Greece is building a new museum specifically to house all the surviving Parthenon sculptures in one place. Unless the British Museum changes their mind though, it looks as though it will open without this main exhibit in place.
No, you can’t play with our marbles
A new museum in Athens looks doomed, not least because it won’t have its major exhibits
Sunday November 17, 2002
Never mind for a moment what Bernard Tschumi’s new Acropolis Museum might look like. From the Greek government’s point of view, he is the ideal architect to design a home for the Parthenon marbles in the unlikely event that Neil McGregor ever changes his mind and lets them out of the British Museum.
Not only is Tschumi not Greek, and can therefore be presumed to be neutral in the struggle for the marbles, but he is also fashionable. So his appointment can be presented as a confident, open- minded gesture of cultural maturity rather than the more predictable selection of a favoured local son. With an international reputation based on his years teaching at the Architectural Association in London and now as the Dean at Columbia University in New York, the Swiss-born Tschumi’s credentials are impeccable.
True, he may not quite have lived up to the dazzling promise of his first major built commission – the pioneering urban park at La Villette in Paris – but the marbles demand to be treated with extreme politeness rather than be subjected to an aggressive architectural statement.
That is why Tschumi, both politically and aesthetically acceptable, won the second competition to design the museum in 10 years, after the first one collapsed in chaos. He brings credibility to the whole process. Small wonder, then, that the Greek Culture Minister invited Tschumi to accompany him on his charm offensive to London last week in an attempt to embarrass the marbles out of Britain.
Tschumi’s plans show how the marbles could be reunited with the monument from which they parted company almost two centuries ago. Not that they would actually go back on Ictinus’s frieze. The last time that was seriously proposed was back in the 1970s and would have involved cocooning the whole structure in a glass bubble to protect it from the corrosive atmosphere of modern Athens.
McGregor proved impervious to the Greeks’ charms and said no, not for architectural reasons, but because the British Museum resolutely refuses to contemplate existence without the marbles. But there are serious questions that could be asked about Tschumi’s design. It suffers from being the product of a brief which, like his appointment, is as political as it is cultural.
Much of the logic of the Greek case for the return of the marbles rests on establishing a visual link between them and the temple. But to achieve it, Tschumi has been pushed into building on a site that some Greek archaeologists say will be irreparably damaged by the disturbance of the construction process.
There have already been protests against the preliminary site works, which will, it is claimed, destroy Christian and classical remains. The Greek government has ignored them and continues to claim it is committed to opening at least part of the museum in time for the 2004 Olympics, lest it be left looking weak and incompetent.
Tschumi’s strategy is to create a museum at the foot of the Acropolis overlooking the Makriyanni excavations and partly extending over them. Visitors would enter through a solid base and wind their way gradually up through a series of double-height galleries displaying the museum’s collections in chronological order, telling the story of the site from the archaic period and moving through to the Roman Empire. Along the way, they would encounter the inevitable shops and restaurants. Finally, in a theatrical climax to the careful sequence of displays, visitors would come blinking up into the sunshine, climbing into a giant glass box to see the marbles attached to a set of internal walls aligned precisely on the Parthenon, in place against the magnificent backdrop of the temple itself.
Tschumi maintains that the glass will be designed to protect both sculptures and visitors from the climate, but it’s hard to believe that the furnace heat of the Athenian summer can be handled without a daunting amount of air-conditioning, sunshades and tinting that would have the effect of shutting out the views and the light that were the object of the exercise in the first place.
In fact, this space is likely to remain empty for the foreseeable future, a monument not so much to new-found Greek self-confidence but a permanent sign of national frustration at the British refusal to return the marbles.
Greece Now 
Museum with a view
New Acropolis Museum architect Bernard Tschumi speaks to Greece Now about his Parthenon ‘glass house’
Swiss theorist, teacher and architect Bernard Tschumi believes in building spaces that make events happen. As the winner of the New Acropolis Museum contract, this philosophy of his will be put to the ultimate test. And though the Parthenon marbles’ return to Greece from the British Museum amidst 2004 Olympic fanfare is not guaranteed, there is an entire floor in Tschumi’s contract-winning plan for the disputed 160-metre frieze.
The winning design (created with Greek architect Mihalis Fotiades) was among 12 projects invited to compete by the Organisation for the Construction of the New Acropolis Museum. After three fruitless competitions (two Greek, one international) held for the museum since 1976, construction is finally set to begin by the end of the summer.
Tschumi and Fotiades’ $45-57-million design capitalises on Attic light. Sun will pour into the simple-lined museum, illuminating visitors on archaeology, before the actual ascent to the Acropolis. Heading the project will be Tschumi’s firm, Bernard Tschumi Architects, with offices in New York and Paris.
A graduate of Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Tschumi has made a name for himself in cultural/educational architecture. His 1982 urban park development project of Parc de la Villette in Paris brought him to the limelight, while future creations of his include Harlem’s Museum for African Art in Harlem Tschumi has been dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation since 1988.
He spoke to Greece Now about the New Acropolis Museum project.
What is it like to be creating a new museum that is already at battle with a respected older one, the British Museum?
At this time I’m only thinking of the New Acropolis Museum itself. I’m not thinking of it in terms of a battle between two museums. I’m only thinking how to make the best possible museum in Athens at the foot of the Acropolis for that particular context.
Are you optimistic about the 2004 time frame right now?
It is extremely tight. We are, at the moment, on schedule, but, as with any building work, it’s the combination of many different forces. There are the designers and the engineers, the contractors, the decision process. A lot can happen between now and 2004. The foundations will be laid by the end of the summer. I will come to Greece for it – I come about once a month.
What precautions will your design take in order to fully protect the ancient objects?
Not only are the objects fragile in their nature, many of them have been damaged by pollution, by history. So, as in any museum, they have to be in an environment with the right degree of air cleanness, etc. On top of that, special provisions must be made taking into account the fact that Greece is a country of earthquakes.
What about the special glass to be used?
One of the fascinating parts of returning the Parthenon Marbles to Athens is to place them in their original context. If we cannot put them inside the Parthenon, we want to have them in full visual relationship with the Parthenon. In other words, to put them at the top of the building, in the same sequence. As opposed to the way they are displayed at the British Museum – where the marbles are facing one another in a room, which is introverted – we want to have the Marbles in the exact sequence that they had when they were in the Parthenon.
On the North side of the building, one will have a simultaneous view of the Marbles and the building of the Parthenon itself. On the South, West and East sides we have to protect the viewers, as well as the marbles, from excessive light and heat. We are working with glass engineers and manufacturers to develop the most up-to-date system to ensure their protection.
Will you be able to see the Parthenon Marbles from the street outside?
No, because of the angle, you won’t. But if you stand on the Acropolis and you have very, very good eyes, you can see them. It’s really the other way around: when you’re standing next to the Marbles, you will see the Acropolis.
What new vantage points on modern Athens will the museum give?
It’s a museum inside the city, so we would like to be able to combine the most up-to-date technology and ancient materials. The two main materials are glass and marble. We will also use very beautiful pre-cast concrete. These materials are very respectful of the city of Athens as well as the Acropolis.
What’s the museums projected lifetime?
Once upon a time, buildings were there to stay forever. Nobody dares say these things anymore. But, after all, it is a museum and it is projected in the long-term. It will be built with the highest possible quality to be there for a long time.
The Parthenon symbolises classical aesthetic ideals. What do you want the new museum to represent?
Of course, we would like to have it as an archetype of a contemporary museum; a museum of the 21st century that shows artefacts of another historical period. And just as the artefacts in it are the most beautiful of their time, we would hope that the museum can also be the most beautiful of its time!
What does the building demand from each visitor?
Architecture is like a mirror. It reflects the visitors’ thoughts. We would like to [allow for] the sort of exciting and dynamic aspects of viewing the works as well as quiet contemplation. Museums are about time; not just historical time, but also the time you spend walking and moving around the spaces. So the sequence of the movement through the building is very important. A story unfolds as you go through the different historical periods. You go up to the Parthenon Marbles Gallery and after that you come down again, through the post-Parthenon era, then the Roman Empire and you continue.