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How the view of an ancient world landmark has sparked a modern legal battle


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Now: how a view of the past is stirring up a modern legal showdown.

Conservationists around Europe are awaiting a verdict from Greece's Supreme Court, which will determine whether Athenians have the right to clearly see the Acropolis, the citadel from ancient Greek times.

The case is likely to set a precedent about the skylines around all of the country's ancient monuments, and may outlaw the construction of high-rise buildings.

Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports for our art and culture series, Canvas.

Malcolm Brabant: Before the sun fully rises and reveals modern Athens, it's possible to feast on a panorama the ancients would have recognized; 2,500 years ago, they built the Parthenon temple in honor of Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war, and, with it, the foundations of Western civilization.

This connection to a glorious past is seared into the Greek national psyche.

Irini Frezadou: When I see Acropolis, I feel richer. This is the treasure of my life.

Malcolm Brabant: This room with a view belongs to architect Irini Frezadou.

Irini Frezadou: It's a part of my identity as a Greek. Many years ago, I chose to live here. So I identify myself with this great World Heritage monument.

So I have to see it. I feel its energy. I feel that it's very important to see it and to identify yourself from all over, around.

Malcolm Brabant: Frezadou had been in danger of losing the spectacular view. A large hotel was slated for the plot next to her apartment block.

But the building permit was withdrawn in early May, after the government acknowledged it would jeopardize the skyline around the Acropolis.

Irini Frezadou: Greece, our treasure is environment and culture. And you cannot divide them. And so you have to look at them and to plan in -- responsible to our great environment and our great culture.

Malcolm Brabant: Frezadou just has to go to another part of her rooftop terrace to see a new 10-story building, two floors higher than most of the blocks near the Acropolis.

This is another angle, from the apartment of Maria Simitopoulou. She used to lie in bed and go to sleep with a clear view of the Parthenon, but not anymore.

Maria Simitopoulou (through translator): For me, it's an ancient building that all the foreigners come to admire. In any case, if the view was unblocked, it would be good for all the people. It's not a nice thing to do to destroy what we have. Greece lives off this. Tourists come, and go straight there.

Malcolm Brabant: This is the latest hotel in the portfolio of a Greek company called Coco-Mat. The management team didn't take kindly to me filming the construction there.

Woman: No, no, you can't do it. I can call the police. Of course I can call the police.

Malcolm Brabant: But the confrontation came to the attention of the hotel's owner, Paul Efmorfidis, and he agreed to talk to us.

By chance, on our way to the interview, we caught up to him as he cycled through heavy Athenian traffic on one of his trademark wooden bicycles.

Paul Efmorfidis: That's it, man. I'm going to be on time, eh. What is the appointment? At 3:00, no?

They took a picture, like I'm taking here a picture. Now I can't see -- I cannot see what is behind you. This is fake. And, by the way, we produced, we created, we constructed something, according to the Greek law, the most modern eco-building right now in Athens, the only hotel built in the last 10 years.

You know why people, they don't build? Because they are afraid of these people that they pretend to protect the environment. They don't.

Malcolm Brabant: Conservation groups across Europe are closely monitoring this case. It's quite clear that the owner of this hotel is determined to press ahead with his very expensive project.

And so this case is now before Greece's highest court, the Council of State. And the judges are expected to make a ruling sometime this autumn, and it's expected also that it will set a precedent for antiquities across Greece.

After 10 years of financial crisis and austerity, one of the bright spots of the Greek economy is the tourist industry, and the main attraction of all is the Acropolis. On this particular morning, the monument was seething with visitors. Greece's popularity has increased, at the expense of other Mediterranean countries, like Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey, whose tourist revenues have been hit by a combination of terrorism and authoritarianism.

Between 2014 and 2018, the number of visitors to Greece rose by 50 percent, from 22 million to 33 million.

Paul Efmorfidis: You need all kinds of hotels. You need boutique hotels. You need small hotels. You need big hotels. You need everything.

Malcolm Brabant: The Greek government was desperate for more income to counter the financial crisis, and introduced new construction laws which allowed bigger and taller buildings, as long as they conformed to environmentally friendly standards.

The Coco-Mat group is renowned for its green credentials. This hotel is also a showcase for the wooden bicycles, which Paul Efmorfidis insists are at the heart of his philosophy.

Paul Efmorfidis: The wood. A tree dies. We don't honor them, right? We burn them in Greece. We burn them. OK? I don't, because I believe they can see, they can listen, they can feel. I take them around the world.

Malcolm Brabant: The challenge to Efmorfidis is being orchestrated from Plaka, the neo-classical district beneath the Acropolis, and an oasis in Athens' concrete sprawl.

It's the base of Lydia Carras, head of the Greek society for the protection of the environment and cultural heritage.

Lydia Carras: The truth is, the law allowed them to go high, but it just -- certain times, the law allows you things which the public feeling doesn't want. And there's such a strong public feeling about this, that you're surprised how this company did it.

Malcolm Brabant: The hotel is right next to the Acropolis Museum in the heart of a low-rise district where most of the country's leading archaeologists work.

Coco-Mat says the archaeologists didn't object, but lawyer Andreas Papapetropoulos did. He outlines the type of victory he hopes to achieve at the Supreme Court.

Andreas Papapetropoulos (through translator): We are not crazy. We're not saying they should knock down a hotel that has just been built, but to remove the two top floors and bring it to the appropriate height. That's what we're asking. So, it's not at all a lost case.

Lydia Carras: Most people have the feeling, OK, it's the Greek identity, but it's not just Greek. We are here to look after it. It belongs to humanity.

Malcolm Brabant: Over the next 15 years, part of the temple will be reconstructed using original marble. So the view will be slightly different, but still spectacular, that is, if a modern building is not in the way.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Athens.

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