The Acropolis of Athens, Greece

18th December 2020

Perched atop a hill known as Sacred Rock, overlooking the city of Athens, the Acropolis is an ancient citadel housing the remains of several buildings of great architectural and historic significance, including the Parthenon.

A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Acropolis is an iconic landmark for the people of Athens, and viewed by many as an international symbol of Greek civilisation, with the temples of the Acropolis considered some of the most famous architectural landmarks in the world.

In late 2019, the Greek Ministry of Culture announced to the public the need for a new lighting scheme for the Acropolis hill and its monuments. This relighting was supported by the Onassis Foundation, who offered to fund the entire process, and invited distinguished lighting design offices to submit their proposals for the monumental project.

In January of this year, Athens’ own Eleftheria Deko Lighting Design was selected by the Onassis Foundation for the project. Although the project initially called for an improvement of the existing lighting study, Deko went one step further, proposing an entirely new lighting concept.

“We didn’t receive a brief for the lighting design, but we received a technical study with guidelines and restrictions from the archaeological department, which we had to apply to our study,” Deko explained.

“We respected all the guidelines that were presented to the technical study, we studied the previous lighting scheme, then we set up our intentions and concluded with a whole new design approach.”

The philosophy of this new approach was applied to the lighting of the Sacred Rock, the fortification wall and the monuments, including the Parthenon, the Propylaea, the Temple of Athena Nike, the Erechtheion, the Ancient Theatre of Dionysus, the Stoa of Eumenes, the Shrine of Dionysus, and five other monuments that were illuminated for the first time.

“The new lighting study was presented to the Ministry of Culture and to the Central Archaeological Council in March 2020 during a six-hour presentation. The new approach of distinguishing, for the first time, the Sacred Rock from the wall and the monuments through lighting was welcomed and approved unanimously.”

Because of the immense cultural significance of the Acropolis to the people of Greece, Deko revealed that when working on the new lighting concept for the landmark, she had to approach things in an entirely new way.

“This one was so different from every other project, I felt I had to forget all I knew and start from scratch,” she said. “I had to feel the energy of the space and understand the lighting requirements, so at the beginning I became an observer of the Acropolis.

“I spent many hours observing the monuments during the different phases of the day; in the morning, at noon when the light is harsher, at dusk while the sun sets, under the moon and in complete darkness. Just to try and imagine the reflections of the stone and marble sculptures in different versions of natural light. That observation was the guide and the teacher.

“Of course, I had to see the Acropolis as part of the city and its coexistence in today’s urban landscape as well. The Acropolis and the Parthenon are visible from many points of the city, so we were frequently walking away from the site to see the Acropolis from far away, from different neighbourhoods.

“When you are on the hill, you are overwhelmed by the feeling of admiration and awe for the Acropolis itself. As you move away, you realise its gradations: the rock, the wall and the monuments. From these observations, I realised that these three elements needed to be differentiated. Each bears the symbolism of its time and that inspired us to create those lighting layers through colour temperature and intensity differentiations. In the previous scheme, an emotional colour was chosen; a warm, almost orange light colour for all, the monuments, the rock and the wall. There was no differentiation, which in my opinion was necessary.

“The idea of differentiation was clear and essential to me because the Rock is nature, it existed and exists before human intervention. The wall represents the human effort, the craftsmanship. Monuments, on the other hand, are worship, art, and if I may say, mystery. These elements cannot be illuminated in the same way – apart from the difference in their substance, there is a different materiality. The Rock is made of one material, the wall is made of other materials and the monuments are made of the luminous Pentelic marble.”

This differentiation of materials was the starting point for Deko and her team’s research, where they carried out many tests to achieve the most appropriate shade, firstly for the Parthenon to reflect its light. This same approach was replicated for the Temple of Athena Nike, the Propylaea, the Erechtheion and also the Sacred Rock and the wall, in order to make them reflect their own light. “Moreover, we wanted to highlight the details and also create depth of field in order to make the different volumes distinct from afar,” Deko added.

Although an immense project, not just in terms of its geographical scope, but also its cultural significance, Deko and her team had to work to a very tight schedule, with 45 days in which to deliver the lighting study, while she was given just nine months to complete the whole project. Such a short timeframe was only exacerbated as according to Deko, “the available material, plans, 3D models etc, was in fragments, so our team had to dedicate time to collect the proper material and modify it into the necessary forms for the project to be carried out.”

The historical standing of the UNESCO World Heritage site also meant that accessibility on site was a challenge for the lighting designers to overcome. Deko explained further: “Firstly, the restriction on visiting hours due to the touristic archaeological site, and then the accessibility to the new desired positions for lights that were difficult to reach. On some occasions we had to use the same positions as the previous lighting scheme, and in others create new ones to serve our lighting study, but for every new position or new element, we had to get official approval from the Central Archaeological Council and archaeological ephorate. We had to submit detailed sketches for everything to get approval.

“Another important element to mention is that except for the implementation of the new lighting concept, we changed all the electrical panels and wiring of the Acropolis in order to comply with the new available technology and products – DMX control, tunable white luminaires, etc. The challenge was that throughout the change of the electrical network, the replacement of all the old fittings and the installation of the new ones, there was not allowed to be a black out of the site, neither the Sacred Rock nor the monuments. That was a big challenge as the whole installation had to be planned in a strict and organised way in order to achieve an unnoticeable transition from the old to the new, and deliver the new lighting without turning the lights off.”

The new lighting scheme called on a selection of luminaires from Erco, alongside fixtures from Linea Light Group and Griven. Deko requested Erco to customise a specific type of luminaire based on one of its existing products – Lightscan. “The characteristics of the new fixture are: tunable white from 2700K to 5000K, the control system based on DMX protocol, and lastly, to create a product with maximum enhancement of luminosity and high efficiency, while remaining elegant in shape and size,” Deko explained.

Erco’s Greek representative, Smeka, was onside throughout, supporting the lighting designers during the mock-up and testing period on site.

The need for tunable white, with a range in colour temperature from 2700-5000K was based on the desire to be able to decide on site the exact shade of white to illuminate each monument, with 12 slightly different, harmonious shades eventually used across the Acropolis monuments. Meanwhile, Lightscan’s exchangeable lenses meant that it was possible for Deko to define the optimum light distribution for each mounting position through on-site tests.

The lighting designers also sought a high CRI in the fixtures specified, which allowed them to achieve the optimum illumination to highlight the colour and textures of the marble and stone, while the DMX control provides independent control of every fixture. The transition to LED fixtures also led to an improved energy efficiency, reducing power requirements by around 60%.

“The complexity of the site, the differentiation of heights and structures, meant that it was essential for us to work with a range of different lenses, from elliptical to wide flood, oval flood, wall washer, etc, to accomplish the required light distribution,” Deko added. “That way, we managed to accurately focus the lights to the monuments and the wall, and overall, avoid scattered light and light pollution. The light only reaches where it is needed.”

Michalis Karousis, Vice President of Smeka, added: “The unique structural formation of the Parthenon, the Propylaea and the wall, and the morphology of the Acropolis rock itself required several on-site mock ups. The availability of a projector with interchangeable lenses helped to specify the ideal luminaire.

“The demanding challenge of the project was to use the minimum amount of energy possible. Energy efficiency is however, not only a question of efficient LEDs. Thanks to precise optics and different light distributions, it was possible to illuminate only the desired areas, even over long distances. In this way, we ensured a sustainable use of energy.”  

However, the biggest challenge for Deko and her team is the same challenge that we have all faced throughout 2020, working around the Covid-19 pandemic. Deko explained how the global crisis impacted on this project: “In Athens, we went into a strict lockdown in late March, and that was exactly during the most significant period for the project mock-ups and the ordering of the lighting fixtures.

“The pandemic became a big challenge, as we didn’t have enough samples, the factories were temporarily closed and we were facing many delays in the process. However, our team continued working throughout the lockdown period. If we could say that there was a positive situation, it is that the Acropolis site was closed to the public during lockdown, so we had more flexibility to test and visit the site at any time, as well as get permission for the workers to work undisturbed in the daytime on the wiring infrastructure and the foundation of the electrical installation and afterwards, the positioning and installation of the lighting fittings.”

While the relighting of the Acropolis would be a big project for any lighting designer, for Deko, an Athens local, the project holds even more significance. “Being part of this project was a multidimensional journey not only for me but for the whole team,” she said. “From my first visits on site, I felt that I had to leave aside my knowledge and experience as a lighting designer, forget my art and science, and focus on ‘listening’ to the monument. It was as if I was listening to our ancestors, reading our history, baptised to our Ancient Greek culture. It was the greatest honour for me!”

Given the historical significance of the site, while it was a great honour for Deko to be involved, she added that there was an extra sense of pressure to get the new lighting right.

She explained: “The Parthenon, as many analysts and historians have said, is perfect! You can imagine how difficult it is to light the perfect – I was in awe.

“This monument is imposed on everyone and it creates emotions and feelings so unprecedented that they lead you to a personal introspection. Somehow, I felt that our task was not to illuminate the site, but to make the monuments reflect their own incredible light.

“As a Greek citizen and a lighting designer, the Acropolis of Athens has been a lifetime project. It has been a unique experience for me and my team. For nine months, I was dealing with the project’s lighting every day and night, and my thoughts were exclusively there. I was closing my eyes and ‘seeing’ the Parthenon; I was constantly thinking about the dilemmas of the shade of the rock; I was bothering my colleagues with successive sampling to be sure that our philosophy, which was presented at the Central Archaeological Council, would be implemented in the best possible way.

“Together with my colleagues, we studied every inch of the rock and the monuments in a photometric model, and then did tests and mock-ups at night to confirm the photometric findings and define the right number of luminaires.”

Once the lighting design was completed, an official unveiling of the new scheme was organised and curated by production company Yard and V+O, together with the Onassis Foundation. As part of this official unveiling, which was livestreamed around the world, Deko collaborated with director Alexandros Maragos and song composer Stavros Gasparatos to create a short film and dynamic light show that would catch the eye, while presenting different perspectives of the Acropolis from multiple viewpoints across the city.

“From the very beginning, I insisted that the lighting show should not last longer than three minutes, since our intention had to captivate the audience’s attention and not antagonise the final new lighting of the Acropolis,” explained Deko. “We believe that you cannot honour such a monument by presenting a dynamic lighting show, but you can create an exciting introduction, using the Parthenon as a symbol, and this is what we finally did.

“During the ceremony, I was sitting in the VIP area, where the Greek Prime Minister, the President of the Hellenic Republic, the Minister of Culture, and the President of the Onassis Foundation were sat. The whole time, I was crossing my fingers that everything would go as planned. I was so moved that I had tears in my eyes. When the ceremony was finished, I felt fulfilled with the result, and happy that everything went well.”

The new lighting concept for the Acropolis has, since its official unveiling, been universally lauded around the world, from the lighting design community, the press, and the general public. For Deko, she believes the overall reaction can be summed up with two words: enthusiasm and emotion. “We are constantly receiving moving and enthusiastic messages from people who live near the city centre and have a view overlooking the Acropolis, people who are walking around the area, and even from the owners of local restaurants who claim that after the new lighting reveal, their clientele grew, with a positive financial impact on their business.

“People are sending us thankful and congratulatory messages, photographs and comments that their daily life has changed by looking at a completely different nightscape, appreciating the beauty of the Acropolis.

“Also, the international press has applauded the new lighting approach and welcomed it as a fresh, optimistic and symbolic moment during the dark times that we are going through globally.”

Despite the international acclaim, for Deko, a perfectionist at heart, she said that she is still “fine-tuning details”, and is “continuously visiting the site now and for a few more weeks in order to bring it to its fullest completion”.

That being said, she is very satisfied with the final outcome of this extraordinary project. She concluded: “The new lighting emphasises the naturalness and the pure colour of the stones and the marble. The Acropolis hill is now more vibrant and to us, it feels like the Parthenon is proudly standing up again.

“I will use the words of the President of the Onassis Foundation during his speech at the opening ceremony – ‘In dark times, when you light the Acropolis, you bring light to the whole world.’”

Pic: Gavriil Papadiotis