By Matthew Campbell
The Sunday Times
A bitter row in Athens over a new museum at the foot of the Parthenon has put some of Greece’s best known personalities at loggerheads and threatened to overshadow the building’s grand opening next year.
At the centre of the storm is Vangelis Papathanassiou, the composer famous for his Oscar-winning score for Chariots of Fire, a film about British athletes training for the 1924 Olympics.
His house is one of two buildings targeted for demolition because they spoil the view of the Acropolis from the museum’s restaurant. Last week he accused the government of “architectural terrorism”.
“These buildings must be saved,” he said in a rare interview conducted by telephone through his lawyer. “What I say could be considered biased, but I assure you that even if my house wasn’t involved in this premeditated destruction I would hold the same views.”
The other building under threat is an art deco gem that boasts carved statues and mosaics on its facade and was designed by a purported friend of Pablo Picasso. Like Vangelis’s neoclassical structure next door, it has enjoyed protection as a national monument since 1978. It has featured in tour guides as one of the city’s most important architectural landmarks.
A recent decision to remove the buildings from the list of monuments so they can be demolished provoked cries of protest. It could be several months before an appeal comes to court but the campaign to save the buildings has already generated widespread support. Vigils have been staged and a petition has gathered thousands of signatures. The World Architectural Congress has protested to the Greek government.
Vangelis’s influential friends are also doing their bit. “This [demolition] would constitute a great loss for the historic continuity of Athens,” said Jack Lang, the former French culture minister, at the Athens opening of a film about El Greco, for which Vangelis wrote the score.
Last week giant cranes towered over the Acropolis, the “sacred hill” on which the Parthenon sits. They were lifting marble sculptures, some weighing 2.5 tons, out of the old 19th-century museum and lowering them down to the new one, a 226,000 sq ft glass structure on thick concrete columns.
Defenders of the project say it is too important to let anything get in the way: it is hoped that the museum will triple the number of visitors to the Acropolis to more than 3.5m a year, meaning a big boost in revenues. Many Greeks believe that it will one day house the disputed Elgin marbles which are on display in the British Museum.
London has often argued that Greece has nowhere to display properly the giant friezes that were removed from the Parthenon in the 19th century by Lord Elgin. It does now: a room has been set aside for them in the new museum.
Even before the first brick was laid, the £94m museum became a magnet for controversy. Designed by Bernard Tschumi, the Swiss-American architect, to “interact” with the 2,500-year-old Parthenon, it came under fire for its cost and its layout.
To make matters worse the inconvenient discovery of a warren of early Roman streets and homes under the building site halted construction. However, the discovery has now been incorporated into the museum, which will have glass floors so that visitors can see the excavated city below.
The dispute with Vangelis, a reclusive eccentric who in addition to his musical achievements has been gathering fame as a painter, threatens to overshadow the opening early next year. Having first backed the museum, Vangelis last week called it an “architectural tsunami” and a “monstrosity that arrogantly overshadows the whole area, thus offending the Parthenon itself, our history, the Athenians and Greeks in general”. He went on: “It is attempting to devour what is left of this historic area.”
Officials at the Greek culture ministry have complained that the two buildings targeted for demolition obstruct the view of an amphitheatre at the base of the Acropolis, preventing the designer’s goal of “optically combining” the museum with the ancient monument.
Vangelis denied this. He acknowledged, however, that the rear of his house – the part seen from the restaurant terrace – was not particularly attractive, but said this could be remedied by planting trees.
He noted that every entry in the competition for the museum design assumed that the buildings under threat would remain.