Dimitris Pikionis and the Acropolis paths

by Philip Smith and Ian Cooke

The following essay presents images of the paving system that Dimitris Pikionis designed for areas adjacent to the the Acropolis in Athens, with some explanation of their history and significance (as well as their influence upon our work). The photographs used herein were kindly taken by Ian Cooke (who also offered insight into the context of the surrounding area) to enable us to write this essay for the website.

The world is full of distinctive cultural phenomena and forms that may inform the work of designers, should we choose to observe and absorb them. These constitute both the context and tools of art and design.

However, within the landscape, designers overwhelmingly chart a conservative course – finding order in the orthogonal grid and other conventional geometrical principles. Within our practice, we hold an interest in examples of aberrant form (especially those arising from within New Zealand), for the insights that they give us on the many faces and traditions of New Zealand’s landscapes and culture.

The most famous examples of the exploration of aberrant form within gardens are present within various works from the Japanese garden tradition – such as the extraordinary array of paving systems present at Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto. Within New Zealand, we possess a mostly unexplored sourcebook of aberrant form in Māori aesthetic traditions, and the mark that Māori laid upon the land.

Whilst researching, as part of the design process for our Te Mata garden in Hawke’s Bay, we came across another source of inspiration – in the work of Dimitris Pikionis, adjacent to the Acropolis in Athens. Pikionis was commissioned by the Greek authorities to lay out a scheme of paths, steps, drainage channels and resting/viewing points – for areas leading up to the base of the Propylaea (the gateway to the Acropolis), and across to the Philopappou hill. The project was built in the period covering 1954 to 1957.

Pikionis’ work was (much like that of Carlo Scarpa) rooted in the synthesis of his admiration for Japanese aesthetics and the vernacular traditions of his own country, as well as a familiarity with modern art movements. Accordingly, Pikionis was able to carry out work that values both tradition and a modern sensibility equally; thereby contributing towards continuity of culture in a progressive way.

There is a topographical feel to much of Pikionis’ work, similar to the view that one attains of the landscape from on top of a hill, or within a plane. Such an arrangement allows the paving to relate sensitively to irregular boundaries, and derives its effect from the dynamic relationship between its independent forms. It bears a quality that we describe as a genuine ‘landscape’ character; as opposed to orthogonal arrangements that seem more like extensions of architecture.

Upon taking up the commission, Pikionis advised his clients (the Greek authorities) that it would be a necessarily labour-intensive undertaking. Through a series of exhaustive plans and sketches, and on-site management, Pikionis carried out an enormously varied sequence of patterns, utilising his own ‘language’ as the unifying element.