The Aesthetics of Space: The Agora and the Acropolis - PPS
(Part of the Philosophy Papers series)
The history of the importance of space in aesthetics is a relatively new concept. Throughout most of history, the form of buildings was what was most important to architects. August Schmarsow is frequently credited for being the first to emphasise the importance of space in the realm of architecture (Schwarzer, 1991, p. 50). Since then, space has become an incredibly important part of contemporary architecture and urban design. Yet, while this phenomenon is relatively new, this does not mean that space was not also utilised well by the Ancient Greeks. In this paper, I will first consider the aesthetics of space. I will then analyse the Ancient Greek use of space by comparing the Agora with the Acropolis in Athens. Finally, I will see how space was utilised differently between the two areas, and what those utilisations meant aesthetically.
Space is a difficult concept to consider aesthetically because it does not really designate anything tangible. In fact, space designates a lack of things. When one says, “There is no space left in the pantry for these groceries”, this phrase signifies that the pantry contains no lack of things. More specifically, there is no lack of a thing in this pantry that could be filled or replaced with the groceries I already have. Space constitutes a potential, the potential of groceries in the pantry that is not yet actualised. Once a potential is actualised, it can’t be called space like in the example, when the pantry was already full, it had no space. We should not confuse space with some sort of nothingness because space does add something to its context. Ernst Lubitsch’s film Ninotchka (1939), explains how lack can add something to context with a joke, ‘A man comes into a restaurant. He sits down at the table, and he says, “Waiter, bring me a cup of coffee without cream”. Five minutes later the waiter comes back and says, “I’m sorry sir, we have no cream. Can it be without milk?” ’. Coffee without cream and coffee without milk will result in equal cups of coffee. However, these two cups of coffee are different in virtue of what they lack. It is the cream or milk that gives context to what the coffee is without, and this difference is an important part of understanding space.
The space between Queen Elizabeth II and Buckingham Palace is different to the space between my fridge and me. The spaces are not just different in magnitude or geography but have significant differences in context. When the Queen leaves Buckingham Palace, the Royal Standard flown on the mast there, is then replaced by the Union Jack as a sign of royal, legal, and political significance. However, the space between my fridge and I contains none of these contexts but only provides context to my movements around it, knowing that I have a left-over meal there waiting for me.
Another example is the space between the finger of God and the finger of Adam in The Creation of Adam (Michelangelo, c. 1512), and the space between Socrates’ hand and the hemlock chalice in The Death of Socrates (David, 1787). The space in The Creation of Adam (Michelangelo, c. 1512), is something that conveys a procession unto life in a Judeo-Christian context. The space in The Death of Socrates (David, 1787), conveys a procession unto death in an Ancient Greek setting. The space for both is an opening for meaning to be drawn in and out of its domain. Without that space, the meaning of the context would change. If Socrates had already held the cup in his hand, then the painting wouldn’t be conveying his open acceptance of his punishment or his embrace of death. Instead, we would not know whether Socrates had already taken the hemlock or if he was just about to. We wouldn’t know if he hesitant, defiant, or eager. The space conveys something in that painting that the space doesn’t convey in The Creation of Adam (Michelangelo, c. 1512). The space between God and Adam has a theological significance of the gulf between man and God. The space is drawn much closer in this work to signify this gulf being almost extinguished in how close man has come to God, or more controversially, how close God has brought himself to man. However, the gulf is never eliminated entirely, and no matter how close they are, that gap will always remain until a second Adam comes to close that gap completely within His very nature.
Space in architecture and urban planning build on these principles. A room without office equipment and a room without a bed and wardrobes may appear to be the same empty room, but an empty home office is not the same as an empty bedroom by virtue of what they lack. While a painting displays a static space, architecture and urban planning display dynamic spaces. You now have to consider the subject in relation to that three-dimensional space and its movement within it. All the phenomenological effects a person has moving through that space also convey aesthetic significance and experiences. The use of space then becomes vital in bringing context to a building or area and how it is to be experienced.
Let us analyse this use of space in the Athenian Acropolis. The entrance to the Acropolis begins to set the theme of the use of space. A small door that opens up to the Propylaea (see figure 2), compresses space through the doorway to then give way to a vast expansion of space stretching upwards. This theme of compression and expansion is an important technique in presenting ‘the reveal’. At the point of compression, the focus is drawn towards the restricted space, which creates a sense of discomfort for the subject as they are being confined or forced to a limited area. On passing through the restricted opening, the subject enters the expanded space, and their focus can widen to perceive more than they could in the compressed space. The leaving of the compressed space also eases the discomfort produced, creating a feeling of relief or relaxation. The widening and the relief effects give ‘the reveal’ greater awe and grandeur by flooding the subject with a new view of the expanded space and pleasurable affections. This technique is used twice in entering the Acropolis; once through the entrance way leading up to the Propylaea, the second time through the Propylaea to the main area of the Acropolis (Figure 5).
At the point, you step through the Propylaea to the main area of the Acropolis, and you are presented with the Greek’s use of the geometric proportionality of space. Figure 4 presents us with the angles of the viewer at the entrance of the Propylaea to the different buildings in the Acropolis. According to Doxiadis and Tyrwhitt (2021, p. 32), the angles between the left corner of the old north stoa (a) and the left corner of the west porch of the Erechtheion (c); position c and the northeast corner of the Parthenon (g); position g and the northeast corner of the Chalkotheke (k); position k and the southwest corner of the Chalkotheke, are all 30° or 180°/6 (Figure 4). Yet, even within these angles, there would be another point that would break them up in a 3:2 ratio. For the ac angle, point a´ (the southwest corner of the Arrephorian) would break up the ac angle into aa´ and a´c as a 3:2 ratio of the whole ac angle. The same was true for the cg, gk, and kl angles.
So why did Greeks put so much effort into the positioning of the buildings to create this geometrically proportional use of space? Langfeld (1920, pp. 228 - 32) argues that asymmetrical ratios are aesthetically pleasing because they allow the eye to not fix on any one place. When the observer is encouraged to take in the whole view rather than focusing on just a single part, they are able to enhance ‘the reveal’ with the widening effect becoming a dynamic focus moving across the whole space. This dynamic widening presents a stronger contrast to the compressed use of space that restricts the focus to a single location.
The Acropolis did not just effectively utilise a horizontal use of space but also a verticality. The Acropolis itself is built on a high point in Athens and is always directing attention upwards. The reveal from the entry to the Propylaea directs focus upwards, and the same happens during the second reveal from the Propylaea to the Acropolis. This movement of attention upwards makes the focus of attention appear strong and powerful in comparison to the subject, who may feel weak, submissive, helpless, or overpowered. This effect is used in cinematography, with the low-angle shot conveying the same sort of emotions. The emphasis of upwards attention is to instil within the subject submissiveness to the powerful object of attention, the goddess Athena (see figure 5). This would be an incredibly effective technique during festivals like the Panathenaia, which held an incredible amount of cultural, political and religious significance where celebrations would end at the Acropolis (Wescoat and Ousterhout, 2012, p. 168)
Finally, the urban planning of the Acropolis utilises a wedge formation for its paths (figures 3 & 5), where two main paths branched out from the square at the foot of the Athena Promachos. They follow the line of sight from the entrance of the Propylaea towards the Parthenon and the Erechtheum, which greatly assists the subject with their movements through the space. It also creates a funnel back through the Propylaea as an exit.
How is the use of space different in the Athenian Agora? In figure 6, we see a large open area in the middle where the market would have been, with various buildings littering the edges. The space does not direct your attention to any particular place, there is no reveal, no use of verticality or proportionality, and the compression and expansion of space seem to be only slightly utilised on the path towards the Hephaisteion. Yet, the lack of these uses of space actually tells us a lot about the context of the Agora. The Agora was not designed with the divine in mind but was built for the people. The perfections in the use of space with the Acropolis signified an impulse to imitate the divine perfections in the space they dedicated to Athena. The Agora doesn’t have this imposition of perfection in how it develops and thus has a more egalitarian and organic use of space. The focus is not directed upwards toward the heavens but can remain at eye level to engage with the other people moving through the Agora. Soares et al. (2022) argue that the use of space can affect creativity, trust, and the exchange of information between different people. They say that ‘spatial affordances’ allow individuals to engage not just with their environment but with other people as well. I believe that analysing the Agora’s spatial affordances is the source of its aesthetic significance.
The Agora’s main open area is the focus of the buildings around it that direct traffic towards the centre, which allow for more social interactions. The open area also allows for greater visibility which allows people to recognise each other and see where they want to go. However, the concentration of buildings on the eastern side offers opportunities for gatherings of people to get together for important social, religious, and political activities. The Agora offers an organic fluidity to paths of movement through its space, not limited by compressions in space which allows for greater accessibility.
When we compare the uses of space between the Acropolis and the Agora, we find important distinctions that tell us about the significance of those spaces. The Acropolis’s space was designed to be perfect. The proportionality of the orientation, distances and locations of buildings and paths was done in such a way as to resemble divine perfection. There is nothing natural or organic about the space of the Acropolis because its context did not want it to be seen as merely organic or natural. The space was used as a religious space dedicated to the worship and veneration of the goddess Athena, and so the use of space needed to be utilised in a way to enhance that purpose. For the Greeks, mathematics was the most pure science and most resembling the divine. The Greeks, therefore, wanted to use mathematics to define the space of the Acropolis. In essence, the space of the Acropolis is the use of mathematic perfection to honour the goddess Athena.
The space of the Agora is the exact opposite of mathematical perfection, but it is no less significant. The Agora displays a use of space for social interaction. A space that utilises accessibility, visibility, and other affordances to encourage a greater interaction between individuals and the environment, and individuals with each other. The Agora was home to the senate (Bouleuterion), The philosophical school of Stoicism (Stoa Poikile), legal courts (Stoa Basileios and Peristyle court), a library (Library of Pantainos), and meeting places for people like craftsmen (Agoraios Kolonos). Seeing as how the Agora was such an important area for social, political, and religious interaction, then the space of the Agora was successful for this purpose of interactions. In the Agora’s development, even more buildings were built dedicated to social interactions. This organic growth of the area to further support this use of space is something that was lacking at the Acropolis. Organic growth is not reflective of the divine, and new structures were only built there in accordance with previous plans (or conqueror’s demands).
While the importance of space may only have become explicit just over one hundred years ago, the Ancient Greeks were certainly aware of how space was used differently for different contexts. The difference between the uses of the space in the Acropolis and the Agora attest to this awareness.
Figure 1 - © 2022 Dorling Kindersley Limited.
Figure 7 - © 2022 Real Greek Experiences.
'The Acropolis', (2022), DK Findout!, Accessed the 30th of June. https://www.dkfindout.com/us/history/ancient-greece/acropolis/.
Alberti, Leone Battista, Ten Books on Architecture, ed. by Joesph Rykwert, trans. by James Leoni and Cosimo Bartoli, (London: Alec Tiranti, 1955).
'Ancient Agora Athens', (2022), Real Greek Experiences. https://realgreekexperiences.com/ancient-agora-athens.
David, Jacques-Louis, The Death of Socrates, 1787, oil on canvas, 129.5 × 196.2 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Doxiadis, C. A., and Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, 'Use of the Twelve- and the Ten-Part System.' in, Architectural Space in Ancient Greece (2021).
Langfeld, Herbert Sidney, The æsthetic attitude, (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920).
Ninotchka, dir. by Lubitsch, Ernst, (United States: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1939).
Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam, c. 1512, Fresco, 280 × 570 cm, Sistene Chapel, Vatican City.
Schwarzer, Mitchell W., 'The Emergence of Architectural Space: August Schmarsow's Theory of "Raumgestaltung"', Assemblage (1991), 15, pp. 49-61.
Soares, Isabelle, Viktor Venhorst, Gerd Weitkamp, and Claudia Yamu, 'The impact of the built environment on creativity in public spaces of Dutch university campuses and science parks', Journal of urban design (2022), 27, pp. 91-109 <doi:10.1080/13574809.2021.1945433>
Wang, Shuaizhong, Toni Kotnik, and Joseph Schwartz, 'Redefining Structural Art: A Neuroaesthetics Perspective on the Art of Structural Design', Architecture, Structures and Construction (2022), 2, pp. 3-16 <doi:10.1007/s44150-022-00027-y>
Wescoat, Bonna D., and Robert G. Ousterhout, Architecture of the sacred: space, ritual, and experience from classical Greece to Byzantium, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
 See, Leone Battista Alberti, Ten Books on Architecture, ed. by Joesph Rykwert, trans. by James Leoni and Cosimo Bartoli, (London: Alec Tiranti, 1955), pp. 1-2.  I Corinthians 15. 22, 45.  Shuaizhong Wang, Toni Kotnik, and Joseph Schwartz, 'Redefining Structural Art: A Neuroaesthetics Perspective on the Art of Structural Design', Architecture, Structures and Construction (2022), 2, p. 7.  See figure 7 for these places.  'The Acropolis', (2022), DK Findout!, Accessed 30 June. https://www.dkfindout.com/us/history/ancient-greece/acropolis/. Permission was not needed under Fair Dealing exceptions in the Copyright Act 1968. This use of permission is the same for all images unless otherwise stated.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:AthinaiPropylaen.jpg. Image in Public Domain.  Image provided by the lecturer in class material.  C. A. Doxiadis, and Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, 'Use of the Twelve- and the Ten-Part System', Architectural Space in Ancient Greece (2021), <doi:10.1162/a8667414.431039b7>  Screenshot at [10:06] from, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VRuHLCpOoF0&t=614s.  https://agora.ascsa.net/id/agora/drawing/da%203909. Image in Public Domain  'Ancient Agora Athens', (2022), Real Greek Experiences. https://realgreekexperiences.com/ancient-agora-athens.