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Bernard Tschumi’s New Acropolis Museum design

More feedback from the talk given at the Royal Institute of British Architects [1] on the New Acropolis Museum.

Building Design [2]

Bernard Tschumi’s New Acropolis Museum
12 December 2008
By Stephen Phillips

Bernard Tschumi presented his New Acropolis Museum at the RIBA last week, and took Greece’s bid to win back the Elgin Marbles to the next level.

In the early eighties, I covered the Elgin Marbles story for Channel 4 News. Actress Melina Mercouri was Greece’s culture minister, and we filmed her touring the British Museum to inspect “her” treasures, under the guidance of its then director, David Wilson. He played a courteous, stiff upper-lipped straight bat, while she deployed all the emotive powers of a tragic actress. It made good television. There was no meeting of minds. Nonetheless, her eighties offensive made an impact, persuading at least one party leader, Neil Kinnock, to declare for their return.

So whose marbles are they now? Even within the hallowed portals of the RIBA’s headquarters, chairing an event on Bernard Tschumi’s Acropolis Museum, with all the issues raised by the Elgin Marbles, could have been more a question of refereeing, particularly when among the project’s chief objectives, the architect cheekily listed designing a building so brilliant it would persuade the Brits to give the marbles back.

Tschumi presented his building, due to open in Athens next spring, with great panache at this event organised by the Hellenic Foundation for Culture, setting out both problems and solutions. Although on the fringe of the Acropolis site, where new construction is completely unacceptable, any major building project in central Athens is certain to encounter important archaeological finds. Excavations undertaken for new metro lines for the 2004 Olympics uncovered sufficient artefacts to mount a major exhibition, while some remains were left exposed inside the metro stations.

The site for the new museum does not disappoint, being a densely populated area of the city, with domestic buildings ranging from the glory days of Pericles in the 5th century BC, through the centuries of Roman rule, to the early byzantine period. Although not graced by any great public buildings, the dig produced a cross-section of a thousand years of everyday life. Could this be destroyed?

The solution chosen by Tschumi and Demitris Pandermalis, a professor of classical archaeology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and president of the organising committee for the new museum, was ingenious. They scoured the dense remains for patches that could be penetrated down to bedrock without damaging the ancient walls, then built on stilts above the site. The museum has a ground level with large areas of reinforced glass flooring so that visitors can walk the 2,000-year-old streets and look down into the homes of ancient Athenians. During a hard hat visit I found it quite unnerving to begin with, not quite trusting the glass for a few paces, until curiosity about the winding alleys beneath took over — they may be the surprise exhibit of the project.

The next problem was how to design a museum good enough for the huge collection that has been moved into it from cramped former premises. This collection of mostly archaic sculpture comes from the preclassical generations of building on the site, victims of the destruction caused by Xerxes’ Persian invasion in 480BC. It includes the set of female “kore” figures, almost unique from antiquity, which had been buried to avoid the cultural rape of the Persians or thrown into pits tainted by conquest.

The statues, including the famous Caryatids (maiden-shaped columns) from the Erechtheum, were each packed in a metal crate and lifted off the Acropolis by giant crane, to be deposited it at the foot of the hill by the Theatre of Dionysus, where another crane lifted it back into the sky and carefully deposited it on the roof terrace of the new museum. Tschumi’s use of columns to save recent excavations becomes a wonderful environment for these masterpieces, and earlier plans to back them with semi-translucent panels were changed so that they could be seen completely in the round. The relationship of the statues to the gently sand-blasted concrete of the columns creates endlessly changing perspectives.

The use of daylight is a revelation. The principal material is glass — very rare for museums, which prefer controlled atmospheres and lighting environments, and very risky in a country where temperatures can exceed 40°C for much of the summer. The natural light cascades through the building, even illuminating the recent excavations beneath the ground floor. The amount of glass surface is sustained by circulating and cooling the air within the double glazing by passing it through the cool foundations. It is a building with stunning vistas that is not ashamed to look out on the less aesthetic architecture of modern Athens, which is as real as the sublime ensemble on the Acropolis.

The top floor is a reproduction of the footprint of the Parthenon, slightly skewed as is the original on the Acropolis. True to Tschumi’s deconstructivist principles, the new museum relates to the subject of its homage. A clear line of sight connects the jagged glass and concrete museum and its weathered marble ancestor a couple of hundred metres away.

And here at the top reside the marbles, a little less than half of the originals, with which Pheidias festooned the Acropolis at the zenith of Athenian confidence and power. Visitors can look at the famous frieze of Athenian citizens processing in their Great Panathenaic Festival and turn to look at the building where it once took place. Unlike in the British Museum, where the frieze hangs around the walls of the gallery looking inwards, its Athenian cousin are placed around the new museum’s core, looking out at the visitor and the Acropolis. It is far easier in this layout to make sense of the sculptural narrative that was once the wonder of the Parthenon.

Two other elements similarly face outwards: the metopes, squares of high relief showing the battle of centaurs and wedding guests (the triumph of civilisation over barbarism); and the fully modelled sculptures from the east and west pediments.

Most importantly, the Greeks have resisted the temptation to leave yawning gaps in the ensemble to emphasise the absence of so many pieces. The vast majority are those removed at the turn of the 18th century by Lord Elgin and now in London. Instead, the Greeks have deployed casts of these, which were bought from the British Museum in the 19th century.

And so to the final purpose of this new museum — cultural propaganda. The greatest weakness in the Greek’s case to retrieve the marbles from Britain was always the lack of a suitable museum in which to put them. It has long been accepted that it would be irresponsible to consider putting them back on the ruins of the Parthenon. Tschumi’s museum is the strongest card the Greeks have yet played.