Neoclassical Greek Architecture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Neoclassicism was based around a revival of ancient Greek forms, so why'd it take this style so long to appear in Greece? In this lesson, we'll check out Greek Neoclassical architecture and explore the most notable works.

Greek Architecture Comes Home

Greece can claim to have introduced a lot into the Western world. The ancient Greeks developed the first political systems of democracy, laid the foundations for European philosophies, and were the first Europeans to be truly obsessed with wine. Of course, they also developed the first systematic uses of monumental stone architecture.

Greek, and later Roman, architecture formed the foundation of all European architecture, influencing us to this day. However, European architecture also changed a lot over time. In the 18th and 19th centuries, architects decided to revive the purity of true Classical architecture in a movement known as Neoclassicism. Neoclassicism flourished in England, France, the United States…basically everywhere except for one notable location: Greece. It took a surprisingly long time for Neoclassicism to make it to Greece, but when it did it was an architectural homecoming millennia in the making.

Greek Independence

This is a lesson about Greek-inspired Neoclassical architecture in Greece. So, obviously our story starts in Germany, when the Bavarian prince Otto of Wittelsbach was offered the Greek throne in 1832. How'd we get here?

Have you ever wondered why you don't hear about a Greek Empire fighting for colonial control alongside the Spanish, French, Portuguese, or the Dutch in Europe's period of imperial expansion? It's because Greece was actually conquered by an empire itself. The Ottoman Empire had seized control of Greece and ruled ruthlessly. In the early 19th century, the Greeks finally rebelled in an independence war that lasted from 1821 to 1832. Finally, the Ottoman Empire was defeated.

Now, this is the 19th century, so of course the other European empires didn't just sit idly by. They jumped into Greece's independence wars and then decided it was up to them to appoint the new monarch of independent Greece. After much debate, they settled on Otto of Wittelsbach. The Greeks approved the choice, created a constitution, and Greece joined the European powers as an independent country.

Wittelsbach arrived in Greece to find that it had been severely damaged by the independence wars. He had to rebuild the city, and needed to do so in a way that made it look more like a major European power and less like a colony. He chose Athens as his capital city and set about transforming it from a relatively small town into a European-style metropolis suitable for a king.

The Hansen Brothers and Neoclassicism

To achieve his vision for Athens, Otto hired Danish builder Christian Hansen to be his official court architect. Hansen was a fierce proponent of the Neoclassical style that was sweeping across Germany and Northern Europe. Neoclassicism was, at its core, Greek and Roman revivalism. It was extremely popular in all European capital cities and it was full of powerful symbolism that Otto could use to build up his new monarchy on the legacies of Europe's first great powers. So, it made sense.

To complete his vision, Christian Hansen brought his younger brother, Theophilos Hansen, to Athens in 1838. It was Theophilos who really took control of Athenian Neoclassicism. He too had studied the style in Copenhagen, but in Greece he had the actual ruins of Greek monuments to learn from. He studied the ruins, read the ancient texts, and devoted himself to perfecting the legacy of the Greeks. He also began the process of restoring many of the Greek ruins, most notably the Parthenon and Temple of Athena Nike.

The University of Athens
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The Athenian Trilogy

So, enough with the history, let's look at buildings. The Hansen brothers were responsible for establishing a new Neoclassical aesthetic in Greece, one which sought to directly revive Hellenic Classical architecture in purity of form, a lack of extraneous ornamentation, and absolute mathematical perfection. The three most notable buildings to come out of this are known as the Athenian Trilogy.

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