Ernst Ziller > The German who beautified Athens January 20, 2007Posted by grhomeboy in Architecture Greece, Books Life Greek.
Architectural heritage. From far left: The interior of the Stathatos Mansion on the corner of Vassilissis Sofias Avenue and Irodotou Street; the Vassilis Melas Mansion, built in 1847 to accommodate wealthy Greeks from abroad and their entourages when they visited Athens, bounded by Karatinou, Ailou, Sophocleous and Streit streets; imposing marble staircase in the Presidential Palace. Ernst Ziller and his wife Sofia Dodou, photographed at home, at 4 Mavromichali Street (Photos: P. Moraitis).
The Ilion Melathron, one of the most costly and luxurious houses of old Athens, is barely visible these days for the protective screens that engulf it. When the time comes to unveil the building, now home to the Numismatic Museum, it will be our first chance to see it exactly as Ernst Ziller designed it for his friend Heinrich Schliemann.
By the standards of 1820s Athens, the Ilion Melathron was an extraordinary private residence in the heart of the city on Panepistimiou Street. Painted gold, red and blue, it was a vision, a flamboyant palace, the like of which Athenians had never seen. Crowned with pairs of clay statues, with two enclosed arched balconies, painted inside and out and from end to end, and surrounded by a garden of statues, it was the epitome of the Ziller style.
In this case, the architect had designed it for a rich philhellene who loved antiquity but, depending on the budget, he was capable of producing designs for a charming farmhouse or an imposing theater or church. He had his own style, that Saxon who took root in Greece. From the green, shady purlieus of Dresden, by way of Imperial Vienna, Ziller came to make his home in dusty Athens which, year by year, was improving and developing into an attractive place with its own style.
Ziller filled the urban landscape of Athens, Piraeus and many others cities with more than 500 buildings.
His name is well known yet it is likely that few know exactly which buildings he designed. Moreover, we are still finding out more about him: Archives come to light, data is cross-checked, buildings are identified. The research goes on.
A new book from Melissa, “Ernst Ziller 1837-1923: I techni tou clasikou” (The Art of the Classical) is the basic introduction to the world of Ziller. It is a spectacular, lavishly illustrated collection and a revaluation written by Maro Ardamitsi-Adami, one of the leading architects writing about Athens who has made a special study of Ziller.
Ziller grew up in Radebeul, a suburb of Dresden, where a street has been named after him. Ardamitsi-Adami visited the area to absorb the atmosphere of the place and culture in which the architect “who built half of Athens” was reared.
He was the son of the architect Christian Gottlieb and the grandson of building contractor Johann Christian. His three brothers, Moritz, Gustav and Paul also became architects. The first two ran the Ziller architects’ office in their hometown, with their own quarry and steam-operated timber mill. Ernst used to visit them whenever he left Athens for a while, and Paul stayed with him for a time in Greece.
Ziller had the opportunity to go to Tiflis in 1859 where he had won a competition run by the Russian government or to start work in Germany, but he received a letter from Theophilus Hansen, a Danish architect with a large business in Vienna, who was close friends with Baron Sina, who explained that he had secured the plot of land of the Athens Academy.
It was Hansen who brought out Ziller’s talent, offering him opportunities, inspiration and work. In the mid-19th century, Greece must have seemed to Ziller like an insignificant realm at the very edge of Europe. We follow him at the age of 22, as he traveled with his brother Moritz to Prague on the way to Vienna, excited by the remarkable architectural monuments. Hansen had been in Vienna since 1846 and had opened an architectural studio there. He had just returned from Greece, where he had been with his brother Christian. Ziller began working there in an environment in which the aura of Greece was present like a distant echo, and laid the foundations for a new life. The plans for the Academy, which he worked on for years in Vienna, would take him to Greece, initially in 1859 and permanently in 1868.
Ziller oversaw the work of the Academy but gradually set up his own studio. He was a man who was interested in everything, who loved learning, and who trusted his own judgment, with daring and vision. He traveled to Greece, whose border at that time was just north of Lamia, sketching and observing. He loved archaeology and conducted excavations. His finds and the discovery of the ancient Panathenaic Stadium made him famous and won him the friendship of King George I.
We don’t know why Ziller settled in Athens, though he had married Sofia Doudou, whom he met in Vienna, a piano soloist, and they had five children. Living conditions were not easy in Greece at the time. Travel was arduous until at least the end of the 19th century, when the administrations of Prime Minister Harilaos Trikoupis embarked on modernization projects.
At a time of rapid change, Ziller embodied the architectural expression of the new middle class. His clientele grew, reaching a peak in the 1880s and 90s. It was then that he designed major projects such as the Royal (now National) Theater, the Melas Mansion, the Stathatos Mansion, the Successor’s Palace (now the Presidential Palace), the Municipal Theater, Ermoupolis City Hall and numerous other buildings throughout Greece.
He built the Ziller residence in Kastella, of which almost all the neoclassical belvedere overlooking the Saronic Gulf has been demolished, villas in Kifissia, mansions, offices and the first large apartment block. Ziller designed a new landscape for Athens. His house still stands on Mavromichali Street, near Academias Street. He sold it for 150,000 drachmas to the art-loving banker-collector Dionysios Loverdos when an inopportune business deal ruined him in 1900. His family learned to live on less after that and Ziller opened another studio on the corner of Kanaris and Solonos streets, where he found himself the butt of the anti-German sentiments of the Athenians in the years leading up to WWI. He worked unceasingly till the very end, in 1923.
As well as being an architect, Ziller was also an exceptional engineer and builder who created an army of tradesmen and a whole world of workshops that supplied builders all over Greece with clay statues, painted borders, railings and friezes for houses and public buildings.
Beautiful photographs by Giorgis Gerolymbas and the knowledge of Ardamitsi-Adami show how a German born in 1837 lives on among us in the streets of contemporary Athens.