Acropolis - Parthenon umbrellas
A bevy of umbrella-wielding tourists crowd the Parthenon. Photo by Josh Clark.

Like other architectural icons (the tower of Pisa, the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower), the Parthenon is such a common image that it has become cliché, the stuff of paper coffee cups. This false sense of familiarity left me unprepared for the moment earlier this month when I first experienced the ancient temple in person. The Parthenon is breathtaking.

Even as a ruin,[1] the temple is enormous, powerful, beautiful. In particular, though, I was surprised by the overall elegance of the Acropolis temples and the proliferation of delicate design details.

The Acropolis turns out to be an object lesson in design subtlety within the scope of a colossal project. It’s a 2500-year-old example of clever user-experience design.

“The gods are in the details”

Mies van der Rohe famously said, “God is in the details.” The architect was speaking in praise of minimalist modern design, so it might seem strange to compare his “less is more” sensibility to the monumental architecture of 5th century BC (a time when “the gods are in the details” might anyway have been a more appropriate phrase). But Mies van der Rohe’s words stress the importance of excellence in execution and the power of small details to lend grace to the overall project.

Like their 20th-century counterpart, the architects of the Acropolis were clearly mindful of such grace notes — surprisingly so, considering the jumbo scale of their project.

When you visit the Acropolis, it quickly becomes obvious that the overriding concepts of its architecture are strength and power.[2] After a while, one even begins to see the Parthenon’s gigantic marble columns as figures marching east toward Persia, the enemy of ancient Athens. But while it’s certainly an architecture calculated to inspire awe, it’s not accomplished by brute force.

Elements of beautiful design are often nearly invisible, working their magic at a subconscious level that soothes without distracting. It’s only through intimate acquaintance with a place or object that its aesthetic allowances and beveled edges gradually become visible, their roles appreciated.

Truth is, I’m sure that Ellen and I would have overlooked just about all of the finer design elements at the Acropolis if we hadn’t had some help to bring them into focus. We had the good fortune of making a friend-of-a-friend connection with Molly, an American archaeologist and historian in Athens whom we engaged for a three-hour barnstorming of the Acropolis. As we climbed around the site, Molly gave us the history, pointed out subtly awesome architectural features and patiently fielded a barrage of questions.[3]

Elegance amid monumental projects

Acropolis - Southwest Parthenon
The southwest corner of the Parthenon. Photo by Josh Clark.

Molly pointed out a bevy of details that were carefully designed to give the Acropolis structures a heightened sense of order, symmetry and elegance.

The columns of the Parthenon slope gently inward to correct the perspective when looking up at the temple that would otherwise make them appear to be crooked, leaning outward. For the same reason, the corner columns are spaced further apart from their neighbors than the other columns, and had a larger diameter. This was a purposeful break in symmetry that had the paradoxical effect of making the building appear more symmetrical.

Likewise, the floor of the Parthenon was subtly curved so that the center was 6cm higher than its edges. If the floor had been left flat, it would look like it was buckling; the bulge made it appear flat to the naked eye.

There was no structural reason to do this, Molly told us. It was all to improve the aesthetic experience of order and symmetry. “I mean, the math behind making the floor curve 6cm to the middle… I can’t even conceive of it,” she said. “Exclamation points are well deserved here! It’s amazing!”

These were quiet architectural details, but I found myself sharing Molly’s enthusiasm. The architect was given a brief to build a temple of monumental scale, period. And yet in this overall scheme of strength and size, he maintained these illusory details that invisibly improved the human experience of the temple. They were not strictly necessary to the goal of the project and yet combined to make the Parthenon the finest temple of its day.

I was particularly awestruck in this regard by the judicious use of different-colored stone in the Propylaea, the enormous marble gateway to the Acropolis. Stick with me here, it’s tough to describe…

Acropolis - Propylaea
The north wing of the Propylaea. Note the dark stone of the bottom step (click to enlarge). Photo by Josh Clark.

To get to the Parthenon, you walk through the central part of the Propylaea, flanked on both sides by two building wings. The facade of the central structure has six enormous Doric columns. The facades of the two side wings are built to appear as delicate miniatures of the main facade, with narrower columns. Yet the floor and roof of the wings are exactly the same height as the main building. To make the wings appear smaller, the architect applied another optical illusion:

The entire structure sits atop a base of four steps. For the wings, though, the first step is built from a darker stone than the other steps. Unless you’re looking for it, it really looks like the wings are built upon three steps, not four, which makes them seem set back, smaller and less imposing than the central building’s main entrance.

What amazing foresight. The architect actually built into his plan the exact color of stone for that single step, anticipating the need for an optical effect to show his design in the best possible light. Well deserved exclamation points indeed!

The details matter

These were projects constructed 25 centuries ago from marble and limestone, built by human hands using primitive levers. You didn’t get do-overs if the design went wrong. That careful planning was required goes without saying, but the specific details and feats of architectural illusion are remarkable examples of careful design and commitment to the user experience.

My working materials are bits and bytes — I do get do-overs — but my visit to the Acropolis gave me a renewed sense in the importance of getting the quiet parts of design right. There’s real value in taking time and care to create a sense of calm order and symmetry in your creations. The details matter.

1. During our visit, we learned that the Parthenon was damaged only recently. The Venetians bombed it in 1687, blowing its roof off, to destroy a gunpowder depot stored there by the Turkish occupation. A restoration process is underway to take the Parthenon back to its 1687 pre-bombing condition. [back]

2. The original Acropolis buildings were leveled by the Persians in 480 BC. It was a devastating symbolic blow to the spiritual heart of Athens, something akin to the 9/11 World Trade Center attack. Like that modern example, the Acropolis attack had a galvanizing effect that led to a hugely successful campaign to raise funds and build the military. Twenty years later, with a huge navy and an enormous war chest, the Athenians began to rebuild the Acropolis as a mighty symbol of strength, piety and wealth. [back]

3. It’s hard to overstate the value of a great guide when you visit a place with rich visual and/or historic information. My advice: If it’s important to you to understand a place you’re visiting, find a good private guide. There are lots of crummy, low-rent guides out there (and forget the big tour groups); it’s worth it to spend some coin for a little time with someone who is both personable and deeply knowledgeable. (Hey, whattya know, that’s the whole concept behind Ellen’s company, Paris Muse.) [back]

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