Modern Ruins

Modern Ruins

The original Acropolis museum was built in 1874, but by the 1970s, the area’s constantly excavated treasures had far exceeded the modest museum’s holding capacity. Architecture competitions were launched several times over the next few decades, but construction was always halted because of the extreme archaeological significance, and fragility, of the site. Yet the need to house the new artifacts was coupled with the tense struggle for the British Museum to repatriate the other half of the Elgin Marbles — Athens’s lack of a sufficient display area had long aided the delay — creating the momentum necessary for the successful completion of the 150,000-square-foot museum.

Architect Bernard Tschumi, who won the commission in a competition, is well known for his radical theories on post-structuralist architecture in the 1960s and ’70s. His many buildings and public projects over the past few decades were sometimes considered controversial and even aggressive in their attempts to reinvent how we live. But his design for the New Acropolis Museum presents a seemingly mellowed stance, focused on the splendid Athenian light and landscape while remaining rigorous in imagination and refined in form. Tschumi spoke to Modern Painters about his latest accomplishment.

How did you approach this unusual commission?

The interesting thing was that the site was extremely complex, as were the circumstances of that particular building. On one hand, it’s 300 yards from the Parthenon. So for an architect to design something next to the most influential building in Western civilization is quite a challenge. The second thing is that 70 percent of the site is covered with precious archaeological ruins that must be preserved. And third, of course, is that the building must be good enough to entice the Brits to return the Elgin Marbles to Athens. The bottom frieze is in Athens and the other half is at the British Museum. So these challenges brought a whole other host of constraints. But sometimes things click exactly right, and we were able to turn all these constraints into our advantage.

The base of the museum is hovering on stilts over the archaeological remnants. I spent days negotiating the location with the archaeologists so that we would not destroy any precious mosaics or walls. The base also contains the lobby, and when you walk you can look down and you see through the glass to the archaeological remnants below your feet. The main galleries, which are very tall, host an extraordinary number of sculptures. The room is quite mysterious in a sense because it’s so tall — it’s like a forest of columns. And at the top of the building is a very large glass hall, which overlooks the city of Athens but on the other side faces the Parthenon. You can see the frieze and the Parthenon at once.

Would you say that glass is one of your favored materials? I know you designed a glass house too.

Yes, I feel an affinity for glass. In this particular case, the building has three main materials: glass, concrete, and marble. The glass was really about the transparency, looking out, and bringing the light in. The design in general is all about light and vision.

Is this the first project you’ve done that engages with such an ancient site, specifically one in which the historic purity has been fought for so strongly?

Definitely. However, it’s not my first project that plays between old and new, that plays with existing buildings and new buildings. I’ve always been most interested in the juxtaposition. I’m not at all a tabula rasa architect.

How was it to work around the excavation sites?

They had to be preserved, but nobody specified that they had to be incorporated. What we tried to do is make excavation the primary exhibit of the museum. When you enter, you see the excavation below your feet through glass, so that the new building is emerging from the ruins themselves.

You almost expect to see an archaeologist down there working.

To this day, there have been — with their little brushes! During construction it was very amusing to see the enormous cranes in one part of the site and, in another part, little folding tables, and sun umbrellas, and people down on their knees brushing the dirt away and discovering extraordinary mosaics.

The million-dollar question: Do you think that the Elgin Marbles will be returned now?

I’m convinced they will be. But this is for the politicians to decide. The fact of being able to reconstitute a story is so exciting, though. Imagine having a book where you have to read the one chapter here and aren’t able to see the other chapter because it’s somewhere else. It’s one single story and it doesn’t make sense to keep it separate. This happens a lot with ancient Greek sculpture: the head is in London, the shoulders are in Munich, the feet are in Paris, and what is left is in Athens.

I understand that part of the exhibition design is to leave open spaces for the returned frieze.

After coming up with many ideas, we decided to display the Greek blocks exactly where they should be, and we have created white plaster replicas for the blocks that are currently absent. We think the viewer should have an overview of what it really should look like all together. For a while, I thought we should present nothing, or display grainy black-and-white photographs. And then, for respect towards the visitor, we decided to add the replicas. But, you know, you can’t confuse the fake for the real.

The New Acropolis Museum opens on June 20.

"Modern Ruins" originally appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' Summer 2009 Table of Contents.