January 14, 2008

Thirty years of work – the New Acropolis Museum

Posted at 1:44 pm in Elgin Marbles, New Acropolis Museum

Another interesting article about the New Acropolis Museum, due to open later this year. As the building nears completion the articles about it are generally becoming far more favourable – people are understanding Tschumi’s creation far better when they experience the reality of it than when they have it described to them or merely look at the drawings.


One for the Ages
By Heather Smith MacIsaac
Published: January 14, 2008

ATHENS—The biggest expense and engineering feat in the construction of the Parthenon, the architectural crown jewel of the classical world, was moving nearly 30,000 tons of marble quarried at Mount Pentelicus, 10 miles north, to the Acropolis in Athens. Transporting a single stone using ropes, pulleys, levers, sleds, wagons, and countless oxen (each wagon load required 60 of them) filled two long days. In all, the Parthenon took nine years to build (447 B.C. to 438 B.C.), plus another five years to complete Phidias’s extraordinary interior and exterior decoration.

Five hundred years later, Plutarch judged this timetable reasonable: The buildings on the Acropolis were, to his eye, “created in a short time for all time. Each in its fineness was even then at once age-old; but in the freshness of its vigor it is, even to the present day, recent and newly wrought.” He also saw the folly in rushing: “Certainly mere dexterity and speed of execution seldom give a lasting value to a work of art,” he wrote. “It is the time laid out in laborious creation which repays us later through the enduring strength it confers.”

If he’s right that a long gestation helps bring lasting value, the New Acropolis Museum, nearing completion in the Makriyianni neighborhood at the foot of the Acropolis, could very well be a building for the ages. For 30 years, a succession of Greek political administrations, archeologists, and historians have discussed the need to replace the existing Acropolis Museum, located a few paces from the Parthenon. With a wealth of objects excavated from the Acropolis in the late 1800s, the old museum ran out of space almost as soon as it was completed, in 1874, forcing significant treasures to languish in storage for more than a century. More recently, officials packed away sculptures removed from the Parthenon and other buildings to prevent deterioration due to exposure to pollution and the elements.

If the creation of the New Acropolis Museum has been circuitous and laborious, Bernard Tschumi, the 63-year-old Swiss-born architect whose scheme was the unanimous choice of a juried international competition in 2001, hardly seems to mind. Though he has been involved with the project for six years, he speaks of it as though he has just taken it on. He’s as sanguine about the 104 lawsuits (“luckily, none directed at me,” he says) that have pestered the process like biting blackflies as he is about having to build on top of the archeological excavation of the ancient Athenian city. That excavation took five years, involved digging as deep as 23 feet, and unearthed more than 50,000 finds, 5,000 of which have been restored.

The mission was straightforward but hardly simple. As set forth by the Organization for the Construction of the New Acropolis Museum, led by noted archeologist Dimitrios Pandermalis, the building needed not only to rise atop the excavations (an area of some 4.4 acres) but also to integrate the finds as an exhibit. Because the collections consist primarily of sculpture and architectural fragments created to be seen outdoors, the organization wanted an interior lit almost exclusively by natural light—in other words, lots of glass—without compromising the comfort of visitors in Athens’s hot, sunny climate. Finally, there was the matter of the Parthenon itself, of creating a dialogue between the new museum and the landmark. Oh, and the building, as well as the mountings for priceless works of art, had to be able to withstand earthquakes.

Not spelled out on the wish list, but looming as large as Phidias’s nearly 42-foot-tall ivory-and-gold statue of Athena once did over the interior of the Parthenon temple, was the desire, if not the mandate, to make a building so compelling and complete in its summation of classical antiquity’s greatest treasures, all drawn from a single rock, that the British Museum would see fit to return the Parthenon marbles. (“Never refer to them as the Elgin marbles,” a Greek friend advised, “especially in Greece.”) With the 2004 Olympics, the Greeks proved to the world, and themselves, that they could deliver a very tall order on time. With the New Acropolis Museum, they hope to achieve a feat as critical to international scholarship as it is to native pride—the unification, after 200 years, of the Parthenon’s magnificent architectural sculptures, most notably its frieze.

Even with the Greek patrimony weighing on his shoulders, Tschumi managed to stick to the program. “Architecture is not about form but about defining a concept,” he says. “The new museum is scarcely a thousand feet from the most influential building in Western civilization. It’s pretty clear that classical columns would be a bad direction to go in.” Not to mention very un-Tschumi. His scheme is minimal and modern, deliberately nonmonumental, a building as much of its time as the Parthenon was of the fifth century B.C. If there’s any reference to the classical, it’s in its conceptual clarity. The New Acropolis Museum, built of marble, glass, and steel, is a stack of three layers, like the base, middle, and top of a column.

Externally, the layers appear as distinct forms that progressively open up to natural light as they stack: a trapezoidal base with cast-concrete walls, elevated above the Makriyianni excavations by support columns; a middle layer that’s also trapezoidal but is taller and more trans-parent, with two walls of glass and two of softly shimmering stainless-steel fins; and, at the top, a rectangular box made almost entirely of glass in the same proportions as the Parthenon and aligned with it. To admit as much daylight to the gallery as possible while still limiting damage from UV rays, Tschumi took advantage of technological advances that have produced truly untinted glass (made without iron oxide) and a means of tempering the blazing sunlight by baking tiny ceramic dots on glass in varied concentrations. During the day, from the outside, the glass box appears dark and impenetrable amid Athens’s light stone and stucco, generating a few not-so-flattering comments from the locals (“the new American embassy,” “the parthenot”).

But once the naysayers get inside, they’ll be stunned into silence by revelation after revelation. To experience the building by following Tschumi’s artfully laid-out path is to feel the passage of time and a sense of moving toward the light and up to the heights of creation. Entering at the base, you glimpse a lost world of excavated houses, shops, and baths below you, first through a split in an exterior entry ramp and then over glass panels set into the ground floor. That a 226,000-square-foot building could hover above a labyrinth of such delicately stacked stone walls is a wonder on par with the Parthenon itself. As Pandermalis says, “Everything was a challenge with this building.”

If moving marble was the biggest hurdle facing the builders of the Parthenon, Tschumi’s exquisite challenge was building atop hallowed ground. Simply determining the placement of the more than 100 concrete support columns that lift the museum above the excavated walls took six months and a team that included Tschumi, Pandermalis, and other archeologists, engineers, and contractors. To protect the ruins during construction, the builders carefully laid fiberglass blankets over the excavations, then poured gravel to fill every cavity, forming a flat surface that could accommodate construction vehicles. Shortly before installing the artworks, just as the building was nearing completion, they began to reverse the process, slowly removing the gravel, then the blankets.

For millennia, the route to scale the Acropolis has remained the same: a gentle ramp that hugs the south side of the sacred mesa-like rock before rounding the southwestern corner, passing through the entry portal of the Propylaia, and climbing to the top, where the Parthenon reigns. Museum visitors take a similar journey, ascending a wide ramp from the ground floor to turn a corner and arrive at the Archaic Gallery, a stunning, sun-washed space large enough to contain most of the artifacts from the original Acropolis Museum. There, amid 25-foot-high cast-concrete columns, they glimpse the Kritios Boy, the Sandalbinder Nike, and the Calf-bearer. (Transferring the sculptures from the old to the new museum is itself an engineering feat involving steel cases, a pair of cranes, and many very steady hands.) Rounding one more corner, visitors ascend a final level to the prize, the Parthenon Gallery.

The burden on this gallery is heavy. To persuade the British Museum to return the Parthenon marbles—most critically, 247 feet of the frieze’s original 524 feet—the New Acropolis Museum must attain an international stature that makes it an essential stop on the 21st-century art-historical grand tour. Even more than the masterpieces of the Archaic Gallery, it’s the Parthenon Gallery and its sculptures that will be the biggest draw, especially if the Greeks can reinstate the narrative of the frieze.

Tschumi has created a quietly heroic stage for the reunification. A skylit concrete core that’s the exact dimension of the Parthenon’s inner walls rises through all three floors of the museum, bringing daylight to the interior while providing walls on which the entire frieze can unfold. Deep niches accommodate the blocks of the Parthenon frieze that never left Greece, while shallower ones await the slabs sheared off by Lord Elgin. A scrim of metal mesh over plaster casts of the missing segments will turn the gaps into ghosts, a statement at once subtle and bold. Visitors will be able to look from the frieze directly up to the actual Parthenon and back again, a visual link that covers a short distance but conveys the profound weight of time, along with the feeling that all the marbles simply must come home.

“The frieze is not just a masterful work of art,” Pandermalis says. “It’s a symbol of civilization. It marks the first time the people of the world’s first democracy put themselves into their art. It represents Athenians participating in the process. So the way we display the marbles is critical, a protest for their return. The door is open. We can, I believe, be optimistic.”

For a Greek-food goddess’s survey of the vibrant Athens dining scene, click here. “One for the Ages” originally appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of Culture+Travel.

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