December 12, 2008

Bernard Tschumi’s New Acropolis Museum design

Posted at 2:36 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, New Acropolis Museum

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

Building Design

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.

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  1. Peter Hancock, PhD said,

    01.21.09 at 11:57 am

    It is significant that virtually all comments on the architectural design of the New Acropolis Museum refer to the interior design and lighting. Hardly anyone appears to have made a critical aesthetic assessment of the exterior design, with its skewed top floor plan, orientated parallel to the Parthenon.

    Firstly, the whole urban environmet is totally unsuitable for the location of the New Acropolis Museum building, surrounded as it is, by mediocre urban development, except on the north, Acropolis-facing side. The ancient Greeks loved SPACE, as for the Acropolis (‘City on a High Place’).

    Secondly, the provison for displaying the remaining metopes is fragmentary, as they are to be displayed totally unrelated to the actual Parthenon design, in which they were meant to be seen from 10 metres below, not at eye level.

    Thirdly, there is virtually nothing in the New Acropolis Museum design to identify it with either ancient or modern Greece. Is there anything Greek about it, other than the name ‘Acropolis’?

    The present writer agrees that the Parthenon Sculptures should be returned to Athens, eventually; but not until such time as a more appropriate New Pathenon Mueum design is created, whatever the cost,

  2. Kararch said,

    06.09.12 at 12:18 pm

    @Mr. Hancock
    as a Greek I would like to comment your statement.
    1. I don’t know if ancient Greeks loved space but i know that the Makriyianni district itself is very dense. As you were walking down the surrounding streets did you seriously feel hemmed in by the museum?
    2. I am not quite sure but I think it was part of the concept to place the metopes at eye level, so the visitor can get in direct contact with them.
    3. There are plenty parallelism to greek architecture!
    Did you notice the catilevers of the museum? It’s inspired by residential buildings of the postwar period, the polykatoikias.
    What about the waved blank sheets on the West and the East facade? For me it seem like an abstract interpretation of the columns of the Parthenon.
    Also the pilotis is a very greek typology. You can see endless examples of pilotis in Athens.
    And last we don’t have to forget the terrace over the entrance which is like the greek imiipaithrio, an open but shaded space, also common in greek housing design.
    I think there is no more suitable form for the Acropolis Museum than Tschumis proposal. Is there any way to make this building seem more “ancient greek”? Would anyone add eg. columns and maybe a pediment at the entrance? The risk to make the building seem like a bad-taste post-modern building or even one of historism was too high.
    The aim of the design was not to impress like Ghery’s or Hadid’s museums do but rather evoke an Anti-Bilbao effect!
    The Acropolis Museum is based upon a minimalistic formal vocabulary (there are many minimalistic white/blue buildings in Greece).
    The horizontal lines and the reduced use of materials and colors provoke calmness and modesty. I don’t remember seeing any other design that is so eloquent about another work of architecture.
    Mr. Tschumi was not inspired by Phidias the sculptor but by Pythagoras the mathematician. As he writes: “We aimed to arrive at the clearest concept possible, the most concise and elegant expression of the set of ideas that embodied the remarkable challenges of the project.” I think that this is what the design tries to tell us.

  3. Matthew said,

    06.09.12 at 3:38 pm

    The comment about the metopes also applies to the frieze & pediment. I think though, that it ended up as a compromise between getting as close as possible to the original position & maximising the visitor experience.

    I would agree that it is a great building – the contents of it are well displayed & it does not try to be anything it is not – it doesn’t imitate other architectures in the area, or seek to attract undue attention to itself.

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