Dimitris Pikionis (1887–1968)

View from the main road leading to Filopappou Hill, depicting the initial phase of Dimitris Pikionis’s redevelopment of the paths, 1954–58, photograph, courtesy Agni Pikioni Archive, © Dimitris Pikionis A.M.K.E., Athens

When I first visited the Acropolis in 1959 I found myself walking virtually by accident on the adjacent landscape of Philopappou Hill and there I felt, with surprise, the almost literal movement of the ground as my frame was drawn by the tactile resistance of the paving, up and down the undulating labyrinth of the terrain; a site designed so as to be experienced as much by the body as by the eyes. Equally surprising were the stone-paved terraces and benches and, above all, the wood-framed temenos and tea pavilion, built adjacent to the reconstructed Loumbardiaris church. These last seemed as though they had been drawn from Japan over eons of time via the cultural sieve of Byzantium. I did not realize at the time that this staging ground was not quite finished and that the seventy-two-year-old architect was still supervising the work.

The last half-century has changed our way of looking at architecture and we now see the twentieth century as a much more complex trajectory and thus we are compelled to reassess what our modern movement has wrought and where we stand in relation to its multifarious strands. In this process figures who were once prominent now recede, and those who were previously obscure emerge into the light. Pikionis is one of these latter-day luminaries, whose resonant work takes us back to a radiant world, where the “thingness” of things, to paraphrase Heidegger, come into their own. Pikionis’s ontic initiation dates from his frequent visits in the 1920s to the Rhodakis House on the island of Aegina—a long since ruined stone house with naive symbolic embellishments and cryptic inscriptions on its walls, including the legendary “Ah Vah” which, was once told, signifies an inchoate expression of ecstasy.

View of the Saint Dimitrios Loumbardiaris courtyard and the path leading to Filopappou Monument, 1954–58, photograph, courtesy Agni Pikioni Archive, © Dimitris Pikionis A.M.K.E., Athens

When we look back over the total span of his career we may see it as an oscillation that first emerged as a modern interpretation of the Greek neoclassical spirit, as we find in his Karamanos House of 1925 and which later turned into a modernizing apotheosis with his Lycabettus School of 1933. Thereafter Pikionis broke with modernity through his reinterpretation of the Macedonian vernacular as we find this in his Potamianos House in Philothei, completed in 1955. This disruption came a point of no return, when the architect arrived at a dematerialized manner that was at once Greek and anti-Greek; Greek in the sense that it was integrated into the unique Greek amalgam of landscape, climate, and light and anti-Greek in that its inspiration lay elsewhere, in the far-flung islands of Honshu or in the equally remote islands of the archaic pre-Hellenic Aegean under a timeless sun. This metaphysical yet popular syntax began to emerge with his designs for the un-realized Aixoni housing settlement, near Glyfada, dating from the early ’50s. This manner, surprisingly evocative of the “wattle” culture of the nomadic Greek Sarakatsan people, reached its clearest formulation in the Arestedis Pourris House built at Maroussi in 1953. Of such enigmatic autochthonous forms, his granddaughter Alexandra Papageorgiou has written:

He was stringently against the use of Western forms which are more representative of science and technology, and more tolerant of Eastern forms which are closely related to the ideals of a spiritual world. He admired the scale, form and materials of elements found in Japanese architecture, such as bamboo. He employed similar methods of construction, for example he elevated the ground floor of the Loumbardiaris pavilion and used stone footings at the base of its columns…1

Of the same generation as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, Pikionis was one of the first architects to realize that a regionally inflected culture could only be sustained in a post-vernacular age through the admixture of sympathetic alien cultures, just as Greek archaic sculpture had once been fertilized by Egypt. Thus the paving of Philopappou bears an uncanny relationship to the stone causeways of Zen temples, its overall patterns breaking across the curvature of the site so as to deny any perspectival anticipation of movement thereby engendering a seemingly infinite sequence of seams and gulleys in conjunction with the counter changing stonework.

Dimitris Pikionis (wearing white) working on the Saint Dimitrios Loumbardiaris courtyard, 1954–58, photograph, courtesy Agni Pikioni Archive, © Dimitris Pikionis A.M.K.E., Athens

It is his ecological insistence on the interdependency of culture and nature, which gives Pikionis’s work a critical significance that is as relevant now as it was fifty years ago. For it totally repudiates our habitual fixation on the freestanding technical and/or aesthetic object, not to mention our destructive, Promethean attitude towards nature. While Pikionis realized very little in his life time—some six houses, a school, a theater, a park, a playground, and an apartment building—he nevertheless strove for an ontological architecture in which both subject and society would be mutually redeemed. Like Constantin Brancusi, Luis Barragán, and Carlo Scarpa, Pikionis invariably worked within tightly bounded domains, such as the oneiric children’s playground that he built in the Athenian suburb of Philothei in 1965. Close to the “not yet” of Ernst Bloch, Pikionis’s architecture was an architecture of hope. While he was only too aware of the harshness that was enveloping his beloved Greece, he nonetheless maintained the vision of a Mediterranean “other,” a Baudelairean sense of luxe, calme et volupté shimmering in the light, after the demise of technology.

—Kenneth Frampton

A version of this text first appeared in Dimitris Pikionis, Architect 1887­–1968: A Sentimental Topography (London: Architectural Association, 1989).

Stonemasons working on the Saint Dimitrios Loumbardiaris courtyard, 1954–58, photograph, courtesy Agni Pikioni Archive, © Dimitris Pikionis A.M.K.E., Athens

1Alexandra Papageorgiou, “Pikionis and His Work,” thesis submitted to the Rhode Island School of Design, Department of Architecture, 1982.

Posted in Notes on 07.18.2017

Dimitris Pikionis

Dimitris Pikionis studied architecture in Munich and fine arts in Paris, and then returned to Greece, where he taught at the National Technical University of Athens. His oeuvre includes buildings and urban…

Historical Positions