July 13, 2009

The modern enhances the ancient in the New Acropolis Museum

Posted at 12:59 pm in Elgin Marbles, New Acropolis Museum

Rather than trying to compete with or emulate the Parthenon, the New Acropolis Museum instead uses its elegant minimalism to provide the perfect backdrop for the artefacts within.

Toronto Star

Modernity enhances antiquity
Nearby Parthenon inspires reverent tribute to the wonders of Greece’s Golden Age
Jul 11, 2009 04:30 AM
Christopher Hume – Architecture critic

ATHENS – Architectural egotism notwithstanding, who wouldn’t be intimidated by the thought of designing a companion to the Parthenon?

Not Swiss-born, New York-based architect Bernard Tschumi. His New Acropolis Museum, which opened in Athens just weeks ago, sits at the foot of the celebrated site, just 300 metres from the seminal structure.

The Parthenon, a creation of the legendary architects of ancient Greece – Ictinus, Callicrates and Phidias, the sculptor – is easily one of the most important buildings in the world. Constructed roughly 2,500 years ago, it stands atop a limestone outcropping: a symbol of Athenian might and unparalleled cultural sophistication. Built as a temple of the city’s patron deity, Athena, it also served as a church, mosque and ammunition dump.

The Parthenon has been neglected and mistreated through the ages, including being blown up by the Venetians in 1687.

But the crowning insult came in 1801 when Lord Elgin hacked off the sculptures from the east pediment and shipped them back to Scotland. They ended up in the British Museum, where they remain on display.

Despite repeated pleas from the Greeks, the English have refused to return the so-called Elgin Marbles. The argument was that there was no place in Athens up to the task of housing the masterpieces.

No longer. The New Acropolis Museum is Greece’s answer to the British – and the world.

Though not conventionally beautiful, Tschumi’s building is impressive and fully engaged. It is thoroughly 21st-century, but it is not starchitecture, or anything like it. Rather, it’s an elegant and thoughtful building intended to serve the collection it contains – a model of architectural restraint, if not self-effacement.

“The site was nothing but constraints,” Tschumi says, “but we turned constraints into opportunities.”

For example, the ground beneath the museum is an archaeological treasure trove, full of foundations of early Roman domestic buildings, wells, streets and the like. Instead of burying them forever, Tschumi lifted the building on stilts and opted for a glass floor. That means visitors can stop and view the ruins.

The positioning of the museum was determined by the small site, which is defined by an existing road grid and other buildings. But the Parthenon Gallery, placed on top of two lower floors, sits on an angle to the rest of the building.

As Tschumi makes clear in an interview, this is no empty deconstructivist gesture, but the result of aligning the gallery with the Parthenon on the hill above.

Indeed, the Parthenon Gallery is a recreation of the temple – a large rectangular room where the carved marble panels (metopes) and frieze that decorated the original are displayed. (The missing Elgin Marbles, marked by empty spaces, are conspicuous in their absence).

The gallery is a spectacular vantage point from which to view the Parthenon, which is reflected in the northern glass wall of the museum. The result is a magical effect that allows visitors to see the original building in the distance while looking at its sculptures up close.

The designers used what Tschumi calls “extra clear glass,” which is all but invisible, another indication of the architects’ desire to defer to the Parthenon – to establish a dialogue with the landmark without upstaging it. “We wanted to keep things as simple as possible and avoid superfluous detail,” Tschumi explains. “We tried for clarity.”

From the outside, Tschumi’s building presents itself as an uncomplicated arrangement of rectangles of concrete, glass and steel. The entrance, with its transparent floors and extended canopy, provides an occasion for drama, but the overall impression is that the design team was reluctant to approach the project as a landmark in its own right.

There is a reticence to this building that puts the weight of the experience fully on its contents. But the fact is, most visitors could benefit from more context, more intervention.

It’s interesting, for instance, that although the Parthenon was originally brightly coloured, gilded and even gaudy, the museum plays to the notion that the art and architecture of Classical Greece were exquisite but austere. None of the historic exuberance comes through in the new building.

Ultimately, it is content to be a repository for a series of objects, albeit some of the most exquisite and significant in the Western world.

Despite all this, and a long and tortuous gestation that lasted more than three decades, the New Acropolis Museum puts Athens back in the forefront of its own history.

For the first time in centuries, if not millennia, Greece’s past has a future.

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