The end of October saw the beginning of the construction of new walkways on the Acropolis. The construction was purportedly prompted by the need to provide access to the monuments for people with disabilities; its completion should coincide with the completion of the new lift to the site (whose construction began some months ago).
However, the look of the new paths has prompted vehement reactions. A heated debate began on social media and the press on whether the new paths were really necessary, the method scientifically approved, and the end result aesthetically appropriate.
I will endeavor to look at all these issues and discuss each to the best of my ability.
An inaccessible rock
The Acropolis was first settled by people looking for a defensible spot; needless to say, in such cases accessibility is not a priority. The site is on a rock rising out of the plain; it has steep cliffs on all sides except its western one which, for most of its history, was heavily fortified. Today most of those fortifications have been torn down and the site is accessible via a stairway whose steps have been worn smooth by millions. These slippery steps are followed by an equally slippery, steep and winding ramp which leads to the Propylaea.
People with disabilities would be unable to enter if a lift had not been installed on the northern side. Exposed to the elements, the lift aged badly until it finally stopped working. Construction of a new one is under way and it is hoped it will be ready before long.
At the top
On the Acropolis itself, the native rock has been worn to a slippery sheen by countless feet. By the seventies it became obvious that some sort of covering would be necessary, not only to protect the visitors, but also to protect the surface of the rock while allowing the restoration vehicles to move heavy loads.
The solution chosen was applying a thin layer of concrete along two routes: the main one, starting from the Propylaea and ending at the NE corner of the Parthenon and a second one, along the temple’s southern side. After the lift was installed, a third path was added, leading from the lift to the main route. A special mixture of concrete was chosen so as to blend with the environment as much as possible. After decades of heavy use and countless repairs, it was in a poor state of repair.
A new solution
A few days ago, a new project, financed by the Onassis Foundation, began. The old walkways will be resurfaced while more paths and viewing areas will be created. There was mention of differently colored paths in order to help visitors to locate features such as the Panathenaic Way or various structures that no longer exist.
The ministry claims that such interventions will not only improve accessibility for the disabled but will also make the site safer for all visitors.
Work has already begun, starting from the Propylaea, while the old concrete in the area east of the Parthenon has been removed in preparation for the new one.
A protective plastic sheet is laid on the surface of the Acropolis rock, followed by a metal grid. Then the concrete is poured, held in place by a wooden frame until it sets. Finally, the frame is removed, the surface is smoothed over and the crew moves on to the next section.
- Easy to spot, hard to remove
According to internationally established rules, any intervention on a historic monument or site must be readily recognizable and easily reversible. In the case of an access walkway, care should be taken so that it will blend in; naturally, one wants a site as accessible as possible, but the paths should not stand out too much.
Obviously, the concrete paths will be easily recognizable as modern interventions, but will they blend in? And will they be easily removable? The iron grid reinforcements are a strong indication that heavy machinery and power tools will be necessary for their removal.
- Concrete? Really?
The fact that concrete was chosen for the paths in the ’70s does not mean that the same material should be used half a century later. Today restorers have a much wider variety of materials in their disposal, with properties that fit specific demands, environmental conditions and so on.
The humble concrete may be cheap and easily applied; however, the end result is far from pleasing to the eye. Critics argue that the wide, even surfaces with their rough, unfinished edges clash terribly with the monuments and detract from the site’s beauty.
The ground of the Acropolis is not even; the gradient from the Propylaea to the Parthenon is steep enough to make this part of the path inaccessible to wheelchair users, no matter how smooth its surface. Some representatives of the disabled expressed their satisfaction, whereas others remarked that, despite claims to the contrary, a large part of the archaeological site will still be inaccessible to wheelchair users. In fact, the disabled would have preferred a project that would facilitate access to the site itself instead of not merely on it.
The decision to resurface the paths was taken in May and the license to proceed was given in September. The license stipulates that tests should be made to determine the most suitable materials and procedures before application. However, there doesn’t seem to have been enough time for such tests before construction began.
The license mandates the use of a layer of clay between the Acropolis limestone and the concrete; instead, sheets of plastic were used.
- Proximity to the antiquities
As the old paths are being widened to allow for more visitors, their edges come much too close and may cover traces of buildings and other structures on the Acropolis.
- The weather
The license mentions that a study would be required to determine how best to manage rainwater runoff on the Acropolis, after the addition of so many impermeable surfaces. Such a study has yet to be released, and there are no visible signs of water management systems on the new paths.
- Information lockdown
While the Acropolis is a UNESCO heritage site, neither the UN organization nor the scientific community were informed before work began.
The Parthenon restoration had been preceded by long discussions and a couple of conventions where the problems pertaining to the monument had been presented and all sorts of solutions proposed and thoroughly examined.
Any intervention on a monument of such importance should not begin without consulting with the scientific community first and without informing the public so as to make them participants of the process.
The ministry’s response
Alarmed by the intensity of the criticism, the Ministry of Culture initially responded with an announcement which inflamed instead of reassuring: Did the well-meaning citizens not know that the Acropolis paths had been surfaced with concrete decades ago? Or would they rather exclude their disabled co-citizens from visiting the site?
A second announcement
Two days later, a second announcement followed, this one focusing on the points raised by the critics and drawing on the support of academic M. Korres, the much respected head of the ongoing restoration work on the site.
Unfortunately, the announcement has yet to be published in English, so I will do my best to summarize its key points:
- This is not a simple resurfacing; the project is part of a new study (not yet released) for the restoration of the surface of the site as it was in antiquity. The paths’ height, inclination and surfaces are based on archaeological studies and are in fact replicating the ancient Panathenaic Way.
- Concrete had been used before on the Acropolis, so the practice is nothing new.
- It is no ordinary concrete: studies have been made to determine the best materials for the site. The concrete chosen is a mixture of several materials, of which cement is only 12%. The end result will be much like artificial stone.
- Other materials may be used for the planned future expansions, which will include more paths and viewing platforms.
- The paths must be durable for the restoration vehicles; they will not simply serve the needs of visitors (whether disabled or not).
- The paths have been widened to avoid overcrowding (a chronic problem of the site).
- The new paths are safer, with even, non-slippery surfaces.
- No ancient trace has been lost; everything covered has been photographed, measured and meticulously recorded.
- The interventions are completely reversible, as scientific practices dictate.
- Finally, the Minister, Ms. L. Mendoni, reassured the public that, when finished, the pathways will look much better than they do now. She also urged the public to trust the experts, and pay no heed to fake news and negativity spread in social media and the press.
I have to admit that I am yet undecided as to whether these interventions are for better or worse.
As a guide, who has worked for more than 17 years on the Acropolis, guiding all kinds of guests, including people with disabilities, I have experienced first-hand the problems the site poses. There is no denying the fact that it was inaccessible to people with disabilities while its slippery surfaces were a danger to everyone. An intervention to solve these problems was long overdue, but it remains to be seen whether the present project will address them to satisfaction; besides the construction itself, providing accessibility and avoiding overcrowding will also depend on the proper management of the site.
As an archaeologist, I am worried about the extent and the form of this intervention. Concrete, no matter how carefully applied, is not a light material and will cause problems of its own. Covering traces of past activity on the natural rock (cuts for inscriptions or statuary, traces of foundations etc) may protect them from the daily wear and tear, but will also hide them from visitors and archaeologists alike.
Comparing this intervention with similar ones on other sites, I believe that the new paths on the Acropolis are more prominent than they should be and will almost certainly not blend in with their surroundings. While wheelchairs and the restoration trucks may need concrete paths, I believe that for the viewing platforms other materials (such as beaten earth) might be more appropriate.
I am very much afraid that a large concrete surface immediately after the Propylaea and right in front of the Parthenon will change the look of the site as well as each visitor’s first impression. It is not merely an issue of practicality or aesthetics. The Acropolis is an iconic site, imbued with heavy symbolism; it is not merely of Greek but of global importance. One should be careful when making any intervention, no matter how small, to a site of such importance.
In conclusion, as a guide, I am glad that the new interventions may make life easier both for me, as a professional, and for every visitor to the Acropolis. However, as an archaeologist, I am afraid that the scale of the project will negatively affect the site.
In any case, the Acropolis will never be the same again.
Note: I apologise, but most of my links in this article are in Greek, because I could not find the same in English. I hope that with the help of my summary and some automatic translation you will be able to at least get their gist.