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A monumental mirror

The Parthenon By Mary Beard. Profile Books, 2002. 209pp. £15

Mary Beard is an important Classical scholar who has turned her attention to one of the most important subjects of architectural history. Be not deterred. This lively, approachable and amusing book wears its learning lightly. Moreover, it is as much about us and our obsessions today as about that construction 2,500 years ago.

I must admit an interest. A decade ago I was commissioned to write a book on the Parthenon; I tried to see it - its formation, forms and meanings - as in fifth century BCE Athens. Sadly, the project went cold and my manuscript probably still moulders in the publisher's drawer. So then I started again, looking at how, through the millennia, the Parthenon has stood as a mirror to the cultural shifts around it. I aimed to unpeel the layers, backwards from today, seeing each generation project on to it their fantasies, dreams and indeed reality (from the little mosque within its ruins back to the grotesque 'welcome Nero' sign in the first century CE).

This is just what Beard does, magnificently, from her opening, with Freud climbing the Akropolis in 1904 to declare 'so it really does exist!', to her final words:

'Presumably, the rest had been smashed, reused in building, or ground into cement.'

She does not mention that Freud, all his life, kept a statuette of Athena on his desk; she avoids fanciful speculation on meanings. Indeed, her matter of factness can appear overdone. On the famous 'refinements' she says: 'Inconsistencies are always liable to be glorified into a sophisticated optical system, rather than dismissed as the day-to-day imperfections of builders on site.'

But impeccable scholarship always underpins her lively eye for contemporary reference. Almost in passing, she mentions the 'new' frieze around the porch, above the entrance, of which traces were recently discovered, and she wryly awaits 50 years of imaginative 'reconstructions'. As for the well-known 'old' frieze - once housed by Iktinos, currently largely by Pope, and possibly one day by Tschumi - Beard has great fun with the battles for its possession, and with the meaning of such 'heritage' today.

Beard achieved brief notoriety when, in the aftermath of 9/11, she wrote in the London Review of Books about the American imperium: 'World bullies, even if their heart is in the right place, will in the end pay the price.' The story of the formation of the Parthenon, symbolic of the Athenian imperium - paid from its tributes, denounced by a few even then as a grotesquely extravagant moment to hubris, and so soon to witness the end of that 'golden' empire - could have been in her mind.

The invasion of Iraq proceeds as I write; we must pray that, while the American payment may not come so speedily, it might be less destructive.

John McKean is a professor at Brighton School of Architecture. An extract of his Parthenon text appeared in the Journal of Architecture, Vol 2, no 2, 1997

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