The Propylaia to the Athenian Akropolis, vol. I, The Predecessors
William B. Dinsmoor, Jr.
(Princeton: The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1980) 69 pp + xviii, 24 pls., 1 fold-out drawing; $25
The Propylaia to the Athenian Akropolis, vol. II, The Classical Building
William B. Dinsmoor and William B. Dinsmoor, Jr.; ed. Anastasia Norre Dinsmoor
(Princeton: The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2004) 486 pp, 211 figs., 9 b/w pls., 11 fold-out drawings; $125
Of all the things we make, architecture is arguably the most durable. We still marvel over the Pantheon, Great Zimbabwe and the Borobudur Temple, to choose just a few examples. These buildings seem to immerse us in the past—to convey, with a palpable immediacy, something of what the ancients experienced, possibly even what they thought and believed.
One such building is the gateway to the Athenian Acropolis: the Propylaia. This magnificent structure epitomizes the spirit of the classical age as conceived during the height of Athenian power and dominance over the Greek world.
From the Greek word pylon (gate), the Propylaia consists of a series of porched entranceways leading onto the sanctuary of the goddess Athena. The pylon is the opening in the wall, but the fore-hall or porch, the propylon, provides a place where people gather as they leave the external world to make a religious passage into sanctified space. This combination of porch and gate, then, serves the dual purpose of offering shelter to visitors and focusing their attention on the symbolic meaning of the journey from profane to sacred.
The architect of the Propylaia, Mnesicles, designed and executed the construction of the structure between 437 and 432 B.C.E. Mnesicles’s building was preceded by an earlier series of gates built into massive walls dating to the Mycenaean period (c. 1300–1200 B.C.E.). Herodotus tells us that these early gates guarded the entrance to the Acropolis, and thus originally were part of the defensive fortifications of the Athenian citadel. From the various archaeological remains—traces of walls, cuttings in the bedrock and scattered blocks—we know the plans of these early gates and the sequence of their construction between the first Persian invasion in 490 B.C.E. and the second in 480 B.C.E., when the wall was breached and the buildings on the Acropolis were burned. These earlier structures are the subject of the first volume of The Propylaia to the Athenian Akropolis, by William Bell Dinsmoor, Jr., which was published in 1980.
The material in this book is largely based on work done by the author’s father, William Bell Dinsmoor, who began a thorough documentation of the remains of the Propylaia in the first decade of the last century. With the appearance of volume two, which deals with Mnesicles’s building, the Propylaia in all its history and glory is open to detailed scholarly inspection. The publication of these volumes has been a Herculean effort, made difficult by the death of William Dinsmoor, Jr., in 1988; the second volume is largely due to the commitment and patience of his wife, Anastasia Norre Dinsmoor.
Inevitably, a project labored on so long has been in many ways superseded by more recent work, especially that of the Greek archaeologist Tanos Tanoulas. Nonetheless, the Dinsmoors’ work remains extremely valuable, especially for its presentation of evidence accumulated early 049in the scientific documentation of the site—evidence that in some cases is no longer available.
A controversial aspect of the Dinsmoors’ study is their conclusion that the building was an object of design. Ever since 1957, when Jens Bundgaard published his study of Mnesicles, scholars have disputed whether ancient Greek architects drew plans and sections and calculated the details necessary today for contractors to carry out their plans. The Dinsmoors present mathematical evidence of dimensions and ratios, as recovered from their measurements of the building and its elements, to make the case that the building was carefully planned—and not just once. As the elder Dinsmoor observed, the evidence shows that Mnesicles was forced to alter his plans for the building many times. These compromises indicate that the Propylaia was part of a grander scheme in which the buildings and monuments on the Acropolis were integrated into an architectural whole. This is seen, for example, in the orientation of the Propylaia on the axis of the Parthenon and directly in line with the Old Temple of Athena, which was desecrated by the Persians when they sacked Athens in 480 B.C.E.
The Dinsmoors’ work is an excellent reference for those interested not only in the genius of Mnesicles but also in the technical details and subtleties of craft that went into fifth-century B.C.E. Athenian architecture. For example, the proper reconstruction of the gateway requires a knowledge of how wheeled carriages would have passed into the sanctuary. For this the authors consulted the detailed, unpublished notes made by the British architect J.L. Wolfe in 1820 (the notes are now in the archives of the Royal Institute of Architects in London). Anyone who has worked on the Acropolis will appreciate the necessity of using such sources and how hard it is to identify and gain access to them; the Dinsmoors were the masters of this craft.
Because of the geography of the Acropolis, the builders of the Propylaia had to erect a western facade on a much lower ground level than the eastern one. This change in elevation affected the design and form of the central passage and of all the architectural elements on either side. The core plan of building was a Doric temple with six columns on each facade, but this would not do for the interior, which had to accommodate the bedrock’s change in elevation. Thus Mnesicles designed a fore-hall with an Ionic colonnade that led to a gateway wall; this wall has five doorways, the largest in the center, and a series of steps bringing the visitor to the level of the Acropolis itself. Such a grand concept required adjustments to the rules of symmetry in Greek architecture, and these adjustments are admirably documented and explained in the Dinsmoors’ study.
Few lay readers, however, will persevere through the thicket of terminology, the bewildering mathematical documentation and the discussions (however important) of fragmentary pieces of marble. Also, what is missing in these volumes is a chapter that pulls together the authors’ gargantuan efforts, as well as a summary of the salient features of the building and an appreciation of the general and specific achievements of Mnesicles and his workmen.
But these are minor complaints about a monumental study that is elegantly produced in royal folio size. The Propylaia is so profoundly important in the history of architecture—not only classical, neo-classical and Greek Revival architecture, but also postmodern architecture—that it merits attention by audiences not specifically or professionally interested in ancient buildings. Anyone who reads this second volume will come away with a renewed appreciation of the visionary design of Mnesicles and the craftsmanship and precision of ancient Greek masons. The book also includes many excellent and hitherto inaccessible photographs and foldout plans. Mnesicles would approve.
The Propylaia to the Athenian Akropolis, vol. I, The Predecessors