ATHENS— The expression “slowly slowly” is used in Greece to say, “Don’t worry, things will get done … chill out” — and it’s safe to say that the highly anticipated and slow-to-be-realized New Acropolis Museum is worth the wait. New York–based Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi found out that he had won the commission to design the museum on September 10, 2001, so he barely had time to celebrate before the attacks on the World Trade Center dampened his spirits.
Now, eight years and a finished building (and some 100 lawsuits lodged on behalf of various parties) later, Tschumi can finally revel. Opening to the public for the first time on June 20 — 33 years after former President Constantine Karamanlis decided to build a museum on the site, just southeast of the Acropolis — the 130 million euros ($175 million) building provides not only a new attraction in the Greek capital (accessible for just 1 euro for the rest of 2009) but also hope that another long-running struggle, with England over the return of the Elgin Marbles, will come to an end.
Constructed of concrete, glass, stainless steel, and, for the exhibition areas, local Helicon marble, Tschumi’s striking, ultramodern building complements, rather than detracts from, the classical structures on the Sacred Rock. The museum is divided into three stacked sections: a modest base perched on more than 100 slender pillars meticulously placed in order to not damage the ruins below; a double-height, trapezoidal exhibition area boasting some glass and some glass-and-steel facades; and, at the top, a low, rectangular, entirely glass-walled floor dedicated to the Parthenon and situated 23 degrees askew from the rest of the structure, in order to align with the ancient temple. Glass floors interspersed throughout the roomy, 150,000 square feet of exhibition space allow visitors to view the ruins below, which are lit with a warm, yellow glow at night.
The previous Acropolis Museum, finished in 1874, was located directly behind the Parthenon and, at a comparatively paltry 15,500 square feet, was almost immediately overburdened with sculptures, fragments, and artifacts from the Acropolis. Tschumi’s interactive design allows for spacious views and a more intimate contemplation of these treasures, using the site itself to contextualize the works. “The idea of simplicity is fundamental,” Tschumi said, while giving a gracious and thorough walk-through of the museum.
Four exhibition levels make up the museum, with the first being the archaeological exhibition of ancient ruins. As you enter the museum on the ground floor, you encounter a sloped ramp, which houses exhibits from the slope of the Acropolis. Concrete walls with large, porthole-like cutouts act as an acoustical sponge to cut down on the echo of visitors’ chattering. The second level includes the glass-walled, skylit Archaic Gallery, an airy, open space interrupted only by concrete columns that allows one to view the Archaic-period sculptures from 360 degrees, as they were meant to be seen originally.
Also on this level are works from the Propylaia and the Temple of Athena Nike, objects from the classical period to the end of antiquity, and the Caryatids from the south porch of the Erechthion, installed on a platform overlooking the atrium. This arrangement allows viewers to revel in the artworks’ so-called archaic smiles, their pleated garments, and their impeccably sculpted braided hair.
The top-floor Parthenon Gallery holds the frieze, metopes, and pediment of the ancient temple in their original proportions, with the panels suspended for optimal viewing. The pedimental sculptures, held by steel armatures, appear frozen in time, with discreet explanatory text placed below to not impede one’s view. Earth-toned originals of the frieze alternate with white plaster copies in a scene depicting ancient Greek myths, which is illuminated by natural light during the day. The missing pieces remain in the British Museum in London, a situation famously distressing to Greece and, according to one poll, 80 percent of Britons.
While there were many controversies and delays surrounding the building of the New Acropolis Museum — including quarrels over its location in relation to the newly discovered ruins, the style of the building, and the predictable political wrangling — the main dispute centers on the British government’s ongoing refusal to return the Parthenon marbles. Taken by Englands Lord Elgin in the early 1800s while Greece was under Ottoman rule and later sold by him to the British government for €35,000, the works — or their crude dismantling — remain a sore spot for all those involved in the new museum. Over dinner the night before the press preview, Tschumi confided, “The fact that it is one single piece of art is why it is not just a nationalistic issue. I don’t see it only as sculpture. I see it as a piece of architecture. I want to see it as a whole.”
Whether the marbles will be returned to their original home remains to be settled, but the architect remains optimistic, saying it’s a matter of when, not if. In a speech celebrating the museums opening, Greek Minister of Culture Antonis C. Samaras noted that the Parthenon sculptures “are meant to be seen in sequence and in total” and “are the most cherished symbols of our cultural heritage, the height of our achievement as a people.” Time will tell if the New Acropolis Museum ends up as the height of Tschumi’s career, but it is certainly a crowning achievement in architecture, integrating ancient history with the needs of a proud contemporary society as well as satisfying visitors and tourists seeking a cultural experience of the highest level.