Parthenon Frieze Stars in the London Olympics

Sporting motifs from ancient Olympia were popping up everywhere in the run-up to the Summer Games of 2012. But how did the sculptures which once decorated a temple over a hundred miles from Olympia fit into this picture?¬†Earlier in the year I put this question to architect Niall McLaughlin, whose tribute to ancient Greece’s best known landmark will soon be on view to the new occupants of East London’s Olympic Village. Some of the Parthenon Frieze’s celebrated horsemen were embedded in the facade of one of the phalanx of new housing blocks which were constructed for visiting athletes.

Not the real things, of course. McLaughlin replicated five panels from the Frieze in the precast concrete cladding attached to one of the 60 buildings in the site’s residential zone. Digital scans of the Frieze were created in the British Museum, and the five panels produced on this basis were then cut in five different ways. So in effect 25 different versions of the horsemen are to be seen riding in random groups around the white expanse of concrete which enfolds the frame of the building.

In the Frieze itself the horsemen occupy roughly one half of a religious procession whose dynamic progress visibly unites different sections of the Athenian population. Prominent among them are the well-toned young riders who embody the splendour of the city’s political and military identity. These men are not being presented to us as athletes, and they certainly have no connection with the Olympic Games. So why did they put in an appearance in London’s Olympic Village?

“I wasn’t interested in any literal connection with the Olympic Games,” Niall McLaughlin told me, “but in the broad area of how a specific culture, place and time become endlessly recycled and idealised.” As some of you will know, the controversy among art historians about the exact significance of the horsemen is seemingly endless as well. McLaughlin has no axe to grind here, but he does harbour a romantic inclination to side with the eminent art historian John Boardman, who famously did a count of the Frieze’s riders in order to convince us that they represent the 192 heroised Athenians who died at the battle of Marathon. This may not be entirely plausible, McLaughlin admits. But for him the idea is a fertile one. “I see the cavalry as a kind of lost troop, ceaselessly, rhythmically marching, but lost in the world.” In their new position in London’s East End they will signal to passers-by a notion of fractured wholeness. “The Parthenon Sculptures are more lost and better known than anything else I can think of,” the architect says. Their original narrative may have been broken up, but they continue to create new meanings in a variety of locations and contexts.

The housing blocks in the Olympic Village were produced in a systematised fashion, with one set of architects responsible for the basic structures, and another (including McLaughlin) for the concrete skins that were wrapped around them. This is not a way of doing things that normally appeals to architects, but McLaughlin seems to have relished the process. For him the replicated panels speak not just of rhythm and repetition, but also of the significance of the materials we have created to cover essential frameworks. McLaughlin is an admirer of Gottfried Semper, the 19th Century German theorist who traced the origins of Greek temple architecture to the practice of draping screen-like fabrics over wooden supports in the course of religious festivals. A model for this might have been found in the more everyday habit of clothing and concealing the human body. With this in mind McLaughlin points out that the procession in the Frieze includes a “vesting horseman” in the centre of the western section, and the boy who is folding the cloth in the centre of the eastern panels. In his office, he tells me, the architects’ private name for their project was Peplos.

This is a response which delights me. The presentation of a specially woven peplos to the goddess Athene was the ultimate object of the Panathenaic procession, which most people identify as the scene depicted in the Frieze. And clothing is a theme which is present along its entire length. In the Frieze we see people who are handling, arranging and in general adjusting their clothing, starting with the young man at the west end who is tying on his sandal, and culminating with Hera in the east, who dramatically holds out her veil. The Athenians seem here to be involved in a perpetual process of refashioning and reinventing themselves as they prepare to honour their goddess with a brand new garment.

Niall McLaughlin’s sensitivity to the multi-layered themes of the Parthenon Frieze is very impressive. What I also find striking is the way in which his design exploits the interplay of horizontal and vertical elements present in the original building. In the Parthenon, as in other Greek temples, the horizontal flow of the colonnades is punctuated and pinned to the ground by the vertical thrust of the columns which they contain. In the 10-storey housing block, conversely, the vertical emphasis is tempered by the incessant horizontal motion of Niall McLaughlin’s Parthenon riders.

Now the Olympic Games are over the 2818 flats in the housing complex are to be occupied by tenants paying a mixture of affordable and market rents. Lucky people – personally I cannot think of many things nicer than coming home every evening to a troop of timeless Athenian horsemen.

September 2012

With warm thanks to Niall McLaughlin, of Niall McLaughlin Architects, for the designs and the conversation.