'Nova' Delves into the Design Secrets of the Parthenon

Article excerpt

Byline: Ted Cox

Chicagoans love architecture, but I have to admit a new PBS "Nova" episode on "Secrets of the Parthenon" is a hard sell even here on WTTW Channel 11.

"Nova," of course, is now in its 35th year of making science seem interesting and accessible on PBS. "Secrets of the Parthenon" would figure to be a natural. After all, as the hourlong documentary points out at 8 p.m. today on Channel 11, the Parthenon is "the very symbol of Western civilization" and "the most copied building in the world."

Yet it's been copied in style and effect only. In its unique sense of detail, the Parthenon is inimitable. Although it built on many architectural advances and was responsible for many more, it's not just a building, put up according to plan the way they are today. In fact, it was constructed piece by piece in a manner that made it "less a construction site and more a sculptor's studio," as the narrator puts it.

It's a magical, almost mystical element, but somehow "Nova" doesn't bring it to life; instead, if anything it gets bogged down in explaining the science behind it.

The story of the Parthenon is naturally engaging. Built by Pericles as the symbolic center of Greek democracy, it eventually became a Christian church, then a mosque after the Ottoman Empire took control in the Middle Ages. Used as an ammo warehouse, it was blown up in a mortar attack by the Venetians in the 1600s, leaving only the outer frame. Later, in the early 1800s, Thomas Bruce, the earl of Elgin, plundered its statues and took them back to Britain. The Greek government is still trying to get them back.

One can well imagine Channel 11's own architecture expert, Geoffrey Baer, telling the same story with his offhand style, beginning with a reference to how it was designed by the Athenian architecture firm of Iktinos and Kallikrates and going on from there to a stop at our own Parthenon restaurant in Greektown. Opaa!

"Nova," however, begins with a sharp computer-generated depiction of the Parthenon and the Acropolis in its heyday and then delves into the science. …