The recent injury of a man in a wheelchair during his tour on the Acropolis has rekindled the debate on the safety and quality of construction that was undertaken on the monument in 2020. The implementation of concrete pathways had caused outrage amongst local cultural heritage experts and unions when they were first presented to the public in October, after being approved by Greece’s Central Archaeological Council.

Archaeologists and architects had immediately opined, individually as well as collectively, that disabled accessibility was an excuse to fast-track the project while skipping the legal  procedures that should have been considered in a place of inestimable archaeological importance to the world.

In light of the recent developments, the Association of University Graduate Architects – PanHellenic Union of Architects (SADAS-PEA) in the department of Attica, is adamant that the new pathways do not even conform to safety specifications for wheelchair users. The group is also calling for the implementation of an international competition to take over the project, which was financed by the Onassis Foundation.

The recount of the disabled man’s accident on the Acropolis which triggered the safety discussion was shared on social media by his wheelchair assistant. Ironically, the accident took place on World Heritage Day. The two men were moving along a temporary wooden deck towards the Propylaea, when the wheelchair reached a step for which there was no warning sign.

The disabled man was hurt as he fell onto the wooden deck, while there was no medical staff on-site other than a team of Red Cross volunteers who rushed in to assist. After finally being transported to the hospital, he received eight stitches to his face and upper lip. Both the disabled visitor and his assistant have opted for anonymity; however the recounting of the incident is still live on Facebook.

Although the accident happened on a temporary wooden walkway, the wheelchair assistant maintains that the steep concrete pathways are equally dangerous for wheelchair users as the hidden step.

“How are you supposed to descend on the concrete pathway when the center of gravity of the wheelchair user is shifted to the front? So, as an assistant, you are obliged to push them by holding the chair on a wheelie, in order to restore the center of gravity towards the back — whoever has served as a wheelchair assistant should understand what I mean. Needless to describe how you are going push the wheelchair back up the pathway on the return, with a 75-kg individual sitting on it.”

In its announcement dated April 21, SADAS-PEA Attica notes that the alleged purpose of the improvement works — that of improving accessibility — is recanted in effect, since the pathways were constructed using steep angles that are unsuitable for wheelchair users.

As reactions spiraled following the publicity of the accident on social media, Greece’s Ministry of Culture contacted the National Confederation of Disabled People (NCDP) and invited them to an on-site study of the area. The study was performed on Thursday, in the presence of Minister Lina Mendoni, and a representative of the Onassis Foundation, among other involved stakeholders from the public works and antiquities departments.

According to the NCDP, the detailed technical study examined the functionality and accessibility of the area from the public parking lot up to the construction on the Acropolis; the mechanical equipment that replaced the old elevator; the temporary structures in place; and the area outside the old Archaeological Museum.

“A comprehensive technical conclusion and proposals for the improvement of the accessibility of the Acropolis to be included in the study for the completion of the ongoing interventions project, will be submitted institutionally and in writing, and will be made public.”

It adds that a commission will be founded in which the NCDP will act as a consulting partner to the Ministry of Culture on optimizing the accessibility of additional ancient monuments across Greece to the disabled.

While the safety concerns on the suitability of the new pathways for wheelchair users seem to move toward being addressed, the official response to criticism on the aesthetic result and the use of concrete on the site remains unconvincing for experts. The SADAS-PEA announcement says:

“The (expressed) view of the Ministry that the use of a less durable material would require frequent maintenance, which would burden the monument, and that the specific choice of material makes the paving reversible, is not substantiated by the project study. The examining of other solutions and the rejection of other types of more environmental-friendly materials is absent from the study.”

The response, which was issued following a separate study by the SADAS-PEA and with related information from different sources taken into consideration, brands the project study as “completely inadequate,” despite being approved by “the otherwise strict Central Archaeological Council.”

“The study’s title, referring to works for the disabled, is disorienting; in order for it to gain wider social acceptance, which, under this umbrella, paves the way for a white pass on interventions on the Rock of the Acropolis. A monument of such scale deserves a different approach. It requires interdisciplinary processes and an International Architectural Competition to select the best solution.”

The Greek National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) had already raised similar concerns for the works on the Acropolis in November, which extended far from basic safety concerns.

Alexander D. Tripodakis (NTUA-MCPUD Harvard GSD), President of the Greek Architectural Society and former Professor of Architecture and Urban design at the Technical University of Crete, is one of many experts who have publicly criticized the works on a well-documented basis.

“The internationally most projected image of the leading monument of the Western civilization by Ictinus, Callicrates and Phidias, is now undermined due to its tight encirclement by an alien structure.”

In a recent interview with Greek newspaper Avgi, the President of the Greek Archaeologists Union (SEA), Despina Koutsoumba, insists that “the goal (of these works) is to turn the Acropolis into a place of mass tourism at all costs for the monument.”

She warns that the present cement paving is only still half of what has been approved, and argues that the intention to restore the entire scale of the Propylaea to the form of 40 AD, with hundreds of square meters of new material, is in violation of any international charter for the restoration of monuments.