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October 27, 2002

Getty vs. Acropolis redux


In a previous posting I recounted how disappointed I was in the Getty Museum complex, given the virtually limitless financial resources of its sponsors, comparing it to its disadvantage with the Acropolis in Athens. Mentally I put the disparity down, in large part, to the inferior performance of Richard Meier, the Getty’s International Style-mannerist architect, in contrast to what the Athenian trio of Iktinos, Kallikrates and Mnesikles had delivered working within the much tighter stylistic and technological constraints of classical architecture.

Acropolis Temple Complex by Iktinos, Kallikrates and Mnesikles

When I discussed the subject with a friend, his grimace when I made the comparison clearly indicated that he thought I was being unfair to Meier, or possibly any modern architect—would his name even be remembered 2500 years from now?

Getty Museum Complex by Richard Meier

I pondered my friend’s reaction later, thinking about the various alternate explanations that might have unfairly advantaged the Athenians over the Los Angelians.

The first such advantage was undoubtedly political. After the Battle of Marathon, where the Athenians and their allies had defeated the Persians, the Athenians planned a series of new temples on the Acropolis in celebration. The first of these was in construction when the Persians sacked Athens in 480 BC. The next year, the Greeks defeated the Persians at Plataea, but the building plans for the Acropolis were shelved for nearly 30 years. Meanwhile, the Delian League, led by the Athenian fleet, pried the Greek city-states of the Aegean loose from the grip of the Persian Empire. Athenian power and wealth grew with the success of the League, until, under the “democratic” leadership of Pericles, it was effectively converted into the Athenian empire. To symbolize this new era, Pericles returned to the abandoned project of rebuilding the Acropolis, although making it grander to emphasize Athens’ greatly expanded financial resources. This program carried a huge weight of political and patriotic symbolism that elevated its emotional significance for the Athenians. The Getty represented nothing comparably meaningful to the people of Los Angeles. The performance of architects—like most artists—tends to rise to the level expected from them by their patrons, and Meier’s performance could not have been elevated by Los Angeles’s tepid interest in his efforts.

But the larger advantage of the Athenians was religious. Looking for pictures of the Acropolis and its buildings, I visited quite a few websites, and in the process stumbled across one called “Sacred Places” by Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe of Sweet Briar College (you can visit it here.) This site, although still under construction, intends to be—in its own words—an “exploration of how and why places become invested with sacredness and how the sacred is embodied or made manifest through art and architecture.” Professor Witcombe’s thesis is that such loci (including Lascaux, Newgrange, Stonehenge, Abu Simbel, Giza, Teotihuacán, Chartres, etc.) achieved a quality of ‘sacredness’ first and that famous buildings or artwork present at each site followed on afterwards, intended to showcase or highlight that sacred quality. Moreover, many of these sacred sites contained (1) a real or artificially constructed cave, (2) an astronomically determined orientation or (3) both.

The Acropolis certainly fits neatly into Professor Witcombe’s main thesis: archaeological evidence indicates that since Neolithic times the site had been associated with female power, as the numerous female figurines found there attest. Although also used as a fortress since the Bronze Age, it remained a sacred site at all times up to the Classic era. At the time of Pericles building project, no one other than the gods had resided on the Acropolis for several hundred years.

Parthenon Reconstruction

The Parthenon, the climax of the Acropolis complex, was the house of the patron deity of the city, Athena. While the Parthenon was the evolutionary pinnacle of several centuries of Greek temple design, Prof. Witcombe notes that the special refinements that separate it from any of its predecessors (the curving of the entire base platform and all the horizontal lines so that they bulged upward in the middle, as well as the closer spacing of the columns near the corners and the tilt of the columns in towards the center) may well have had a specifically religious as well as aesthetic rationale:

There may also be a more 'cosmic' reason for this design… it may be wrong to assume that it was for purely aesthetic reasons that such subtle refinements, which must have enormously inflated the cost of the building, were undertaken.

Moreover, despite the sophistication of the design of the Parthenon, the cella or naos--the inner chamber--of the temple was not provided with windows, so that the interior space was dark and cave-like. According to Prof. Witcombe, this was no accident:

The Neoplatonist Porphyry (234-305 CE) explains that before there were temples, religious rites took place in caves. In this sense, it may be argued that temples in ancient Greece and Rome were in some respects man-made substitutes for the cave…One set of doors provided the only access and the only source of natural light [in the Parthenon’s cella]. The doors would have opened on religious occasions, and perhaps at times when the location and angle of the sun (and because the temple was so oriented in the first place) permitted sunlight to penetrate directly into the otherwise dark interior space [as at the “artificial caves” of Newgrange in Ireland and Abu Simbel in Egypt.]

Equally the unique structure of the Erechtheum with its four sets of columnar supports, four levels, and three structural units (each with its own roof) was the result not only of the configuration of the rock surface and the previous terracing in the area, but also because it was necessary to build around the various cult spots which made that part of the Acropolis one of the most sacred places in Athens. These cult spots included the salt-water well and the trident marks of the mythical contest between Athena and Poseidon over which god got to serve as the city’s patron deity. The Erechtheum was also designed as the home of a much-venerated wooden statue of Athena Polias and various other Attic deities, including Erechtheus.

Erechtheum Reconstruction

Maybe it shouldn’t have to be said, but the design features of the Acropolis were not dictated by a dry set of Classical “precedents” or “rules” but were the solutions to the specific, complex and historical demands of the Athenian religious tradition. The lack of such emotionally charged “demands” at the Getty site (which had no particular significance other than being a previously unbuilt-on hilltop in Brentwood) did not enrich Richard Meier’s design. And again, one can only imagine that an architect working to meet the needs of such a religious/patriotic tradition might well reach greater heights of inspiration than one working for an oil baron’s trust fund in the latter stages of the religiously impoverished 20th Century. (No annual Los Angeles festivals were going to wind their way up the hills of Brentwood to perform sacrifices at the Getty and clothe a cult statue of the city’s patron deity with a new robe, woven by specially chosen Angelian virgins.) All Mr. Meier had to work with was the religion of art, and in comparison to a real religion, that’s pretty weak beer.



posted by Friedrich at October 27, 2002


Please Help Me!

I need the azimuths of the sides of the Parthenon of Athens. I have searched everywhere and have managed only to find some inadequate maps, from which I can estimate that the long axis is inclined at somewhere between 15 and 20 degrees North of East. It seems to vary from map to map! I cannot believe that no one has ever properly measured the azimuths. I desperately need precise data for my research and would appreciate any help that anyone can give me in the matter.

With my thanks in advance
Peter Sault

Posted by: Peter Sault on December 11, 2002 2:49 AM

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