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The concept behind the New Acropolis Museum

When the New Acropolis Museum [1] was being designed, the artefacts within it were considered as the factor that would define its eventual form. In this respect, the building is an anti-Bilbao – the form of the building is generated from the function, rater than a form being defined with the function them examined to see how it can fit within.

Spero News [2]

A vision for the new Acropolis Museum
The museum at the Acropolis is no mere shell. According to architect Michael Photiadis it was designed from “the inside out” to highlight the artifacts over architectural considerations.
Friday, August 01, 2008
By Danylo Hawaleshka
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It somehow seems fitting that a museum built to showcase the architectural legacy of a temple honouring the warrior goddess Athena should itself be the outcome of numerous battles, some as yet unresolved.

For instance, Greek authorities required not one but four bare-knuckled design competitions – the first held more than 30 years ago – before deciding architects Bernard Tschumi of New York and Athens-based Michael Photiadis would bear the responsibility of creating the New Acropolis Museum.

Soon after, however, the battleground shifted to the courts, where several legal actions delayed construction.

And lest we forget, there remains the ongoing tug-of-war over the Parthenon’s so-called Elgin Marbles. Removed from Greece 200 years ago, the priceless artefacts include a 75m segment of the celebrated temple’s frieze – very close to half of the original’s 160m overall length. It is now enshrined in London’s British Museum, and Greece and the New Acropolis Museum very much want it repatriated.

The museum is in the final merciful throes of preparation for an official opening at the end of this year, or in early 2009, and its designers are justifiably proud.

In a recent, wide-ranging interview, Photiadis sat down at his headquarters in the northern suburb of Drafi to shed light on what inspired the museum’s dramatic lines.

There has been no shortage of critics who have wondered aloud why the building was not constructed in the classical Doric style of the Parthenon.

“It’s a building that does not try to ape anything,” Photiadis says emphatically. “The idea was not to make a building that would speak for itself in a certain manner, ” he says of the simple yet angular exterior. “It doesn’t ‘show’ as having a certain style – it’s a shell that houses some very important exhibits.”

No mere ‘shell’

The new museum is hardly “a shell”, although Photiadis’ modesty reflects the design team’s original marching orders.

The building, he explains, had to be conceived “from the inside out” so that the artefacts were considered first before architectural concepts.

The result is an odd but aesthetically pleasing space. The trapezoidal clearing left behind, once a number of private residences were expropriated and demolished, left Photiadis and his associates with little room to play.

From overhead the museum looks as if it first had to be greased on all sides before it could be shoehorned into the cramped space allotted. But on the ground, the visitor does not feel the least bit confined. Rather the opposite.

The exterior grounds are adequately spacious, the interior positively cavernous – not unlike an airport terminal but without the typical impersonal frigidity. Instead, there’s a solemn dignity to the space, similar to what one might experience in a temple of stature.

By necessity, the New Acropolis Museum had to be a large building. Much of that has to do with the fact the Parthenon frieze was to be displayed in its original, 2,500-year-old full-length entirety.

As a result, the three-storey structure is capped by the museological equivalent of a large greenhouse – a third-storey mass of glass, in effect a climate-control nightmare, albeit one that was overcome with an innovative air-circulation system that keeps the glass hall refrigerator-cool.

Rather cleverly, Tschumi and Photiadis chose to misalign the top floor with the rest of the museum and instead position it so that the displayed frieze would be precisely aligned with the Parthenon – and as such struck by sunlight and shadow as it had been from the day of its conception.

Tinted duplicates of the frieze’s missing metopes will be displayed alongside Greece’s originals for as long as the Parthenon Marbles remain abroad.

The Parthenon’s frieze was suspended more than 10 metres above the ground, or in excess of three storeys. In contrast, the displayed frieze will be placed at eye level, or as Photiadis is fond of saying, “It was a frieze to be seen by the gods, and now we’ve brought it down so humans can see it.”

In 1687, the Venetians attacked the Ottoman Turks, who had somehow seen fit to turn the Parthenon into a gunpowder magazine. The explosive outcome destroyed significant parts of the temple, including the roof, segments of the frieze and a number of columns.

Tschumi and Photiadis chose to commemorate the event. As visitors to the museum reach the glass hall, they are presented with two choices of how to enter it. Both entrances are in the exact location where the explosion blew out the frieze.

“So we pass through the parts that have been destroyed forever,” Photiadis says.

Archaeological finds

Complicating the construction process were onsite archaeological finds that date from between 400BC and AD700, which have been described as modest in value and originating from the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods.

The museum sits directly on top of these discoveries or, more accurately, large portions of it float above them on 92 concrete columns that spatially occupy 1.7 percent of the find. Some of the museum’s basement interiors had to be either shifted or reduced to preserve the excavation.

“We had to make certain changes, moving some columns,” Photiadis says.

An atrium links the uppermost floor with the ground-level finds, allowing sunlight to enter some of the building’s deepest recesses.

Almost nothing is displayed at the moment other than duplicates of the artefacts. Wooden crates packed with precious marble sculptures are scattered throughout the building.

A few pieces from the archaic period, however, have been positioned on a lower level. They include near-life-sized sculptures of aristocratic Athenian women that were made as offerings to the goddess Athena. There is a sculpture of a horse, an upper-class symbol of wealth that carried with it prestige.

Ultimately, the new museum is all about space, as defined by its unintrusive grey concrete walls, marbled floors and glass walls. It offers seven times more display area than the aged museum it replaces and as such will mean artefacts which haven’t seen the light of day in decades will now be, at last, available for viewing.

“I hope [visitors] will see what they haven’t seen before,” Photiadis says.

“I’m very happy,” he adds. “It’s going to be an important building. You will see.”

* The ground floor of the New Acropolis Museum is currently open daily to the public from 10am to midday. Site: www.newacropolismuseum.gr

Danylo Hawaleshka writes for Athens News and appears here with permission.