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Architecture Dean Bernard Tschumi Designs New Acropolis Museum in Athens

By Jason Hollander

The new Acropolis Museum will be set just below the Acropolis in Athens.

Rarely does an architect have to consider factors like international political debate and the history of western civilization when designing a building. However, Bernard Tschumi, dean of the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, had to pay close attention to both before submitting his plan for the new Acropolis Museum, which will break ground this summer in Athens, Greece.

Set only 800 feet from the legendary Parthenon, the museum will be the most significant building ever erected so close to the ancient temple and was commissioned by the Greek government to be completed in time for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens. The structure will also be used in an attempt to help bring the Elgin Marbles back to the city after two centuries in a foreign country. But to understand the importance of the future museum, one first has to examine the history of the land.

In 479 B.C.E., after two bloody years of fighting, the Greeks drove the Persians out of Athens thus reclaiming the city and its sacred, yet ravaged structures. Several decades later, a decision was made by Pericles to build a new temple atop the Acropolis -- the highest point in Athens -- that would glorify both the goddess Athena and the Greek capital, which had become the state's largest and wealthiest center. It would house a grand Athena statue and other elaborate idols in tribute to the Greek gods. By 432 B.C.E., the Parthenon was completed after 15 years of construction, and though the building would eventually endure numerous attacks and religious incarnations, it has remained perhaps the world's foremost example of mathematical precision and clarity in Greek architecture.

Then, 200 years ago, something happened that continues to trouble the Greeks to this day.

In the early 19th Century, Englishman Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, traveled to Athens with the intent of bringing back some historic Greek pieces to put on display in London. He obtained permission from his friend, the Turkish Sultan (the Ottoman Empire controlled Greece at the time), to remove whatever he wanted for a small price. Elgin took the Sultan up on his offer, essentially looting the Parthenon of its idols and taking as much as his ships could fit. The haul of sculptures, housed in London's British Museum since, would come to be known as Elgin's Marbles.

Thus, most of the top floor of Tschumi's new museum will be devoted to space anticipating the return of the treasures Elgin took, many which date back to the Parthenon's earliest days. He will create a rectangular "Parthenon Gallery," enclosed in glass to provide ideal light for sculpture viewing and with a direct view of the Acropolis above. Lower floors in the museum will house a range of galleries from the archaic period to the Roman Empire. There will also be a multimedia auditorium and a mezzanine bar and restaurant.

The Greek government chose Tschumi's design in part because of the prominence his building will give these pieces. For years, one of Britain's strongest arguments against returning the marbles has been Greece's lack of a fitting place to house them.

Nicos Papadakis, a spokesman for the Greek Embassy in London told the British Broadcasting Corporation, "This is the clearest manifestation of our commitment to have [the marbles] returned. This shows that we mean what we say."

However, the British government still maintains the right to possession of the marbles, with Prime Minister Tony Blair recently stating his intention to keep them in London. The British cite several reasons for refusing to return the pieces, most notably the fact that they possess a bill of purchase (though from an Ottoman official, which some consider akin to a receipt for stolen goods) and also because if the marbles were returned, they say, it would set a precedent for demand that pieces from all museums be returned to their countries of origin.

Still, some members of the British Parliament, along with support from public figures like actress Vanessa Redgrave, continue to argue vehemently for the return of the marbles. In fact, a television poll taken several years ago showed that 90 percent of British citizens favored sending them back to Greece. Indeed, the debate will likely intensify as the Olympics draw closer and Athens finds itself under an international spotlight.

For Tschumi, several other unique challenges exist on the project. He has to build the museum very carefully on top of an excavation site where an ancient Christian town was recently unearthed. Officials will monitor the process to make sure none of the structures are disturbed. To complicate matters, he has to consider and accommodate for the regularity of earthquakes, which the area suffers. Of course, there is also the pressure of building a major structure that will stand right in the shadow of the Parthenon itself.

A model view of the new museum from above.

"The Parthenon was the highest point of culture and worship," says Tschumi. "The museum is a place that records those achievements. The museum will stage the work of that era while asserting a new identity."

The commission is one of the highest in profile that Tschumi has ever worked on, but his commitment to presenting a strong design was the only focus he had when preparing for the competition.

"We asked, 'How can we provide a building which is as representative to our contemporary sensibility and technology as the Parthenon was at its time,' " says Tschumi. "Architecture is not about form, but about defining a goal or concept. There is no sentimentality in it. You cannot be intimidated."

And, clearly, Tschumi was not. Still, he entered the contest with low expectations, believing the prospect of winning almost "impossible" because he thought technical and bureaucratic constraints would not allow him to realize his vision. But his commitment to the idea of making the building "first and foremost a museum of natural light," pleased the Greek government more than any other. When the call carrying good news came from his assistant in New York, he was on a site visit in Florida. "I'm glad I was already sitting down when I heard," says Tschumi. "I was stunned."

Now that the celebration is over, the work has begun. Tschumi says the time frame he has to complete the museum in is "unbelievably short," but that finishing is possible.

"Indeed, it requires major efforts from both the bureaucrats and construction companies, but it can be done. [Construction] can be a very fast process, but sometimes slow at the same time."

Tschumi feels certain that the approval stages will be a top priority for the Greek government as the finished museum and the Olympics will present an opportunity for the country to show a fresh face to the rest of the world.

"Clearly it is part of an ambition on the part of Greece to modernize itself," says Tschumi. "This is the first step."

Published: Apr 24, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002

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