The versatile architect of the “Generation of the 1930s” who remodeled the most historic Athenian landscape
Dimitris Pikionis was one of the most important artistic figures of the first half of the 20th century in Greece, leaving his mark in Athens, as an architect, a painter, a philosopher, a poet and an academic professor. He is mostly known for the design and implementation of the paved path that leads to the Parthenon and the green works around the Acropolis and Philopappos Hill, which have been designated as historic preservation monuments and works of art of global interest.
His biography was rich, with excellent studies and important teachers, and in 1925 he became an assistant professor at the National Technical University of Athens in the division of Decoration. Five years later, he became a permanent professor, while he continued teaching until 1958, always urging his students to learn science and virtue without priding themselves. He was elected a full member of the Athens Academy of Architecture in 1966, two years before his death, on August 28, 1968.
He was born in Piraeus in 1887 to parents originated from Chios island, and was the first cousin of the poet Lambros Porfiras and the journalist George Syriotis of “To Vima” newspaper. His father, like himself, from a young age, was inclined to painting, which together with poetry constituted the first setting for Dimitris Pikionis.
In 1906 he became the first student of Constantine Parthenis while studying at the National Technical University of Athens, where he received his civil engineering degree in 1908. He continued his studies in Munich and then in Paris, where he was taught drawing and painting at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. At the same time, he enrolled in the architect’s workshop Chifflot and attended architectural composition lessons at the École des Beaux-Arts. His real desire was to deal with painting, not architecture. During his studies, there was also the presence of Anastasios Orlando, Giorgio de Chirico, Pericles Giannopoulos and Giorgos Bouzianis.
In 1912, in the period of military recruitment for the Balkan wars, he returned to Greece, and continued to paint and simultaneously began the first studies on the architecture of modern Greek tradition. He designed many houses from the folk architecture of Aegina. In 1921 he was appointed a curator of Professor A. Orlando’s course in Morphology of Architecture and Rhythmology, where he remained until mid-1923. He married Alexandra Anastasiou in 1925, with whom together they had five children.
During this period, he maintained important spiritual friendships with Spyros Alibertis, Bournias, Ioannis Apostolakis, George and Fotis Politis, Kontoglou, Papaloukas, architects Mitsakis, S. Doukas, Velmow, Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas, Tsarouchis, Engonopoulos and Diamantopoulos. Between 1935 and 1937 he published, with his painter and friend Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas, the 3rd Eye Magazine, in which he published several of his own texts. The magazine was characterized as artistic and collaborated with names such as writers Stratis Doukas and Takis Papatsonis, the painter Spyros Papaloukas, theatrical director Socrates Karantinos, the sculptor Michalis Tombros and engraver Angelos Theodoropoulos.
His work as an architect began with the Moraitis house in Tzitzifies, from 1921 to 1923. It was a building with Attic folk architecture. In 1932, upon the completion of the Elementary School in Pefkakia, Lycabettus, he realized that he did not find satisfaction in his works, and so he changed his aesthetic perceptions. He thought that the ecumenical spirit must be combined with the spirit of ethnicity. All of his subsequent architectural works were based on this concept. In the 1940s and 1950s, his architectural creation was limited to blueprints for graves. However, in the immediately following period, from 1951 to 1957, he was involved in many projects. Among them is the formation of the archaeological site around the Acropolis and Philopappos Hill, which is his most important and famous work.
Perhaps today, it may seem an integral part of the sacred hill of the Acropolis and have become identical over the years to the physiognomy and morphology of the heart of Athens, but, if we “owe it” to anyone, the ingenious design and design of pedestrian access roads, the spirals The corridors that lead to the most important monument of Greek antiquity, is none other than the inspiring architect Dimitris Pikionis. His devotion to the natural landscape and folk architecture, which modern Greece was fortunate enough to benefit from, gave him the opportunity to realize a vision of artistic conception concerning the wider archaeological site and the neighboring promenade on the Philopappos Hill. Like the Temple of St. Demetrius of Loumbardiaris, with its tourist booth. Works of great inspiration and reflection for which he had to fight many battles, a daily struggle against bureaucracy and responsibility, to be given all the guarantees to complete them.
During the four years that the works were held, the then Minister of Public Works, Konstantinos Karamanlis, from February 1954 until 1958 when he was inaugurated as prime minister, began his daily program with field visits accompanied by the architect, initially to visit him his choices, which made reference to harmony and scale (aesthetic subjects fought back fiercely engineers of the ministry) and later, when the project was completed, his personal desire to fully understand the grand plan, thanks to the brave, for that era, political decision he had supported. It was not only expected to highlight the Attican landscape and the Acropolis in the most ideal way to satisfy the international public (at that time Greece was launching its major tourist openings) but at the same time not to affect the aesthetic history of the “sacred” place.
The reason why this particular project is so important is that it has an ingenious design that fits perfectly into the landscape. Working collectively with students and local marble carvers, Pikionis applied the special technique of paving using debris that was rescued from the violent reconstruction of the ever-growing and expanding the capital city of Greece. Unlike the industrial and archaeological transformations of the landscape, his design remains the only type of urban planning ever implemented on the slopes around the Acropolis.
“The use of Cézanne’s practice led me away from the ideals of the West. The East and Byzantium revealed to me how to create a fall from the nature of the material of the symbolic language of imitation, which is the way the only valid and worthy of the spirit to express ideas and feelings of Life. Someone rightly said that the course of Hellenism would depend on our responsible attitude between East and West. I will add: and by the proper composition of the opposing currents in a new form. I could explain how this problem is presented in Architecture. But it would suffice to say that I am an orientalist”, once said Pikionis.
He devoted himself in folk tradition, in a post-war period when almost everyone was affected by international trends often imitated by misguided innovations, he gathered the best craftsmen of Athens, marble carvers, masons, carpenters with their crews, trusted them and literally with their hands and assistance, step-by-step, and with incomplete designs, they were mostly improvising to build a majestic landmark. It was the application of the principles and aesthetic choices of the life and career of the then seventy-year-old architect, who had started from the desks of the National Technical University half a century ago, and through varied artistic pursuits touched his most perfect profoundly emblematic piece of work.
St. Dimitrios Loubardiaris, East Side 1954 – 1957, Benaki Museum
Pikionis had admitted that “Architecture was not the true center of my natural talent”. A man of goodwill and moderation, he experienced an internal divide: the painter who wanted to be done, and the architect who eventually became, which affected all of his work. Even when he entered the Polytechnic to study civil engineering, he continued his painting career, opposite the School of Fine Arts. She is one of the first and few of the generation of Greek artists who stood up to the anecdotal art of that era in Europe and did not reject it without debate, such as the academic majority.
When his daughter, Agni, discovered the archive of his works, it was divided into the following sections: “From Nature” (1904 – 1925), “Memories from Paris” (1910 – 1920), “Ancient” (1915 – 1946), “Of Fantasy” (1930 – 1940) and “Laika” (1940 – 1950). The names he gave in these sections testify to the close relationship between his painting, his architecture and his contemplative pursuits. He chose not to present his painting, perhaps because he considered it merely an exercise in parallel to his architectural research. He might again think it was completely personal to expose it publicly. The only paintings he gave to be published were in “Zygos” magazine in 1958. His painting was exhibited for the first time in 1978 at the National Gallery.
Pikionis’s work, untitled, on paper.
“I wanted to paint alone. Not only because one is not always willing to point out to others the potential weaknesses, but because art was for me a religious act of devotion and worship to Mother Nature, and this sacredness would be a danger to the ignorance of many. So I was alone in this grove, which was my sanctuary. Alone or with Steris. And he felt like me and respected these religious moments of the other… One day, watching a German musician, a professor of the Conservatory, who was staying nearby, he confessed to a common friend: “Yesterday I saw two in the grove painters and I was willing to play their cello”. Since then, the deep colors, the greens, the carmines, the ever-evolving sounds of the music”, said Pikionis.
Pikionis, a man of good intentions and modesty, was experiencing an internal divide: The painter who he wanted to become and the architect who he eventually became, which affected all of his work. A versatile artist with multiple knowledge deepened philosophical aesthetic pursuits and as noted by Hadjikyriakos-Gikas, “Amid the desert those times Pikionis was really a recluse, a young John of the Ladder, a humble hermit or an ancient Greek a wise man whose intellectual and moral conceptions acquired the accuracy of a geometric rule”.
“The great thing with Pikionis is that at a time when building science came to replace architecture, Pikionis reacted by wanting to present architecture as art without being ashamed of it, like his contemporaries who thought it was more appropriate to be building scientists”, Yannis Tsarouchis wrote of the inspirational architect, thinker and philosopher who opened new aesthetic horizons in Greece.
A defender of the Greek art that occurred from tradition and historical memory, he advocated a return to the roots, in the sense that the vigor of the new creation would burst through the Greek land. Pikionis’s work can today be regarded as an artistic counterpart of the modernist era without it denying the simplicity of expression of the modern movement. The Elementary School in Pefkakia of Lycabettus and the Experimental School of the University of Thessaloniki demonstrate the moderate acceptance by Pikionis of the principles of the modern movement.
Pikionis’s architectural work combines artistic creation and philosophical reflection. At first purely racist, then combining the ecumenical spirit with the spirit of ethnicity, but always intertwined with history, tradition and at the same time modernism, his work is divided into two periods: before and after 1932.
For this change in thought of his, which made him refuse his pre-1932 works, he notes: From that time on my aesthetic perceptions have changed. The rationalist treatment of the figure as a detachment of its organic matter […] seemed to me that it could not resolve its transcendent nature. Nice is necessarily organic, but not all organic is good for humans. A sewer system may be instructive for the architect […]. But it cannot be the object of the joy and enjoyment that art alone gives. The shape is transcendental, so it cannot be tackled with a narrow rationalist view.
The School in Pefkakia is part of a program of extensive educational reform and construction of school buildings in the 1930s. It belongs to the reference works of Greek modernism, though Pikionis renounced it shortly after its construction. This is a typical school building with indoor spaces arranged around a central outdoor area. Built at the foot of Lycabettus Falls, it slopes down a steep slope. The clean modern volumes, which accommodate closed functions, and the central outdoor area follow the slope, forming planes. Thus, the schoolyard acquires scale and theatricality and can accommodate multiple activities that concern each classroom individually or with all school children. Once again in this work of Pikionis, traces of history and folk tradition are synthesized in the spirit of modernity. The large arcade of the entrance is reminiscent of ancient Greek architecture. The terraces, the paving and the staircases in traditional island architecture. On the whole, however, the school was built on the operating theories of the German Bauhaus school: rationality and purity in functions, with plenty of free space, with bright classrooms. The constructed building was built with modern materials: the carrier body is made of reinforced concrete, while the geometric and rugged faces are dominated by white plastered walls and large wooden glazing.
Elementary School, Lycabettus Pine Trees, 1932
Following the neoclassical architectural works of the 19th century and the romantic gardening of the National Garden, it took about a century for a public outdoor project of such significance to the greater Athens. The project comprises two major spiral paths, starting almost opposite to the contribution of Dionysius Areopagitus and Apostle Paul. One goes north up the Acropolis hill to the sanctuary of Athena. The other departs from it by creating two conditions of view: the first one from “Loumbardiaris”, where the main part of the Parthenon pops up for the first time, and the second at Andiros, where the route ends in a twisting direction. Throughout the work, Pikionis used visual perception as a synthetic tool. A spatial system of visual etchings unites the landscape -closer or further away- with its history. At the two points of view, however, the engravings are particularly evident.
In forming around St. Dimitrios Loumbardiaris joints of paving at the entrance to the outdoor space, directing his gaze. In the semi-open area of the old cafe, the sloping roof faces the Acropolis. At the top of the hill, in Andros, marble seating and small stone structures are arranged to place the man with the best views of the Propylaea and the Acropolis in general. Also interesting is the way in which Pikionis conceives the concept of Nature. Nature here is intertwined with the history and past of its civilization. It incorporates human writings and remnants of an older residence, so much so that it does not stand out. Ancient monuments, buildings, rocks, shrubs as a single landscape tell the story of Attica Earth.
Landscaping around the Acropolis and Philopappos Hill, 1954-1958: Plan of the escalator from the parking lot to the Acropolis.
Filothei’s playground, or more correctly “kids’ garden” as Pikionis named it, is one of his works that expresses the notion that all cultures have a common and eternal basis: everything is different expressions of the same. As he characteristically states, he sees: “The world tradition as if it were one single thing, obeying the “fair” principles (the principles of tradition are “fair”, the forms change)”.
In the kiosk and at the entrance of the kids’ garden, the influences of Japanese architecture are clear and obvious, and this is not the first time such influences have appeared in his work. Pikionis’ research on children and children’s play is particularly evident in the equipment he chose: a rickety boat, a Saracatsian hut, a bridge in a small lake. A finally mysterious, exploratory, and not standard or industrial, equipment that offers many alternatives of -collective or individual- spontaneous play.
Kids’ Garden, Filothei, 1961-1965
Pikionis was a multi-faceted artist with wide knowledge, but above all, he was a great intellectual, a deep thinker of a time of critical transitions, and an extremely moral man. His texts and his recorded speeches even today have much to give, to awaken, to guide.
Hadjikyriakos-Gikas has characteristically stated: “In the wilderness of those times Pikionis was really a departer, a young John of Scale, a humble ascetic or an ancient Greek wise, whose intellectual and moral arrests acquired the precision of a geometrical ruler”.
His involvement with philosophy, profoundly influenced his architectural vision as he believed that there was a universal tradition that had to be synthesized with national spirit. “A unified tradition of the planet spreading from the East to the West and from the North to the Middle East”, he said in a speech to the Academy of Athens.
“Life in Greece is mostly outdoor”, he argued, and with this motto, he made sure to create the perfect environment for our walks in the Capital. His work became the reason that the visitors of Athens worshiped and will forever worship, in the surrounding area of the Acropolis.
Formation of the archaeological site around the Acropolis and Filopappou Hill, Athens, 1954-1957.
Pikionis left his architectural work, essays and aesthetic works as his inheritance. Like other creators conventionally called the ’30s Generation’, he answered the question of our relationship with the West, that modernism is radical, despite what dominates thereafter the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, but at the same time, it develops values and forms created in the Greek tradition by often anonymous craftsmen.
Pikionis with his children Ino, Ionas, Tasos & Peter in Aegina, the late 1930s.
Within the limits of this contemplation, neither imitation nor national self-sufficiency is a solution. Unfortunately, our cities were not built to the standards shown by Dimitris Pikionis, but at the same time, there was no creative assimilation of any positives that existed in the western world. On the contrary, hostility to tradition has been combined with lawlessness and anesthetic malice. The concession, the construction without any prospect and plan destroyed the living space and tragically damaged the natural environment of so many places in Attica. Pikionis passed away on August 28, 1968, contributing in a unique way to the harmonious image and co-existence of modern Athens, with its ancient ancestor.