius calmed the remaining fears. "Athens is a sacred place," he said. "We did our best to connect the city's traditions with our own architectural concepts. But keeping the tradition does not mean to imitate."

Obviously, Gropius could not imitate Athens' most famed building, the Parthenon, a monumental structure built to be viewed from without and to house, within its narrow sanctuary, the great statue of Athena and her attendants. To build flexible office space with working room for 200 U.S. embassy employees, Gropius and his collaborators fell back on the plan the ancient Greeks used for their domestic architecture, built the embassy around the central open court, and added the modern principle of movable interior walls.

"A Free Man." To gain Athenian dignity, Gropius ringed the three-story structure with tall, reinforced concrete columns, visible girders and horizontal ribbons, sheathed all of them in strips of the gleaming white Pentelic marble used in the Parthenon. This design forms a 20-ft. cantilever which serves as a sunbreak, reminiscent of the massive Greek porticos. The first floor has a screen of sky-blue ceramic tile; the upper two stories have a curtain wall of grey glass spandrels hung from the roof girders. For added elegance, the interior court will be ringed with columns of Pentelic marble, the base of the building with dark grey Santa Marina marble. Amid the dignity and elegance there will be practicality: the basement will house a garage for 35 to 50 cars; a double roof will provide air-cooling space.

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