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The New Acropolis Museum – an anti-Bilbao

Bernard Tschumi describes the New Acropolis Museum as an anti-Bilbao museum, in reference to Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum. This should not be seen as a criticism of Gehry’s work, but more a description of the way in which the two buildings operate. The Gugenheim in Bilbao was all about creating an object, building a new context that would draw people to a relatively obscure Spanish city. The building’s sculptural form is now far more famous than its contents that are of secondary importance for many. On the other hand, the New Acropolis Museum sits in the context of one of the most famous works of architecture in the world – so quite rightly does not try to compete with it. Tschumi’s design is all about the contents of the building – relating these artefacts back to their original context through careful design, in a way that despite its vast physical presence, the building itself fades into the background as a mere framework for the viewing of the pieces within.

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A hard act to follow: the New Acropolis
12 June 2009
By Dan Stewart

This is the New Acropolis museum, and it’s located a two-minute stroll from the most famous building in the world. So how did the architect handle that brief?

Bernard Tschumi’s long-awaited New Acropolis Museum is to open this month in Athens. The €130m (£113m) building was first mooted as long ago as 1976, when the first of four competitions was held. In 2000, Bernard Tschumi, a deconstructivist French architect known principally for his Parc de la Villette in Paris, won the fourth, and final brief.

The building was originally intended to be finished in time for the 2004 Olympics, but costs, conservation issues and legal challenges meant that construction took far longer than anticipated. At last the museum will be unveiled to the public on 21 June.

In a reference to Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim, Tschumi has designed what he calls an “anti-Bilbao”: a museum more dedicated to its exhibits than to itself. Even so, the 210,000ft2 structure has, predictably, provoked a clash between neo-classicists and modernists similar to that surrounding the development of Chelsea Barracks.

A group calling itself Acropolis Now has accused the government of architectural vandalism by putting such a modern building only 280m from the Parthenon. Tschumi has said in the building’s defence: “I’m not interested in imitating the Parthenon. I’m interested in achieving that level of perfection in my buildings, and for early 21st-century architecture to match it in its own way.”

His solution is a three-storey, light-filled box made of glass, marble and concrete. The ground floor is suspended on concrete pillars above excavations of the ancient region of Makriyianni, while the middle floor is a trapezoidal double-height space, decked out in marble, that holds artefacts from the archaic period to the Roman Empire.

Tschumi’s pièce de resistance, and the element of the building likely to create the most controversy in the UK, is a rectangular Parthenon Enclosure complete with a glass box ready to contain the Elgin Marbles – the collection of marble metopes that once adorned the Parthenon. The artefacts were obtained by the British government in the 19th century and are still the subject of dispute between the Greek and UK authorities. The box will remain empty until the British government is persuaded to return the marbles from their current home in the British Museum.

Although the building is clearly in the modernist tradition, it has a simplicity and grace that pays homage to its classical surroundings. For example, the structural concrete columns, while hardly in the doric order, pay reference to the remains of the Parthenon just a few minutes walk away. Tschumi has been careful to use as much of the natural light as possible so that the statues and relics can be enjoyed as they might have been back in the heyday of Ancient Greece. Hopefully, the beauty and restraint of the completed building will silence some of Tschumi’s critics.

Project team:
Architect Bernard Tschumi Architects
Local architect Michael Photiadis
Structural engineer Arup, New York
Lighting engineer Arup, London
Electrical engineer Michaniki Geostatiki
Consultant Hugh Dutton Associés