go tell the Spartans, 
stranger passing by, 
that here, obedient to their laws, 
we lie

Spartan epitaph at Thermopylae
Modernist austerity meets Spartan rigour in a Greek memorial cemetery like no other

The new city of Sparta was founded in 1834 at the behest of Otto, the Bavarian prince who became the first King of Greece in the aftermath of the nation’s successful war of independence. He embarked on a revivalist program that aimed to modernize and urbanize Greek towns. The project was led by Eduard Schaubert,a Prussian architect and topographer who studied under Karl Friedrich Schinkel in Berlin’s Bauakademie. Schaubert also re-designed Athens, Pireaus and other major Greek cities, finely tuning their plethora of Classical and Byzantine sites with the Neoclassical neighbourhoods, squares, and administrative buildings that typified the Greek national revival. This is how Sparta, previously obliterated by the Goths in the 4th century, was restored by royal decree in 1837. The re-established Sparta became, in fact, the first of the “new” Greek towns whose design was based on an actual urban plan – thus breaking with the disorderly, vernacular yoke of medieval urban spaces.

A century later, Sparta remained a quaint agricultural town, virtually unchanged since Schaubert planned it. The beautiful neoclassical facades were crumbling, and the street grid had deteriorated and was unsuitable for the ever increasing motor vehicle traffic. The sewage system was old, and problematic. What’s more, modern Sparta was a city with a distinctive lack of modern facilities and monuments – it was becoming lethargic, almost as if the Goths had somehow travelled forward in time, sacking it again into oblivion.

The man who changed all that was Georgios Sainopoulos, the philanthropist who became mayor of Sparta for two terms, over a period of 8 years between 1964 and 1978 (interrupted by the Colonels’ Junta, who ousted him between 1967 and 1974). Sainopoulos dedicated his life to the improvement of urban life in Sparta, delivering numerous projects related to sport and cultural facilities, new road & water network infrastructure, and monumental public art. The 1964 cemetery at the satellite hamlet of  Magoula was created at his behest : this was his birthplace, and where he seemed to make an almost personal statement about his intention to take the city out of its enduring quagmire, and into an era of progress. The cemetery, alongside other luminary philanthropic projects, was realised via donations he secured from close relatives Ioannis and Catherine Sainopoulos, Greek emigres based in Oklahoma, USA. He then invited local architects Charilaos and Sophia Polychronopoulos to deliver his vision of a surprising modern necropolis that exceeded conventional expectations.

Sainopoulos might have been informed by his own experience of monumental modernism as a visitor during the Olympic games of Helsinki in 1952. It would have been an inspirational showcase of Nordic Modernism, exemplifying Olympic ideals, and much of it can still be admired to this day. Indeed, the elegant concrete arches that greet us at the entrance emanate an aura of Alvar Aalto’s waveform designs, or the curvy elements of Oscar Niemeyer’s palatial Modernism at Brasilia. The waveform these arches form at Magoula is said to be symbolic of the ups and downs we experience throughout life. There are entrances to either end of the arches: one leading to a small functions area, and another to the ossuary, both decorated with saints and religious figures made out of bent rebar. The stained glass windows deflect the bright Peloponnesian sunshine in the colours of the CIAM grid: green, red, yellow and blue, creating a kaleidoscope of colours inside the space where the funerary chests are kept.

Modernist colours

Ancient Spartan traditions exemplified order and simplicity in all aspects of life, which often carried into funerary rites. Spartans were buried among the living, in anonymous graves inside the city walls. Only those fallen in battle, or women dying in childbirth were deemed important enough to merit their names on gravestones, typically lined up along busy thoroughfares & promenades – therefore transforming their tombs into public monuments.  Further inside the Magoula cemetery proper, it is evident that several graves have been created in deviation to the unremarkable, marble-clad basilica orthodoxy of Greek cemeteries: the scale, shapes and materials are different, and there are statues, busts, carvings and funerary symbols that simultaneously reflect a sense of civic grandeur, and a closer affinity to the Western European funerary canon.

An elaborate grave featuring a bust – a rarity for Greek cemeteries

Leonidas, the famous king who fell in Thermopylae was perhaps the most well-known son of Sparta. It is said that his remains were posthumously transferred to Sparta and deposited at Leonideon, a rectangular tomb close to the agora that can still be seen today. And as opposed to the more modern, extra muros Roman burial traditions, there’s consequence in the way that the tombs of all true citizens become very much a part of the living urban space. But especially the tombs of those who, like Leonidas, contributed significantly more to perpetuate the lore of their communities, become monuments of civic pride, and public remembrance. Uniquely, Sainopoulos’ own resting place is a sizeable vault, accessible through a flight of steps near the entrance to the cemetery. It is a feature rarely – if ever – seen in contemporary Greek cemeteries, and underlines the important character of the site’s mastermind.

Arguably, this space represents a somewhat obscure link between the principled simplicity of the Spartans and the visual clarity of Modernist architecture. Deciphered in the key of the region’s Spartan heritage, the beautiful ensemble at the cemetery of Magoula is so much more than the average burial site usually seen in Greek towns : it is a poignant memorial showcase of lives well lived in the service of the local community, beautifully conveyed through the avante garde architectural mind set of the 60s.

For more information about the life and work of the Mayor, visit the Sainopoulos Foundation page (in Greek) : www.sainopouleio.gr 

a version of this article appeared on Architectuul’s Forgotten Masterpieces #37 in July 2020

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