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The New Acropolis Museum – a building of lightness & solidity

Although it is now more than six months since the official opening of the building, positive reviews of the New Acropolis Museum [1] keep on coming. This review is from an architectural specification magazine, hence the focus on the materials that the building is constructed from.

Specifier (Australia) [2]

Issue 189
The New Acropolis Museum by Bernard Tschumi
Writer: Robbie Moore

In mid-2007, the Old Acropolis Museum shut its doors. Its collection of giants and centaurs, metopes, pediments and parts of the Parthenon Frieze, were wrapped in plastic shrouds and packed in reinforced wooden boxes, and hauled into the air over Athens. The artworks, some weighing two and a half tonnes, were passed between Europe’s three largest lifting cranes on their way to their new, €130 million home. Now, two years later, the New Acropolis Museum – one of the most significant and frankly political cultural projects of the last decade – has finally opened its doors.

The New Acropolis Museum is as much about the artifacts it’s missing as about the artifacts it holds. Its top-floor gallery, rotated 23 degrees to align with the Parthenon, makes a plain and eloquent case for the return of the Elgin Marbles. The gallery contains a small number of real pieces from the Parthenon, alongside replicas of artifacts taken two hundred years ago by Lord Elgin and now residing in the British Museum. The replicas were not given a fake weathered patina, but were left a perfect, toothpaste white. The contrast with the ancient stones is striking, and deliberate. This is a memorial as much as a museum, mourning a loss.

The architect of the New Acropolis Museum, Bernard Tschumi, is a supporter of the cause. His design destroys an argument used by the British since the 1970s, that Athens was too polluted with smoke and sulphur dioxide to look after the marbles. Athens’ air had already improved with the new metro system and the pedestrianisation of the historic district, but Tschumi further protects the museum’s antiquities with a sophisticated, highly controlled micro-environment. The Caryatids, for instance, were sealed behind glass in the Old Acropolis Museum, but here stand free. The interior conditions are easily preferable to those in the British Museum. The Elgin Marbles are surrounded by four walls and lit from above by diffuse daylight and spotlights, while the New Acropolis Museum’s Parthenon Gallery is open on all sides to the unblinking Greek sun. The works can be viewed, therefore, in the conditions they were intended. “Now that the building is finished and everybody will be able to see the quality of light that you get here”, Tschumi told Wallpaper*, “and the way they will be displayed here compared to the way they are displayed in the British Museum, the return [of the Elgin Marbles] will make sense straight away”.

Tschumi’s methods of delivering light throughout the Museum are simple and ingenious. The building’s concrete core, which penetrates upward through all levels, becomes at the upper Gallery level the surface on which the marble sculptures of the Parthenon Frieze are mounted; it is also a skylight, that allows natural light to pass down to the Caryatids on the level below. Light filters through the Parthenon Gallery’s glass-floored atrium, through walls of shaded glass and rectangular openings. It was important, however, to temper this light through multiple forms of sophisticated glass, in order to protect the stones from damage and keep the museum cool. The façades of the Parthenon Gallery are made up of two layers of glazing, including high-clarity, low-iron glass and solar control glass. Elsewhere, silkscreen shading is used. Between the glass layers, hot air circulates from the gallery level via the ceiling to the basement, where it is filtered and cooled and reintroduced into the galleries. The local marble flooring also helps to keep the museum cool in brutal summer conditions.

From the exterior, the structure is plain and deliberately unmonumental. A mere three hundred metres from the Parthenon, Tschumi didn’t set out to imitate, let alone to compete. “I did not want to imitate Phidias, but to think like Pythagoras. In other words, think of mathematics and master geometry, and start from a level of abstraction.” The Museum is conceived as a base, a middle zone and a top. (Indeed, the lower and the upper sections of the building are actually separated by a kind of cushioning, so that the upper part can move separately from the base in the event of an earthquake.) At the base, the structure takes its form from the archaeological remains found below the surface while excavation work was underway in 2002. The base hovers on a hundred slender concrete pillars that tiptoe delicately over the ancient grounds. The middle, trapezoidal in plan, follows the layout of the surrounding streets. It contains a double-height space rising to 10 metres, accommodating the galleries from the Archaic to the late Roman period. Above is the rectangular Pantheon Gallery, simple and honorific and turned to face the vista of the Acropolis. The off-axis twist is the Museum’s only kink, its only deviation from modern minimalism.

Many of the interior materials were chosen for their ability to recede from view. Concrete, both precast and cast in situ, provides the main structure and is the background for most of the artworks. The softness of the concrete makes it light-absorbent, helping to highlight the light-reflecting marble statues. Circular holes were placed at intervals throughout the concrete walls in order to absorb sound. Black marble was used for circulation, and light beige for the galleries. Structural glass, including a glass ramp, is used extensively on the ground floor to reveal the early Christian settlement – dating from the 7th to the 12th centuries – excavated below.

The circulation of the Museum forms a three-dimensional loop, following a chronological sequence from pre-history through the late Roman period, leaping upward at one stage to reach the Parthenon Gallery and then doubling back downwards to continue the historical journey. Tschumi’s is a deceptively complex building, a building of layers, connections and small disjunctions. If it is merely a €130 million debating point in a centuries-old argument, then it is surely the most emotionally and intellectually persuasive debating point that’s yet been made.