Landscapes and Economies in Athens

harvard graduate school of design / cambridge, ma.
advisor: charles waldheim

            Much of the landscape architecture work completed in Athens has been concerned with the city’s historical heritage and the preservation of the ancient archaeological sites. Such work is usually funded and supported by the state in an effort to ameliorate the conditions of the sacred sites and structures, and create urban space that allows the public to access their cultural patrimony. Apart from educational perspectives of such approaches, it is significant to note that the political agenda under a current neoliberal state is often oriented towards the improvement and promotion of the image of the city to serve as a touristic attraction, leading to accumulation of commercial activities in the invested areas and economic growth for the city. There have been numerous efforts by the national government to increase touristic activities in Athens through public investment and promotion of the local history, with the most obvious case of the Olympic Games in 2004. The traditional architectural work is rendered as one of the most important parameters of touristic attraction and driving forces for the economy of Athens. It is significant to note that even under the current national economic crisis, the touristic activity in the city is rising, allowing the local economy to be partially independent from the national status.1 Under such perspective, among other archaeological sites, the Parthenon and the Acropolis become the material economy of the city, whose exploitation benefits financially the locals, while raising the levels of competitiveness for the city. 

            In order to understand the material economies that have shaped the city of Athens, we would need to go beyond the current assets of the archaeological sites and search for their sources of income and growth in ancient Greece. It is indeed interesting to note that the city is currently profitable not only because of recent events and trends, but also because of the political and economic decisions taken at its initial emergence in the ancient times. There are multiple parameters that have allowed the city’s rise as a power in ancient Greece and the Mediterranean, ranging from its strategic geopolitical position with the established trade routes, to the circumstances of war that gave prominence to Athens as a political power, and to the mining of marble that allowed for the construction of all the edifices of the Acropolis. Although all stages are highly important for the rise of Athens as a competitive economy in ancient and in modern Greece, focus will be given on the fifth century BC and particularly the importance of trade for the city, and the extraction of marble that is closely related to the materiality of the archaeological sites and the material economy of today.

Material Economies of Classical Athens
In tracing the origins of its flourishing, Athens rises as a power in the Mediterranean territory thanks to its strategic geopolitical location and its significant naval force that allowed the city to expand its trading routes and its political dominance in the Mediterranean region. Such economic development for the city originates from an initial insufficiency of agricultural production, which becomes more apparent by the eighth century in Athens and in other Greek city-states. This condition leads to the necessity for expansion and colonization of various parts of the Mediterranean, which would serve as points of supply for their mother-cities.2 In the coming centuries, Athens continues to become economically extrovert and receive imports of materials from the western Mediterranean and Spain, to the Middle Eastern coast of Syria, and the Ionian-dominated areas of the Black Sea.3 The British historian de Ste. Croix argues that the trade and the expansion in the Mediterranean isn’t an imperial agenda, as much as a necessity to retrieve the material sources that would be necessary for the survival of the Greek city-states. During the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., Athens would often trade its silver found in its territory, in order to satisfy the needs for agricultural produce and grains.4 It is significant to note that Aristotle recognized the necessity for trading, stating that the city would need to have access to the sea to ensure that it can import commodities that it lacks from other continents.5 This is particularly the case for the later part of the 5th century BC, where Athens sees patterns of sudden urbanization that lead to increasing trade and development of more complex market and economic systems for the city. The development of trade through the port of Piraeus and the fluctuation of products and materials in the Athenian “agora”—the city’s market—affects radically the social structures of the city, with a population that does not anymore rely on subsistence farming, but rather in the purchasing of foodstuff in the market.6

            In understanding the economy of the city supporting the classical architecture of Athens in the fifth century BC, we would need to not only look at the city’s prosperity through trade, but also at the political circumstances that render the city as a military power. In particular, in 478 BC, the “Delian League” is established with the leadership of Athens and the cooperation between the Ionian city-states (see figure 3), to take action against the Persian attacks in the territory.7 After the final victory and the defeat of the Persians, in 454 BC the treasury is transferred from the island of Delos to Athens.8 Such a decision defines Athens as the epicenter of the “Ionian” league, where the capital that has been accumulated during the war and between the allies is now purposed to be invested in the reconstruction of Athens.9 These are precisely the funds that will be used for the construction of the well-known marble structures of the Acropolis, and will eventually continue to fund the future contemporary Athenian economy.

Apart from the increasing fluctuation of capital and trade in the city, the material economy behind the Parthenon and the other edifices is quite literally connected to the local mining and extraction of marble for their construction. Emmanouil Korres, a major Greek restoration architect, informs us that in this moment of the history, it is the first time in Athens that marble is to be used for large architectural scales, rather than small pieces of art or sculpture. At the Mount Pentelicus, extensive mining operations take place to support the materiality of the new architecture. Along with the innovative techniques of extraction, significant are also the methods used for the transportation of the material to the Acropolis hill, the formation of the marble into the various parts of the edifices and their ultimate successful installation.10 Korres emphasizes that the construction of the Acropolis during the fifth century is the primary focus for the city, as the new edifices are devoted to the goddess Athena for the economic growth and prosperity of the city after decades of war and conflict. The Acropolis is perceived to be a symbol of glory for the “Golden Age of Athens”, with the establishment of democracy and the flourishing of the arts and sciences.

The Architecture of the Past as the Material Economy of the Present.
            Leaving the memory of the city’s glorious state behind, we are returning back to the recent developments of Athens, which are largely based on the rising appreciation of the structures of the past as a valuable treasure within the city. Although there is significant interest in the classical literature from the period of the renaissance in Europe, it is primarily in the 19th century that there is an increasing desire to visit, value and preserve the Athenian archaeological sites. Particularly after the liberation from the Ottoman Empire, more and more travelers and architects schedule their visits to Athens, primarily to see in person the various antiquities of Greece, and to become consumers of the classical heritage.11 The Parthenon and its other contemporary edifices begin to appear in drawings and documentation of the “Grant Tour” travelers, who, in the period of Enlightenment, focus on learning from past architectures and advocating for the significance of their preservation.12 In addition, the Athenian architecture is also introduced in many of the paintings of the “Picturesque Movement”, where the monuments are depicted as part of the landscape, framed within the natural scenery of the Attica. Indeed, landscape architecture and initially through painting is slowly defined as the primary design discipline that examines the role of the monuments of antiquity in the contemporary urban condition. From the mid-19th century, landscape and planning proposals also begin to emerge, focused on efforts not only of restoration and preservation, but also in attempting to give prominence to the ancient remnants through design interventions.13 This is in part promoted by the political agenda of the local government that is increasingly interested in redefining the identity of the newly established state, and the recognition of the value of these sites for the city (see figure 4).14

            In the later 20th century and after the World War II, the preservation of the archaeological sites and the possibilities for design intervention are revisited to be perceived not only for their cultural meaning for the city, but also for their capacity to invite touristic activity and drive capital growth. In 1946, the Greek landscape architect Dimitris Pikionis submits a memorandum to the General Secretariat for Tourism, in which he defines the basic principles that are to be applied in the preservation of the aesthetic environments in areas of touristic development.15 In the document, he urges landscape architects to abstain from utilizing foreign plant species in the Athenian territory, so as to not disturb or alter the scenery, and sees the preservation of the sacred archaeological landscapes to be of paramount importance.16 This is the ideology that he also follows in his landscape work around the Acropolis, when commissioned by the Minister of Public Works Konstantine Karamanlis in 1954, in an era of rapid growth of touristic flows. In his work in the Acropolis and the Philopappou hill, he removes any existing infrastructure of roads and integrates on the site a series of paths and open spaces that enhance the “aesthetic adventure” of the Acropolis.17 His landscape work remains predominant even in the contemporary urban environment, where the facilitation of accessibility of the monuments of the Acropolis allow for the amelioration of the city views, encouraging the visit of locals and tourists in the region.

From the mid-20th century, landscape architecture is employed as the design discipline that can preserve the artifacts of antiquity, ameliorate the urban scene and allow for tourism and economic growth to flourish. Under such perspectives, the city government and the state invest in strategies to that can promote the image of the city of Athens abroad, and landscape architecture plays an important role in supporting this emerging economy. This is particularly obvious in the various public initiatives and works prior to the Olympic Games in 2004 that is primarily concerned with the improvement of the urban space in the city. One of the most significant landscape projects in the center of Athens has been the unification of the archaeological sites, commissioned by the Ministry of Culture and Sports and completed in 2002. The public commission is based on an earlier vision by Melina Mercouri, which is described as the creation of an archaeological park that will improve the urban conditions in Athens, while serving as an epicenter of culture, entertainment and education for locals and tourists. The political aspirations in support of the landscape proposals are centered on the creation of an image of a city that respects and values it past, and has the capacity to persuade locals and tourists for its advanced and sophisticated standing.18 The resultant landscape work is centered on the physical connection between the various archaeological sites through the delineation of paths that connect the various archaeological sites, facilitating navigation and creating an inviting environment for locals and touristic activity. This is further amplified with the creation of parks and greenery that encourage outdoor activities and gatherings.

Final Thoughts

From the particular case of Athens, we can observe the interesting interrelations and fluidity between the old and the new, when landscape architecture is based on the material economy of a previous architecture that continues to support the economic growth of the city. The contemporary condition in Athens is an interesting example of a cycle of extraction of ancient remnants, modification and alteration through processes of landscape architecture, and consumption through the increasing touristic flows in the city. The ancient material economy of the marble of Mount Pentelicus has now been protected by the State and reserved for its limited use only on the restoration of the Acropolis, where interestingly enough the raw material continues to feed an architecture of a past reality…

“The Parthenon”, painting by Frederic Edwin Church in
1871. Retrieved from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Figure 1. View of Athens. Engraving by Joseph Thurmer
completed in 1819. Retrieved from the American
School of Classical Studies (ASCSA).

Figure 2. Satellite image of the Acropolis and the city
center, captured in 2018. Retrieved from Google Earth.

Figure 3. Map of the Delian League, right before the
Peloponnesian War. Map drawn by author.

Figure 4. The Kleanthes-Schaubert plan, 1833.

Figure 5,6 (left -top). Pedestrialization of Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, before and after.

Figures 7,8 (left -bottom). Pedestrialization of Apostolou Pavlou street, before and after.

Figure 9,10 (right). Pedestrialization of Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, before and after.

*All images in this page retrieved from the Hellenic
Ministry of Culture and Sports and the Hellenic
Ministry of Environment.


1 Helena Smith, “Greece Tourism at Record High amid Alarm over Environmental Cost,” The Guardian, June 3, 2018, sec. World news,
2 Mary E. White, “Greek Colonization,” The Journal of Economic History 21, no. 4 (1961): 443–454, 444.
3 Bernardo Stuhlberger Wjuniski and Ramón García Fernández, “The Athenian Economy in Light of the Welfare State: Karl Polanyi’s Work in Perspective,” Journal of Economic Issues 43, no. 3 (2009): 587–606, 595.
4 G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, “How Far Was Trade a Cause of Early Greek Colonisation?,” in Athenian Democratic Origins: And Other Essays, ed. Robert Parker and David Harvey (Oxford University Press, 2004), 5.
5 Ibid.
6 S. C. Humphreys, “Economy and Society in Classical Athens,” Annali Della Scuola Normale Superiore Di Pisa. Lettere, Storia e Filosofia 39, no. 1/2 (1970): 1–26, 9.
7 “Delian League,” Britannica Academic, accessed December 18, 2019,
8 Christy Constantakopoulou, “The Aegean Islands as an Imperial Network: The Fifth Century and the Athenian Empire,” in The Dance of the Islands (Oxford University Press, 2007), 6. 9 Alec Blamire, “Athenian Finance, 454-404 B.C.,” Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens 70, no. 1 (2001): 99–126,
10 Μανόλης Κορρές, Από Την Πεντέλη Στον Παρθενώνα (Athens: ΜΕΛΙΣΣΑ, 1993). (Translated by author).
11 Eleni Bastea, The Creation of Modern Athens: Planning the Myth (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 101.
12 Afroditi Chatzoglou, “The Urban Landscape of the Historic Centre of Athens, Greece,” Historic Environment 23, no. 1 (2011): 15–22, 15.
13 Ibid, 16.
14 Eleni Bastea, 101.
15 Alexander Papageorgiou-Venetas, Athens: The Ancient Heritage and the Historic Cityscape in a Modern Metropolis, Vivliothēkē Tēs En Athēnais Archaiologikēs Hetaireias ; Ar. 140 (Athens: Archaeological Society at Athens, 1994), 323.
16 Ibid, 324.
17 Ibid, 340.
18 “Ενοποίηση Αρχαιολογικών Χώρων της Αθήνας,” Hellenic Republic, Ministry of Culture and Sports, accessed December 18, 2019, (Translated by author).