When the last crowds have dispersed from the Plaka in Athens and the television ratings have been scrutinized high in midtown Manhattan, the real hero of the 2004 Olympics will emerge. Not winner Michael Phelps, the swimmer who generously removed himself from a slot in a final competition to give another teammate a shot at gold, nor Natalie Coughlin, with her sparkling, multiple medals. Instead, the surprise star will turn out to be Athenian architecture, both Classic and Modern, which has outshone them all.
These Olympics had all the makings of a Greek tragedy. Until the last moment, it seemed as if the impossibly complex new Olympic Stadium would not debut for opening day. What was this small nation of 11 million people up to, commissioning such ambitious projects with drop-dead deadlines? Yet planners tightly clutched a trump card—the stadium’s roof had been fabricated off-site and dropped into place moments before curtain time. Ah, sweet victory, with applause and sighs all round.
From the theatrical opening ceremonies, punctuated by fireworks, to the glancing morning light, the Olympic Park both provided and took center stage. Seen by upwards of a billion people, the primary structures arched more than 230 feet above Athens’s low-scale cityscape with a graceful, billowing signature emblematic of human accomplishment and artistry. Only the Parthenon, iconic temple on a hill, surpassed the newer additions; Olympic architecture had assumed the contemporary symbolism for a reinvigorated nation. By now, the world can visually identify the individual structures, if not name them—Velodrome, Agora, Olympic Stadium, Plaza of Nations, Entrance Plazas, Olympic Fountain, and Cauldron.
Designed by the Spanish-born architect Santiago Calatrava, the entire complex represents a unique personal achievement. Few individual architects or planners, including the 18th-century utopians Ledoux and Boullée, or the 20th-century’s Piacentini at Rome’s Fascist EUR, have composed and realized such a fulsome urban vision. Calatrava’s program was thorough, including master planning and rethinking the existing 250-acre park, while adding major new public spaces and designing new additions to the ensemble.
Sleek, melodic, distinctly Mediterranean, these arching buildings employ familiar architectural motifs and materials to capture moment and redefine place. First and most obviously, they employ structure as a critical, visible element (not surprising for Calatrava, also a civil engineer). At the stadium, for example, the architect employed lithe, dual arches of tubular steel, which rise like a sustained tone, then drop to a single pin. The roofs, composed of translucent polycarbonate, hang suspended from cables, caught in midflight and poised as a shading device for spectators within the arena. The total effect is of controlled rapture, analogous to sport or to dance.
Other designs reveal the fourth dimension. To capture time, the architect employed pattern and repetition, forging a linked sequence of vaulted pergolas into a long semicircular walkway called the Agora. There, light and shadow flit between alternating realities, the whole animated by the rhythm of the human footstep. Other buildings undulate. Across the plaza from the Agora, a 65-foot-tall screening wall (the Nations Wall) rolls in a wavelike motion—a sculptural essay rendered lifelike through hundreds of straight metal wands, orchestrated and motile.
Critics may suggest that in an age that celebrates diversity, no single consciousness need design a site so pervasively. Some might cavil that Calatrava’s palette seems obsessed with similar, highly personal themes, from the anthropomorphic to the kinetic. The long view of history, however, suggests that other great architects, from Phidias in the 5th century b.c. to our own time, have spent their lives refining an idiom. Calatrava’s “researches,” as he calls them, seem to be centered on the artful response of human beings to physical laws.
The fact remains that in Athens, one man’s vision has changed a city and our perception of a country. Whether as visitors to the grounds or as televoyeurs, our view of Greece, formerly bounded in trabeated Classicism, has shifted positively with a new century. The redefinition is near-complete: The land that provoked Aristotle’s thought on the nature of beauty receives a new definition, while the Olympic Games anoints a new kind of hero.