Embassy of the United States of America, Athens, Greece
Secretary of State’s Register of Culturally Significant Property: 2006 ("The Secretary of State’s Register of Culturally Significant Property")
With the development of the embassy program, the United States government was in need of more space in the capitol city of Greece. They had leased office space but now had the need for a space of their own. A piece of property was acquired through an exchange just a mile from the iconic Parthenon. Like other embassy designs, the government would need office space, residential room for the ambassador and visiting guests to Athens. Typical security, utility, and transportation needs would also need to be considered. The final contract with architect Walter Gropius called for a budget of $1,120,000 consisting of 85,000 square feet ("The U.S. Embassy in Greece) with an occupancy for over 400 employees ("$1 Million Athens Embassy Planned"). After completion, the final construction cost was $2,000,000 ("US Moving into New Embassy in Athens").
The chancery building in Athens sits on a prominent site of an acre and a half, just one mile from the Parthenon at the foot of Mount Lykabettus, sloping down to one of the most luxurious neighborhoods in the city. Its design has striking similarities to that of the Parthenon, but employed in a modern manner. Constructed of reinforced concrete covered in native Pentellic marble, the structure contains three floors with a square plan around an open patio space in the center. Ironically, Gropius requested Rampson's previously designed plans for the building and planned a very similar space; a square wrapped around an open courtyard. Because of the structural system employed, the building seems weightless and floating over the ground. The two uppermost floors are hung from large concrete girders which are carried by columns placed every thirty feet around the periphery (Architectural Record).
In order to protect against the harsh sunlight, Gropius designed the most dramatic piece of the facade, a twenty-foot overhanging roof to protect the two upper floors from intense glare. The roof is also double-layered to prevent the top floor from extreme temperatures. Openings between the overhang and the building provide air circulation in the exterior space below and aluminum grills between the girders on the roof ventilate as well. On the ground floor, the glare is treated with a ceramic tile screen, perforated and painted sky-blue, which also helps protect against intruders (Architectural Record).
Large pieces of glass make up the facade on the second and third floors with aluminum mullions and structural glass as spandrels. A built-in window washing apparatus, allowing the window washer to propel himself off the side of the building, was designed into the aluminum to make it easier for the cleaning of the exterior of the glass. This technique, although convenient, is now illegal in the Unites States (Architectural Record).
A parking garage for up to thirty cars makes up the basement level. One-third of the ground floor is enclosed and holds consulate facilities and space for the embassy guards, and the second and third floors are devoted to office areas. An integrated modular system was designed for flexibility in the use of the office space (now failing the needs of the embassy), and orange, vertical Venetian blinds are also used in the interior to reduce sun glare (Architectural Record).
The United States government intended embassy design to reflect the best in contemporary American architecture, while utilizing local materials and workmanship of the host country. In the late 1950s and early 60s, new structural systems were becoming prominent. The curtain wall system, a method which transfers loads through interior columns and support rather than exterior facades, allowed a new aesthetic to appear. Large pieces of glass with little visual structure creates a minimalistic facade and opportunity for dramatic effects. Pilotis, also known as columns, piers, or stilts, were common in this era of design as well, despite whether they were actually structural or purely for scenography. Gropius and The Architects Collaborative employed this system in their design and utilized local stone and labor in its construction (Loeffler).
Typically, embassy buildings were situated in the downtown areas of the host city, near other political buildings (Loeffler). This is true in the case of the embassy designed by Gropius. It is sited on a lot in the dense city of Athens, near an upper-class neighborhood just a mile from the iconic Parthenon. The buildings surrounding it are civic in nature; a hospital, music hall,and parks.
Walter Gropius was a pioneer in the modern era of architecture. With his commission in Athens, he searched for a way to implement local ideals into his contemporary structure. He once stated, "modernism was a vehicle for regional expression (Loeffler 179)." It has been said that the outcome in Athens is reminiscent of the Parthenon but constructed in steel, glass, and local stone (Loeffler). Columns, placed every thirty feet, surround the exterior, supporting the dramatically hung roof. Supported by slender reinforced concrete columns, clad in Pentellic marble, the girders across the roof support the curtain wall system from which the exterior glass walls are hung.
In addition to Pentellic marble, Marathon gray marble was used for the basement, terrazzo made of white-chip aggregate for the plaza and lobby floors, and Santa Marina marble for the stairs, corridors, and toilets (Entenza).
After the end of World War II, the United States began to expand the embassy program in order to form relationships with other countries and to be involved in the front-lines of international affairs. The United States Embassy in Athens, Greece was needed in order to bridge the two countries together in a peaceful and respectful way. Many sites were given as gifts from other countries or purchased by the United States in order to build the embassies. In Athens, the site was acquired as a gift from the Athens government and at the time was valued at $500,000 ("US Envoy to get New Greek Home").
Beginning in 1952, the State Department hired Ralph Rapson to design numerous embassies, including Athens'. Due to political upheaval, all progression on the designs was halted, and it was not until 1956 that the United States government began to commission the embassy construction once again. However, despite his work already proposed four years earlier, Rapson was not selected to continue his designs(Loeffler).
Walter Gropius, world-renowned architect for his work at the Bauhaus in Germany, his professorial career at Harvard, and numerous contributions to the modern movement in America, was selected for the commission of the embassy in Athens. There is no record of a design competition for this embassy. Together with his colleagues at The Architects Collaborative, Gropius designed a space with great versatility in order to adapt to the changing uses of the United States' government. Designed in the typical architectural language of the Bauhaus, the chancery building in Athens is built with a light curtain wall system of glass and a prominent roof with a twenty-foot over hang. The design presented by The Architects Collaborative was both functional and representative of modern architectural themes, consisting of 85,000 square feet at a total cost of $1,120,000 ("The U.S. Embassy in Greece.").
While the design by Gropius attempts to merge the surrounding architectural history with the modern movement, it represents the society at large and participates with its surroundings. The design must be inconspicuous enough that the locals accept and respect its presence while also being prominent enough for Americans in the area to see it as a safe haven and point of refuge. In keeping with modern aesthetics, the building achieves this by its low-lying design, fitting into its environment. The ability to use large pieces of glass gives the effect of a mirror of the surrounding space, giving an illusion of meshing the two countries. Over the entrance, the seal of the United States Government is prominently displayed but does not overcome the architecture, subtly announcing its presence (Loeffler).
Walter Gropius stated in an article of The Christian Science Monitor in 1959, "We must not imitate others in our times any more than the ancient Greeks did." His design for the Chancery building is reminiscent of the Acropolis, in modern materials. It is not an exact copy, but from a modernist's view. It attempts to respect the past while looking towards the future. How the Grecian citizens felt about the final design is not conclusive. Gropius received great praise as well as criticism for the building from architectural critics, but there is no record on the thoughts of the local people. In the December 1957 issue of Architectural Record, Gropius states that "our aim was...a building which should appear serene, peaceful, and inviting, mirroring the...political attitude of the United States. Also, the design should abide by the classical 'spiritus loci'...but in contemporary...terms." The final product did just that - was minimal in its aesthetics to give a sense of tranquility, used glass as a metaphor of paralleling its surroundings, and acted as a welcome center for politicians and travelers. The final design, with its large structural columns, cantilevered concrete slabs, horizontality, and "floating" structure of glass clearly presents itself in the modern aesthetic. However, critics of the building, the Architectural Advisory Committee, described it as "colossal, raw-boned, and forbidding," not recognizing any link between Gropius' design and the Parthenon, and "lacking delicacy (Loeffler 179, 180)." Many even thought that the connection between the Parthenon and the embassy would have never been conceived by the public if Gropius had not stated it himself. Although Gropius' designs were known for cohesiveness between the interior furnishings and the exterior, he was not commissioned for this task in the embassy building. Edward Wormley, an American designer, planned most of the furnishings which were made locally in Greece ("Decor Ideas Are Chosen By Woman"). The only aspect of the interior furnishings designed by Gropius and his team was the modular system for space configuration. Had more furnishings been up to the design team, the building and spaces inside would have been more interconnected.
Cited in many architectural publishings, the U.S. Embassy in Athens is a clear example of modernism receiving both praise and criticism. The design successfully replicates classical forms in a modern way - the podium, plan, interior patio, exterior columns, and landscaping - without completely mimicking it. It appreciates the past and the present in one unified package, and it should be praised for its manipulation of conventional forms and materials. It added to the examples already present in the field and grew out of Gropius' extensive knowledge of architectural vocabulary.
The structural integrity of the embassy is in danger. Threats of earthquakes loom daily, and the constant heat from the intense Mediterranean sun wears on the building materials. Without a major rehabilitation, the building will fall victim to intense deterioration, and the world would lose a great example of the modern architecture of the 1960s. The United States Government has recognized this need and posted a request for proposals in early January 2013 for a rehabilitation of the structure. A budget of $115 to $135 million dollars has been set up to renovate the existing Chancery building. The request calls for a complete renovation of the interior and exterior, bringing the structure up to current codes, while keeping with the original design intent by Walter Gropius and The Architects Collaborative. With these changes, the Athens chancery will be more sustainable and will hopefully remain intact for many more generations (Athens Chancery Renovation).
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