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Reconstructing memory from ruins: The case of the Athenian Academy by Theophil Hansen

Irene Fatsea. National Technical University of Athens. Greece.

Reconstructing memory from ruins: The case of the Athenian Academy by Theophil Hansen

Irene Fatsea. National Technical University of Athens. Greece.

Reconstructing memory from ruins: The case of the Athenian Academy by Theophil Hansen "Lieux de mémoire" is a term that Pierre Nora, the French cultural historian, used in order to characterize sites where memory crystallizes when real environments (milieux) of memory have been torn. These sites, synonymous with the culture of modernity, are the prosaic structures of history which stand where collective meaning once grew organically out of the community's shared values, feelings, and beliefs, all naturally interwoven with a common perception of time and human destiny. With the rise of modernity an artificial gap opened between the representation and the thing represented. No wonder why history – i.e., the 'science' of organizing and representing the past – developed among modernity's most powerful disciplines, virtually subsuming under its cognitive authority all formal structures with semantic content besides language, including architecture and the arts. Its work of bringing rationality and objectivity to the otherwise chaotic universe of human memory stood as the only viable alternative of creating a topos of communication to the non-traditional, largely diverse, and overpopulous communities of the West. In this context of increasing alienation due to the representation crisis that modernity engendered, it became history's seminal duty to hold in check its prosaic nature by poeticizing its "lieux de mémoire" so that a sense of collective belonging is re-enacted, even though now centrally managed and predetermined by the individual national states.

Post-Revolutionary Greece in the nineteenth century appeared as the site in which the real environment of memory had been torn mainly as a result of physical destructions related to the War of Independence. The newly liberated country acting under a Bavarian government was thus called to rebuild her both physical and institutional infrastructure and, at the same time, come to terms with modernity as the cultural framework of her post-Ottoman existence. Due to an opportune circumstance fostered by Greece's universal appeal as the heir of a most glorious past, many gifted individuals and philhellenes – primarily architects and poets – hastened to its reconstruction. They were by and large convinced that along with the country's material recovery to the standards of its ancient past, the memory of its old-time glory would be restituted; hence, they directed their actions to this ambitious plan.

This paper focuses upon the contribution of famous Dane architect Theophil von Hansen to this plan, yet particularly driven to it by a more far-reaching aspiration: to build his very professional agenda upon the idealized notion of hellenism conceived as an ecumenical project. Carrying on the culture of the Renaissance through his formal/ academic education into the historicist context of nineteenth-century Europe, Hansen coined the term "Hellenische Renaissance" to his special architectural approach. By critically discussing and analyzing Hansen's exemplary building of the Athenian Academy as a "lieu de mémoire", that is, a product of history's self-conscious mechanism of generating new meaning, the paper argues for the poetic qualities of this building which elevated it to the status of an international monument of romantic classicism. Furthermore, it sees it as a thick symbol of the country's reconstitution in which memory drawing on her antique inheritance legitimized it as one of Greece's most prestigious and endeared national monuments. Having studied the Greek ruins in situ and having witnessed some of the most important excavation works that brought legendary fragments of ancient monuments to light – some of which almost intact and tinted with their original colors – Hansen developed a very personal approach to Greek architecture, which subsequently guided his hand into new design work both in Greece and in Vienna. This paper develops its analytical part with a special eye to the role that the fragment as a revered memory token held in Hansen's creative process, and more specifically in his project of the Athenian Academy. Properly adapted to a whole new architectural framework, the archaeological fragment – either emanating from his own in situ experience or from the commonplace catalogue of exemplary specimens of the ancient world – invested Hansen's "lieux de mémoire" of romantic classicism with important highlights of meaningful content capable of engaging modern Athenians through a renewed sense of belonging and co-existence in the reborn country.


SOURCES (special)

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