Athens is the capital and the largest city of the country, with over 40% of the population of Greece. It is a city which in the course of its history has had the glorious privelege of being the birthplace of Civilisation and Democracy. Through this historical course, Athens has inherited important monuments, bearing witness to the culture of all phases of her existence.
The cultural area of Athens, comprising the archaeological sites, the Byzantine monuments and neoclassical buildings, together with her natural surroundings form a unique inheritance and an inexhaustible wealth for further development of the city. Archaeological sites and monuments of all periods are particularly numerous in the historic centre. They are to be found in large aggregates, including both ancient (Acropolis and the South Slope of the Acropolis, Ancient Agora, Roman Agora, Kerameikos, Academy of Plato) and modern monuments. They exist also in areas such as the Plaka, Psyrri, Theseion and Gazi. In addition isolated monuments are scattered throughout the urban web: these are mainly archaeological sites that came to light during separate excavations (in the Plaka area), and Byzantine, Post-Byzantine and more recent monuments.
Most of the aggregates and single monuments lie within an area centered on the Acropolis. It runs from the Panathenaic Stadium, surrounds the Acropolis, and continues on to the Academy of Plato. This zone includes areas of considerable importance from the standpoint of history, archaeology, architecture, monuments, environment and city-planning. These areas are: the Academy of Plato, the Demosion Sema (national cemetery of antiquity), the Sacred Way, the Theseion, the Kerameikos, the Psyrri neighbourhood, the Ancient Agora, the Roman Agora, Monasteraki, Plaka, Anaphiotika, Hill of the Muses (Philippapos, Pnyx, Observatory), the Acropolis with its monuments, the Makriyanni neighbourhood where the new Acropolis Museum is to be built, the Olympieion, Ardettos hill and the Panathenaic Stadium, the Zappeion and the area of the Cultural Centre.
At present, despite efforts that have been made from time to time, the Archaeological Sites of Athens are divided, unconnected with each other and quite unrelated to everyday life. The monuments are isolated and not always interrelated with their urban and monumental environment. The result is that the historical continuity of the city is interrupted in the perception of those exposed to the life of the city whether as inhabitants who pass by or visit daily these areas, or as foreign tourists. As far as the tourists are concerned, the presentation of the monuments is fragmented to the extent that in general their visit is confined to the Acropolis.
Given the present situation, it is most important for Athens that the archaeological sites in the centre of the city be unified to form a functional and comprehensible whole: an archaeological park in which the monuments and all the antiquities have the prominence they deserve, emphasising their aesthetic and educational value and the historical continuity of the city. The creation of such a centre for the Athenians in a functional area that has been so greatly improved culturally, aesthetically and environmentally, while improving the quality of life, will also emphasize the historical character of Athens. It will give the visitor to the area a better idea of the diachronic development of the city. Moreover, the organisation of the area will provide the opportunity for a longer visit and one that is simpler, pleasanter and more informative.
Melina Mercouri saw clearly that the productive capital of Athens was her cultural heritage and that her contemporary cultural output was based on this. With this in mind the programme for the unification of the Archaeological sites of Athens was launched in 1985. For decades it had been the aspiration of many architects, a vision of life and breath for Athens.
The area covered in the study is around 7,000 stremmata, and it extends for some 4,000 metres. The entire area is divided up by important roadways which are in effect historical and cultural barriers. Places and monuments in the historic centre of the city, which today is the focus of the environmental problem, are going downhill day by day in an area whose chief characteristics are pollution, the traffic problem, a lack of open and green spaces and the notable decline of these same spaces and the area around them.
The programme applies modern ideas about the protection of cultural heritage, with the protection and display of monuments and sites of all types and dates. Every one of the monuments is to be respected. This is in contrast to the outlook of the first years following the Revolution when ancient monuments were preserved and displayed while Byzantine and more recent monuments were left to their fate (for example in the Ancient and Roman Agoras, Library of Hadrian, and so forth).
All together, in accordance with the aims of the programme, the zone of unification will be part of a wider network which will be centered on the archaeological sites but will also include the main areas of greenery in Athens. The archaeological sites will be connected in fact with public and open areas, public installations, and areas used for cultural activity and relaxation. The area will be interconnected by roads used daily by Athenians for access to the commercial centre; similarly it will be connected with existing and planned cultural establishments. The programme will enable the inhabitants of Athens to have a 4 kilometre long archaeological park with an area of 7,000 stremmata, and an Historic Centre aesthetically, environmentally and culturally evolved. This will be a haven of life and culture within a city that respects the human being.
The level of approach is balanced between a regulative and city-planning study. It includes, that is, proposals of broad strategy, together with a considerable number of proposals in detail for specific sections. In order to put the programme into effect, in 1993 the Office of Unification of the Archaeological Sites of Athens was formed under the Ministry of Culture. Its task is to assist in carrying out the studies for unification.