Start reading at the bottom. The order of sections is reversed.


Fragment of Parthenon frieze in British Museum with 3D models of it

Architecture sometimes engages in what are called micro-interventions — a kind of architectural acupuncture intended to have wider effects on the urban fabric. Architecture students might engage in surveying a small fragment of a building, for example. But more generally, the micro scale of architecture has to do with materials.

Here it closely aligns with archaeology at the same scale, in its interest in material composition and performance, methods of manufacture and wear. As such, it aligns also with Ingold’s (2007) emphasis on what materials do. And here, too, drawing is an important method. But this is also the level of bits in digital media: in architecture not only the detail drawing but also 3D modelling, texture mapping, rendering and simulation. Architect Virna Koutla (2016), whose film about statues and migration I mentioned in the Archaeology section, has characterised materiality at the intersection of physical and digital as ‘synthetic materiality,’ locating the enactment and performance of such materiality in affective relations between subject and object. She explores this in the form of a speculative dialogue with a giant terracotta vase.

My work in the architectural mode focused particularly on the micro scale, with an eye to the future and the utopian/dystopian (again in terms of imagining otherwise, not as a place). This started with drawing — specifically, drawing as drawing attention to the micro scale of materials and their temporal scales which far outstretch those of humans. The Parthenon and its missing marbles are likely to survive in some form long after humans are gone; what stories might they tell, and to whom? 

My large prints also were intended to draw attention to the material by enlarging details and transposing marble to more movable fabric. The series of prints was titled Return to Stone, alluding to the return of the artefacts to Athens, but also a return from human back to stone — the reverse process of evolution depicted in the pediment of the British Museum, and also an allusion to Medusa of Greek mythology: her severed head (the inverse of the many headless statues at the British Museum) retained its power to turn people to stone, and ended up ultimately on Athena’s shield, according to the myth.

In focusing at the micro level, I used digital technology to interrogate and translate the friezes in architectural fashion. This included using a digital technique called displacement mapping — a form of photogrammetry or image-based modelling which extrudes a two-dimensional image into three. These techniques are used in cultural heritage to image, record, digitally preserve, and re-create artefacts or sites. Tracy Ireland and Tessa Bell (2021) subverted this to create artistic interpretations of a site in Cyprus, which they then used as both a method and a site of ethnographic encounter, to investigate digital materiality.

3D models of frieze fragment

In my case, I started with a close-up photo of one of the friezes, where human traces are barely detectable in the marks left by the sculptor and the figures he depicted. This yielded complex topographies that could be navigated as a mysterious terrain. Thus, while unrelated to either displacement or mapping in the way I discussed these previously at different scales (except in that ‘displacement’ is rooted in the Greek topos, meaning place) it was nonetheless a similar exploration of space as my stippled drawings. Arévalo terms the Parthenon friezes ‘intangible topographies’ in her work, a term appropriate to my 3D work also. Instead of friezes applied to architecture, this was frieze as architecture itself. As such, it could be entered into and investigated from inside — something not easily possible with real marble.  

This work is still in progress. No work is ever finished, and I apply this statement equally to the Parthenon and its sculptures, in their ever-evolving forms and interpretations, and as source material for new work.


Sculptures in Parthenon Gallery, British Museum

Although the urban environment at large, and buildings specifically, are built for humans, I characterise the transition from macro to meso simply as a move indoors. This is conflated in this case, however, by the imposing interiors of the Parthenon, even in its ruined state. In addition, it was a structure within a structure: behind its columns, the friezes ran around the exterior walls of a building within. Visually, they told a particular story, which was not linear but ran along both sides of the building — the story of a procession, which converged at one end of the building. As pointed out in the British Museum’s interpretive gallery, depictions of processions and festivals date back to the first known civilisations. Like the postmodern building-as-communication as detailed by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott-Brown and Steven Izenour (1997), or contemporary digital media façades, the Parthenon was information architecture, ancient immersive media. I have previously characterised museums similarly (Walker 2001).

Parthenon Gallery, British Museum

Inside the British Museum, the Parthenon galleries mimic the real thing, but inverting interior and exterior in relation to the Parthenon: in the literal reconstruction of the temple façade in part of the gallery, in the columns placed in the corners of the gallery, and more generally in the display of the friezes. Even though the friezes run around the interior walls of the gallery and not the outside of an internal structure (as at the New Acropolis Museum), they are given much more space than their original context and the overall design of the gallery reflects what Christopher Marshall (2012: 34) calls the museum as temple — it was seen by its architect to be a more appropriate setting for the display of treasures than a mere container for sculptures. What its architect called the ‘unsightly litter' of didactic material is banished to a separate gallery, where the visitor’s response to the friezes is staged before reaching them (ibid.: 36). 

The museum-as-temple is now seen as a dated idea; according to van Winkel (2012), ‘the museum that no longer conserves and exhibits, but stimulates. The grave has become the engine.' But just as public space is psychological space, architecture provokes specific behaviours in its occupants (in this case museum visitors), and despite the lack of written rules, in the museum-as-temple, people are inevitably calm and quiet. No one runs, conversations are hushed, and any shouting children are quieted, so as not to disturb others’ direct encounter with the original; this phenomenon has been well documented.

At either end of the Parthenon gallery, pediment sculptures and metopes (high-relief sculptures originally just below the pediments) are displayed atop a small flight of steps. This not only adds to the general aura of respect (the act of climbing steps mirrors the act of climbing up the Acropolis and the Parthenon’s own steps), but it also puts them slightly closer to their original viewing angle. According to Campagna (2021: 39):

Roman author Pliny the Elder and medieval historian Ioannes Tzetzes spoke of a contest to build a monumental statue of Athena, which had taken place in the 5th century BC between the Greek sculptors Phidias and Alcamenes. During the weeks of preparation in the workshops, Alcamenes’ statue had impressed the judges for its perfect beauty, while Phidias’ work had appeared monstrous due to its grotesque proportions. Yet once both had been mounted on pillars, the decelerated perspective suddenly made Phidias’ Athena beautiful, and Alcamenes' ugly. Unlike his rival, Phidias understood that the Divinity’s ‘true’ beauty would have become apparent to human onlookers, only on condition of sacrificing its ‘actual’ perfection.

As information architecture, this harkens back to the tradition of the memory palace, or memory theatre. Kunzru’s Memory Palace draws its title from the practice which originated in ancient Greece (from Simonides as told by Aristotle), linking things that were to be remembered (in a primarily oral culture) with memorable, often monstrous figures placed in specific positions.

Yates (1966) refers to this practice as ‘artificial memory,’ and we might make an analogy with contemporary scenography, the museographic practice of staging exhibitions using theatrical techniques, as discussed by Patten (2020): proto-architect Vitruvius ‘describes skenographia as a Greek invention associated with the theatre that was exclusively concerned with the species — the external appearance or aspect. Species could also mean apparition or phantasm and is, in turn, associated with the verb specto – to watch, to observe’. As such, scenography in museums can involve the use of lenses, gauzes, filters, mirrors, shadows and illusions (Crawley 2013). Veras (2020) describes the museum itself as a mnemonic device or medium, proposing museums as ‘hyperstitional devices for lost futures of technological utopias’ or ‘time machines of the future’.

The term ‘artificial memory’ also evokes our primary form of memory today — the digital. Kunzru makes this link directly, and in his post-digital world, everything digital has been erased by a ‘Great Magnetization’ event, and the protagonist is part of a group of people who have revived the ancient technique of the memory palace in order to preserve the last remaining knowledge of the past. 

But the concept of memory relies on its mirror-image, that of forgetting. According to Zwart and Chahine (2020), ‘[i]n order to remember, we need to forget. Recent discourse in memory and heritage studies acknowledges that “forgetting” is as much part of memory practices as “remembering”’. When do we get to forget what, and who decides? The concept of conservation of cultural heritage implies saving something for future generations of humans; what about natural heritage, and future nonhumans? As DeSilvey and Lowande (2020) observe, the very concept of ‘cultural heritage’ points to human exceptionalism in the modernisation metanarrative, but various extramodern cosmological perspectives do not accept this; they suggest attention to ‘how things stay together and take care of themselves regardless of human desires’.

Regarding museums as memory palaces is where the architectural definition of ‘programming’ meets the curatorial. I believe there is value in the computational definition as well — considering the gallery as a space of inputs, outputs, processing, communication and memory (Walker 2001); even as ‘object-oriented programming’ in a relational approach which ascribes agency to artefacts. Beyond parametric architecture that results in soulless ‘blobjects’ (to use designer Karim Rashid’s’s term, Cullerton 2005); beyond shiny virtual models like the Parthenon reconstruction on a screen in the British Museum gallery adjacent to the friezes; the concept of computation, I believe, reimagines a script, a space, and objects that can be ‘run’ like a program, interacting with people without the use of anything digital. (In fact, the earliest known ‘computer’ is said to be the ancient Greek Antikythera mechanism; it inspired the work of Expanded Museum founder Grace Pappas.)

Inspired by Walter Van de Velde (2003), who conceptualised the world as a kind of computer that computes the future and can be programmed through design, I have transferred computational methods into a design methodology (Walker and Fass 2015), applied this to museums (Walker and Liang 2013), and run experiments in programming gallery spaces computationally, using computational concepts and technologies (Walker and others 2013). 

Since architecture is oriented toward the future, we might therefore look to technology for contemporary or future-looking museographic and scenographic practices. If the digital screen can be considered a contemporary version of the frieze, projected images go further, animating or activating architectural surfaces to make walls seemingly disappear; digital information becomes a material for architectural construction (Uribe and Walker 2019). In this condition, according to Lavin (2011), architecture and projection converge without collapsing into one; projections give otherwise mute architecture meaning, and architecture gives images monumentality. Projected images, she says, can thicken a building’s envelope. Artist Yiyun Kang (2017) calls this ‘deep surface’ — her practice of projection mapping comes at the other end of site mapping, being applied to completed (even ancient) architecture, not as an archaeological practice either, but a (non-invasive) reimagining.

Another artist and architect, Mále Uribe Forés, goes further to create computer-generated textural surfaces, cast into physical forms and then illuminated using projection mapping. The use of light as material has thus moved from the natural, Mediterranean light of Athens to the controlled artificial light of the gallery, now full-circle to the lighting up of monuments like the Parthenon at night. Friezes that have been removed can now move. 

According to Lavin (2011: 111):

Architecture today need not be just that which you bump up against when you try to look at something else [in a gallery] nor a monument culturally framed and rendered visible by its own importance. Architecture’s new confounds are not just making buildings visible but are encouraging them to find ways to make perception enter the realm of experience rather than vision, to make images that produce material impressions, to make experience that is vivid.

Museums and monuments are not utopian spaces, architecturally or conceptually. They may exhibit and embody utopian ideals of the past, but ultimately they are not places for imagining alternatives or being otherwise, in Levitas’ terms — though Arévalo (2020) believes they have great potential for doing so. 

Prints in exhibition

Print from the series Return to Stone (fabric, 2 x 1m) hanging in the Expanded Museum exhibition above a marble staircase.

I visited one utopian site in Athens, however: the architecture school. Despite its own monumental architecture (it is one of the oldest universities in Greece), it is covered in graffiti, primarily reflecting its (political and geographic) position at the centre the active anarchist scene in Athens. It was the site of resistance against dictatorship in 1973, and indeed I had to pass through a contemporary protest to reach it. 

For all the lively graffiti, the campus was deserted, classes being out in early September. But my companion (a Greek architect educated there) and I managed to talk our way inside, thanks to one of the few students around. The studios sit in a huge, darkened, warehouse-like space, resembling one of the steampunk films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. This seemed oddly appropriate to imagining the future, in stark contrast to the bright sunlight and neoclassical courtyard outside. (For more on architecture schools as utopian environments, see Sacchetti 2019.)

In terms of architecture at human scale, the artist’s studio is one place for imagining futures, and in this project our focus was more on the studio-as-gallery as a place to communicate macro-scale stories through meso- and micro-scale objects and installations than in programming the museum as such, as explained above. Our residency studio in Athens was outside the centre of the city, near the water in the neighbourhood of Kallithea. It was a former auto repair shop, with big doors that let in lots of bright light. All of us worked at architectural scale to some degree, Arévalo and I particularly, and we both took the Parthenon friezes as our subject matter, unbeknownst to each other until the time came to turn the studio into a gallery. 

Besides the lightbox drawing I created, detailed in the Archaeology section, I selected close-up photos of details of Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum, and printed them on large (2 × 1m) sheets of fabric. I saw this as a way of bringing the sculptures back to Athens, but in a different form, scale and context: bringing the micro to the meso scale to address macro-level issues. I chose to exhibit two of them near the entrance, in what was formerly an office, alongside a display of books that inspired our collective work and discussions. I wanted viewers to be immediately confronted with the materiality of the marble, which contrasted with the rationality of the printed word; and I chose details that contained hints of human form and narrative content, to draw people in to the exhibition theme of ‘Contemporary Archaeologies’.

friezes & fragments posters by Ana Helena Arévalo

Ana Helena Arévalo's printed poem hanging in the gallery

Two other prints were exhibited up high: one in the double-height main room (where cars were once serviced), and the other up a flight of stairs leading to the second floor and additional works by other residents. The print in the main room was from a statue of Athena’s messenger Iris, carved to suggest she was in motion. The framing of my photo, the material it was printed on, and the fact that it was hung only from the top, meant that when the large doors were opened, the sea breeze gave it a new kind of life and motion — animation without technology. In addition, the composition and placement perfectly complemented Arévalo’s large hanging poem. 

The other print was positioned above a marble staircase, which alluded to the current site of the original sculpture, up a set of stairs at the end of the Parthenon gallery in the British Museum, as well as its original position up near the pediment on the Parthenon. This was also a deliberate rhetorical positioning, not intended to command respect for the sculpture or my reproduction of it, but to highlight the aesthetics of the material itself, and its history of construction, weathering, displacement, its silent gaze back to millions of museum visitors, and its journey back to Athens in another form.

Arévalo, in addition to her 4m-long printed poem, also produced an essay spread across seven posters, using the ICOM (International Committee of Museums) Code of Ethics as its premise: she thereby addressed the sculptures’ displacement more directly.

Iris statue, detail, prints


Beyond the level of site are the background social, economic and historical contexts. From long before the Parthenon friezes linked Athens to London in the colonial 1800s, up to today’s conflicted socio-economic conditions and uncertain futures, the two sites have a long-shared history. Both dense urban centres at the heart of faded empires, both now rely on tourism — the past as potential profit. Architecture has played a key role, not only insofar as historical buildings have become tourist sites. London transformed a former power plant into an art museum (funded by a colonial sugar producer), which has become its foremost tourist destination; in Athens, Greek shipping tycoons have employed star architects to create new destinations atop the city’s many ruins.

But some new museums, along with many building projects in Athens, have never opened due to recent economic hardship in the country. I was struck by the many half-finished, abandoned building sites in the city. This contrasts with the vast forest of construction cranes in London, building ever more high-rises destined to sit mostly empty (whether as unrented office space or overseas investments). Both sites therefore contain monuments to the excesses, inequalities and varying fortunes of global capitalism. (Recall Kunzru’s imagined future of the Shard). Museums build edifices of their own in the form of their collections, to be repeatedly excavated archaeologically.

At the level of the individual site, architects, like archaeologists, engage in a site survey as an initial step, in their case for future construction, not reconstruction of the past. A site is mapped to explore, document and analyse its spatial, social, and material conditions (I have included satellite images of the British Museum and the Acropolis). Demos observes that technical images such as these link to a vast global, sociotechnical, computational machine, thus affording a view not only onto a site, but looking through or behind the image, to macro-scale contemporary (and future) digital apparatuses for monitoring and controlling physical spaces (Demos 2017).

Satellite images of the British Museum and Acropolis, from Google Maps.

Beyond topography, public space is ultimately psychological space, but historically, very few architects have been willing or able to engage in post-occupancy studies of their building projects.

According to philosopher John Dewey (1934: 4):

By common consent, the Parthenon is a great work of art. Yet it has esthetic [sic] standing only as the work becomes an experience for a human being. And, if one is to go beyond personal enjoyment into the formation of a theory about that large republic of art of which the building is one member, one has to be willing at some point in his reflections to turn from it to the bustling, arguing, acutely sensitive Athenian citizens, with civic sense identified with a civic religion, of whose experience the temple was an expression, and who built it not as a work of art but as a civic commemoration. The turning to them is as human beings who had needs that were a demand for the building and that were carried to fulfillment in it; it is not an examination such as might be carried on by a sociologist in search for material relevant to his purpose. The one who sets out to theorize about the esthetic experience embodied in the Parthenon must realize in thought what the people into whose lives it entered had in common, as creators and as those who were satisfied with it, with people in our own homes and on our own streets.

While urbanism traffics in buildings and planning, according to Lavin (2011: 88), ‘urbanity and the social elixirs it produces belong to the realm of affect.’ An artistic approach to urban architecture, therefore, might engage with the subjective experience of its inhabitants. I look beyond the human, however, broadening architecture to include the other living organisms that reside in a site (such as the microbes living at the Acropolis (Savvides and others 2014) and in the Parthenon Gallery at the British Museum), but also the invisible data that now increasingly passes into and through it: chemicals and particles, and intangible frequencies of light and sound across the electromagnetic spectrum, have always wafted through the medium we breathe and inhabit, but humans have now harnessed spectral frequencies as carriers for their own data, from AM and FM radio to wi-fi and satellite signals (Horan 2001). This invisible architecture, like its physical counterpart, is intimately linked with capitalism: companies now invest more in digital assets than fancy buildings, for there is value in the immaterial. One result is that the physical has become simply a neighbourhood within the virtual world; place loses meaning compared to its representation and its corporate image (Wired 2000). (Another aspect of digital urbanity is in video games: see the work of architect Luke Pearson.)

Entrance to the British Museum, with sign promoting its Enlightenment Gallery

Zooming down from site to structure, most buildings today are designed digitally, and their form often unapologetically reflects this. Conversely, architecture applies to machines too: a computer’s form comes from within and changes with its peripherals (Steenson 2014). Looking to the future, when our civilisation inevitably collapses, no digital data will survive; and given the cheap materials used in construction today, contemporary digitally designed buildings are unlikely to last as long as the Parthenon. According to Arévalo (2019), ‘[human] existence is nothing but a continuous process of negotiation between persistence and decay’.

The form of a building evokes and embodies emotional qualities. The British Museum, with its Doric columns and monumental architecture, directly mimics the Parthenon. Its architecture is literally monumental, in the Greek Revival style. According to the museum’s web site, ‘It emulated classical Greek architecture — a style that had become increasingly popular since the 1750s when western Europeans “rediscovered” ancient Greece.’ This includes also a triangular pediment above the entrance, explicitly mimicking the Parthenon; a frieze in this pediment tells a linear story of human evolution and progression, starting with a man emerging from a rock. The rational rectangularity of monumental architecture can be contrasted with the ovular structure ‘unearthed’ in the speculative future archaeological project of Gill and others (2019).

An architectural approach to artistic practice at this scale might use speculative site mapping, making one’s own tools and taking them to a site, engaging with local communities to expose and reimagine it as a site for human activity. (See for example works by former students: The Alternate Showroom Project by Grace Crannis and Emilie Loiseleur; Puntellare by Madelaine Dowd. The invisible frequencies of a site are interrogated in Sonic Topoi by Derck Littel) In this project, my general approach was to take the preceding macro-scale architectural issues and broad spatial and temporal scales, along with the concepts of displacement and movement linked with the Parthenon sculptures, to inform practice interventions at the scale of human experience, and micro-scale issues such as materiality. 


Where archaeology is about digging down, architecture is about building up. Design in general is about looking up, vertically and chronologically from the wheel to the rocket. But while our towers supposedly represent progress, many remain empty due to the very socioeconomic conditions that created them (Hendersch 2019). London’s tallest building, named the Shard (apt in the context of this exposition), figures prominently in Hari Kunzru’s (2013) book Memory Palace as a future ruin, turned into an island by rising waters and the accumulation of washed-up material at its base.

‘At what point does reconstruction become rebuilding?’, asks Levitas (2013: 153). Her architectural approach to utopia means

imagination of potential alternative scenarios for the future, acknowledging the assumptions about and consequences for the people who might inhabit them. These in turn must be subject to archaeological critique, addressing the silences and inconsistencies all such images must contain, as well as the political steps forward that they imply. (ibid.)

Starting off in the dirt where I left off in archaeological mode, architectural methods often start with an existing context and impose a thematic intervention. Sometimes deconstruction precedes construction: echoing Barad’s notion of the ‘agential cut’ (Dolphijn and van der Tuin 2012) architect Sylvia Lavin (2011: 75) describes a method of ‘using critical detachment and dismemberment as analytic tools and analysis as a form of creative production’ (see also Ahn 2020). This aligns with ‘de-computation,’ a method I developed at the Royal College of Art, which includes steps of deconstruction, pattern recognition, abstraction and design, to substitute ‘design thinking’ with a critical form of ‘computational thinking’ (Walker and Fass 2015).

Drawing remains the architect’s primary method, and most architectural projects remain on paper; In the work of Archigram, Superstudio, and Lebbeus Woods, the drawing is the work for the most part. In artistic practice, architectural methods include various ways of imagining the future (or just the imaginary). Drawing can encompass a napkin sketch or a 3D rendering that is indistinguishable from ‘reality’. From site and context to use (what architects call ‘program’), to building materials, architecture is the mirror image of archaeology in terms of both time and technique.

Reconstructed Parthenon façade in British Museum