August 11, 2009

The architecture of the New Acropolis Museum looks to the future, but respects the past

Posted at 12:38 pm in Elgin Marbles, New Acropolis Museum

The New Acropolis Museum is an entirely modern architectural solution, but it respects the ancient buildings that it relates to, while never trying to compete against them.

San Francisco Chronicle

New Acropolis Museum looks forward, honors past
Kenneth Baker, Chronicle Art Critic
Sunday, August 9, 2009

Designing a museum figures nowadays as a rite of passage in the careers of many celebrity architects. New York’s Bernard Tschumi faced an unusually stern test in this vein after winning a competition in 2001 to build the New Acropolis Museum.

For starters, he and Athens architect Michael Photiadis had to contend with house ruins – dating from the fourth to seventh centuries A.D. – unearthed on the museum site, about 1,000 feet southeast of the Acropolis and its crowning fifth century B.C. relic, the Parthenon.

Tschumi’s solution, intricately worked out in cooperation with archaeologists and preservationists, was to suspend the entire building on 43 carefully positioned columns, leaving the ruins beneath exposed to view and, eventually, to visitors.

Second, and more daunting, Tschumi had to establish an appropriate architectural connection with the Parthenon, a structure justly regarded as a lodestar of Western culture.

He did this by setting the glass-clad gallery of Parthenon sculptural fragments on top of the New Acropolis Museum, in plain view of the temple’s remains on the adjacent “sacred rock.” The gallery duplicates the footprint and orientation of the Parthenon, so visitors encounter the sculptural fragments on view in the relationship they would have had when the Parthenon was intact.

Museumgoers can step closer to these nuggets of classicism than their original position, elevated on the building’s frieze and pediments, would ever have permitted.

With its survey (on a lower floor) of archaic sculptures excavated on the Acropolis, and its dramatic mirroring of the Parthenon, the New Acropolis Museum makes a standing argument for repatriation of the so-called Elgin Marbles, the largest and finest remnants of Parthenon sculpture, prize treasures of the British Museum since the early 19th century.

Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, served as British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which by then had ruled Athens for more than three centuries. His diplomatic standing enabled him to purchase and export to Britain about half of the surviving fragments of Parthenon sculpture.

In entrepreneurial terms, Elgin’s venture proved disastrous to him, but arguably it did keep the classical treasures safe during some of Athens’ most tumultuous modern decades.

In the early 20th century, in compensation for what looks like plunder in post-colonial perspective, the British sent to Athens plaster casts of metopes from the Parthenon frieze that Elgin had removed. These now form part of the New Acropolis Museum’s Parthenon gallery display, their plaster whiteness contrasting – reproachfully, to those aware of the controversy – with the marble warmth of the surviving originals.

However the ongoing controversy shakes out, Tschumi succeeded wonderfully in his stated aim of making a museum of “concrete, marble, glass and light.

This article appeared on page Q – 17 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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