Sunday, June 22, 2014

Fragments on Philopappos Hill

During my time in central Athens, I was surprised to find a lush, green space in the very heart of the city, bounded by a series of hills.

The Acropolis is the most famous of those hills, and the most densely constructed, laden as it is with Parthenon, Propylaea, Erechtheum and a series of temples to Athena, Zeus, and others.

Just east of the Acropolis, and much lower, is Mars Hill, or Areopagos, the Hill of Justice, an open, wind-swept rock looking up toward the Acropolis and out across the east and south of the city.

Pnyx is north of Mars Hill. Once densely populated, all that remains is an eroded stone platform with steps carved in its side.  

Further north is Hill of the Nymphs, topped by an observatory jarringly out of place when viewed from fields of wildflowers and ruins.

West of all these hills, taller by far, is Philopappos Hill, or Mouseoin, the Hill of the Muses. 

On my first day wandering in Athens, I explored the lower regions of all five hills, then sat a while on Mars Hill, watching the magpies sailing through the trees below.

Another morning, I walked up a trail to Pnyx and sat on a bench looking out toward the sea. A woman and her elderly mother shared the bench with me, and we had a friendly conversation that consisted of mostly nods and smiles, while the woman tried to help her mother understand that although I greeted them with “Yassas,” clearly, I couldn’t speak Greek.

My last free morning in Athens I decided I’d head to the top of Philopappos. The forecast promised rain, so I put my small umbrella in my bird bag, grabbed my binoculars and camera, and bought a coffee and croissant at the small coffee shop near our hotel before heading up Dionysiou Areopagitou, the pedestrianized street along the south base of the Acropolis.

Just as I reached the walkway leading up Philopappos, a school bus pulled up beside me and disgorged a merry crowd of middle school students who swarmed around me then separated into twos and threes, disappearing in every direction.

I noticed several packs of boys heading up the main trail, laughing and shoving, and decided to take a different route. I was hoping to see some birds along the way and that seemed unlikely in the wake of so much adolescent energy.

I wandered down along the ancient Koile road, dating back to at least 600 BC, and sat a while on the edge of a rock-cut terrace, part of the remains of a thriving community nearly three thousand years ago. Then I climbed one of the rock-cut staircases and started up the weaving paths toward the monument to Julius Antiochus Philopappos, erected around 114 AD.

Everywhere I went there were signs of normal urban life: a jogger crunching along the gravel path past the graffiti-embellished rocks that once were walls of shops and homes, dog walkers, lone shoppers carrying plastic sacks, occasional pairs of those middle school students, sitting and talking on a comfortable ledge or strolling lazily along.

Halfway up the hill I turned a corner and came across a rock-paved space with a picnic table and a good view toward the sea. A balding man looked up from his morning paper, nodded, then went back to reading.

Along the ridge approaching the peak, I noticed three things:

An interesting pattern of rock and ceramic fragments embedded in the path.

The start of rain, as the clouds darkened and thunder rolled in the distance.

And then, an odd banging noise, somewhere nearby, and the familiar sound of young teen boys shouting.

I pulled out my umbrella and hurried on. I was soon in the clearing at the base of the monument, where I found the cause of the banging I’d heard: a dozen or so boys were trying to wedge themselves into one of the metal guardhouses that dot the Athenian hills. The banging was an attempt to close the door; the shouting was the noise of those outside, still trying to wedge themselves in to escape the now pelting rain.

Just past the monument, an open rock face looked out over the Parthenon, Parthenon Museum, and the outstretched city. I stood a moment on the slippery rock, snapped a few photos, then hurried on, rain dripping all around me.

There were more patterns in the paving in the path. What had seemed like an isolated piece of spontaneous art was clearly part of a larger pattern. As the rain slowed to a drizzle, I paused to take photos, impressed by the whimsical variations in an overarching theme.

Not far down the hill I came to an interesting series of terraces, walls, and stone benches. The walls were part of the Diateichisma, fortification built in the 4th century BC, then periodically rebuilt, repaired, and kept in use until medieval times.

The terraces and benches seemed to honor the walls, to incorporate them, in the same way the paving had incorporated bits of rock and shards of broken pots.  I paused for a minute to admire the design and to note the view out toward the Parthenon, then stepped out of the way of a torrent of boys careening down the hill, shouting an energetic call and response as they vanished through the trees.

The trail ended opposite a church that bore the now unmistakeable design that had shaped the paving, benches and terraces. My guide books had said little about Philopappos Hill, nothing at all about the church, but I found a small plaque nearby that gave a hint of explanation: 
Dimitri Pikionis, an inspired architect, city planner, artist, set designer and thinker executed the landscaping of the archaeological area around the Acropolis, Philopappos’ Hill and St. Demetrios Loumbardiaris between 1951 and 1957. . . . He integrated the remains of the ancient habitations that were on the site. [The work] was done without preplanning, on site, using skilled craftsmen. 
Intrigued, I’ve since done more research on Pikionis. He taught architecture for years at the Athens Polytechnicum but completed few projects of his own: six houses, a school, a theater, a playground, an apartment building.

His influence, though, extends far beyond that. His work was organic – closely attuned to the landscape, careful to integrate historic and environmental features. He was insistent on using only native plants long before that idea was common.

A memorial written by one o f his students describes the way he both challenged and trusted the teams that worked on the Philopappos project, first clarifying the plan and offering vision, then “resting on a small stool, he let them free.”

What I know of Dimitri Pikionis is what I saw in the work on Philopappos Hill: a joyful energy, a whimsical reuse of historical fragments, an insistence on local context. And, apparently, a willingness to trust others with the vision – to allow an organic expansion of the work, beyond his personal reach.

In thinking of him, I find myself thinking of the Apostle Paul, whose footsteps we traced in the days just after my encounter with Pikionis’ work.

Paul did his best to embed the good news of God’s kingdom into the contexts where he traveled, quoting and repositioning bits of philosophy and popular wisdom he encountered on the way, doing his best to show a greater design, then entrusting the message to others on as he traveled on again.

I sometimes consider my own work fragmentary – gardens planted and left for someone else, projects half-done abruptly set aside. I feel a bit like Paul, planning to go one way, then directed somewhere else, investing in one place and time, then stepping away, forced to trust the work to others.

Pikionis’ work on Philopappos Hill reminds and encourages me: we are part of a pattern begun long before us, reaching far beyond us.

Our best work isn’t a grand structure, like the Parthenon, or some grand marble temple. 

It’s smaller, more organic, and in it's own way, more lasting:

Vision shared.

Next generation trained.

Fragments rearranged, and offered to others, in a context that brings new understanding, and invites others into joy. 

This is the sixth in a series, Texts in Context, revisting two formative weeks spent in Greece in March 2014Earlier posts: 

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