Lost its Marbles

A rock and a hard place: the New Acropolis Museum, Athens

>Up there on the rock of the Acropolis, that’s the Parthenon. Down here on the lower slopes, that’s the £110m New Acropolis Museum. Inside the museum is a lot of fascinating and very beautiful sculpture from the Acropolis, exquisitely presented. And in another museum 1,486 miles away, there’s quite a lot too. At the British Museum, they prefer not to call them the Elgin Marbles these days, though it was our Lord Elgin – ambassador to the Ottoman Empire – who chiselled them off at the beginning of the 19th century and brought them to London. You may have heard that the Greeks want them back.

So if ever a new piece of architecture was politically charged, the New Acropolis Museum is it. This is the museum that was designed and built specifically to house – among much else – the sculptures originally mounted high on the Parthenon in the 5th century BC. The Greeks and the British have roughly half each of what survives. Sculpture from other buildings on the Acropolis is also in London. Some pieces are even broken and divided between the two countries. Other museums around the world including the Louvre in Paris also hold examples.

Its architect, the Swiss-American Bernard Tschumi, calls the new museum a “reverse Bilbao”. The Bilbao Guggenheim by Frank Gehry became one of the world’s most famous new museums through its architecture, not its content. Nor did its industrial surroundings have to be deferred to. But in Athens, it’s all content and context. When you are building right next to, and in full view of, the work of the Parthenon’s architects Iktinos and Kallikrates; when the content of your museum includes the greatest sculptural treasures of the ancient world including that of the Parthenon’s sculptor Pheidias – then a little humility is in order.

Does the new museum meet the challenge? In five words: it’s good inside, disappointing outside. The best architects aren’t great at humility – I don’t get the impression that Iktinos and Kallikrates were exactly shrinking violets. Tschumi, who is of the generation of “deconstructivist” architects – overlapping and warping bits of buildings is their thing – generally prefers to stand out rather than blend in. But here he has had to tread carefully. The composition of the museum is an intellectual as much as an aesthetic exercise. You can see the thought processes in action. But from outside, these do not create the spark, the lift of the soul, that great public buildings achieve.

Luckily it’s impossible to upstage the Parthenon. So Tschumi has been as bold as he could, but from the outside you never really get a single convincing view of the building as a whole. It has its dramatic moments, but I walked round it time after time and never got a sense of visual coherence. It’s big, it’s fairly clumsy – not least because it has to be engineered to be earthquake-proof – it feels in the end more like a built diagram, lacking a level of detail. It is arranged in clearly differing layers, its materials are concrete, glass and – rather oddly – corrugated stainless steel. The top floor, a black glass box, is skewed as if a giant hand had twisted it. “This is NOT a deconstructivist gesture,” says Tschumi, smiling broadly as he marches you round the museum. “The lower levels of the museum are aligned with the ancient street pattern. The top floor – the Parthenon Gallery – is aligned with the Parthenon itself.”

The architecture starts to resolve itself, however, in the public approach to the museum. Here it hovers over the incredibly well-preserved, recently excavated ruins of the merchant city of ancient Athens. Its big fat concrete columns are carefully positioned to avoid crashing through the more significant remains, which are partly exposed to the air but protected by a large entrance canopy. Elsewhere – outside and in – you can see the ruins beneath your feet, through thick glass. It used to be the case that modernist architects couldn’t handle grand entrances and made them frustratingly invisible. Not here. Tschumi knows all about the importance of processional routes and gateways in Athens, and has created his own version, winding its way from the city into the heart of his building, culminating in the Parthenon gallery on the top floor. This is exactly proportioned on the floor plan of the Parthenon because it displays the sculptures in the sequence they would originally have been mounted on the frieze, metopes and pediments of the temple. Altogether, these add up to a sophisticated, 2,500 year old band of narrative artworks carved from marble, dealing with gods and mortals, the legends and festivals of Athens.

Not all of them, of course. This amounts to about a quarter of what was originally there, and half of what has survived the depredations of centuries, including a massive explosion in 1687 which blew the roof off and destroyed many of Pheidias’s sculptures. That was because the occupying Ottomans – besieged at the time by the Venetians – were using it as a military garrison and gunpowder store. Although the Parthenon has in its time been temple, church and mosque, and was vandalised with each change of use, it was as a fortress that it was most grievously damaged. Its appearance as a ruin dates from that moment of violent deconstruction. When Elgin showed up in 1801 and cut his deal with the Ottomans, already only about half of the original sculpture remained, and he took half of that. The way he saw it, he was saving as much as he could from further danger.

The gaps where the sculpture has been lost for good are left as gaps. Tschumi makes use of the chunk pulverised by the big bang: you enter the gallery through this missing section and the first thing you see, through the glass, is the Parthenon itself, up there on its rock. Turn round and there, stretching to left and right of you, is the sequence of sculptural panels, mounted high between stainless-steel columns, that used to be part of the decoration of the temple. And which, like the temple, would have been garishly painted, by the way. At either end, fragments from the triangular pediments are displayed – again, in the correct positions.

But there are other gaps – the ones where the sculpture is in the British Museum. These are filled with plaster casts, made by the BM in the 1840s after Greece gained its independence. No attempt has been made to colour-key them with the originals. They are pointedly white plaster, their texture as well as their colour different from the great yellowing marble blocks alongside them. Moreover, while the Greek originals are carved on massive chunks of stone looking like Parmesan cheese, the Elgin casts are much thinner. His men hacked off the backing stone to make the panels thinner and lighter to transport, and the casts faithfully reproduce this.

But don’t run away with the idea that the New Acropolis Museum is all about the Parthenon Gallery. Nor is that by any means the best space in the building. For me, the two best bits are the huge, lofty “Archaic Gallery” where you wander among smiling ancient statues as if they were part of the crowd, with Tschumi’s colossal fat concrete columns rising through the space. Marble reflects light, Tschumi observes: his sandblasted concrete absorbs it. Filtered daylight enters the gallery: the stone people and gods of ancient Athens are the stars here, not the architecture. Even so, Tschumi does achieve grandeur, through manipulation of light and space.

The entrance approach, up a glass-floored ramp, is also a gallery, with objects from the slope of the Acropolis mounted behind glass to either side. This is a dramatic and mysterious space. For me, though, the finest moment was meeting the five maidens of the Erechtheion, a smaller temple to the side of the Parthenon. These lovely girls are caryatids: they held up the roof with their heads. They are columns in human form. And they are heart-stoppingly beautiful especially from the back, their braided hair slightly different in each case. One is a bit frizzy. These were modelled from life, I’m sure. Oh, and there should be six. A gap has been left for the one that’s in the BM.

Tschumi, then, has remade the Acropolis inside his building. The way you move through the spaces echoes the way you negotiate the Rock itself. The curators have arranged the sculpture with what looks like affection as well as scholarship. Indeed, the outside of the building doesn’t quite come together. But the interior is hard to fault. It is serious, but it is playing a game with you, and enjoying your response That’s Tschumi. He’s like that himself.

And the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum? The BM’s position – restated recently by director Neil MacGregor – is that it legally owns Elgin’s haul, which is staying put. Just because there is a fine new museum in Athens is no reason to hand them back, he says. This is art for the world, not just for Greece. Millions each year see them in London for free. “The current division allows different and complementary stories to be told about the surviving sculptures, highlighting their significance for world culture and affirming the universal legacy of Ancient Greece.”

There is, however, a chink of light. There has been talk of a loan – so long as Greece recognises the BM’s legal ownership. A loan would remove the justified fears of museums around the world in a similar – and usually dodgier – position to the BM, that to return the Elgin Marbles outright would start a flood of claims, emptying their own collections of ancient artefacts. Since the official Greek position is that Elgin “looted” the sculpture, this solution might seem unlikely. But you never know.

All I know is this. When you stand in the Parthenon Gallery of Tschumi’s New Acropolis Museum, the great temple before you, and look at those stretches of slightly pitiful plaster casts, it’s hard not to come to this conclusion: by loan or gift, by hook or by crook, the surviving Parthenon sculptures need to be reunited. In this building, in Athens.

Text © Hugh Pearman. Photos © Hugh Pearman, Nikos Daniilidis, and Bernard Tschumi Architects. A fuller version of the article first published in The Sunday Times, London, on June 28, 2009, as “Acropolis Now”.


My Athens photoblog at ribajournal.com: http://is.gd/1hirD
New Acropolis Museum: http://www.theacropolismuseum.gr
Bernard Tschumi Architects: http://www.tschumi.com/