Acropolis now – The architecture of repossession

After thirty years of planning, the New Acropolis Museum in Athens is within months of opening. Built with a commitment to reunite the Parthenon Frieze, the museum may hold the key to Greece’s long held  aspiration for the return of what are commonly referred to as the Elgin Marbles.

The new museum at the southern base of the Acropolis is a remarkable building. With exhibition space of more than 14,000 square metres (ten times that of the original  Acropolis museum built in the 19th century), the museum, sits above the remains of an ancient Athenian metropolis unearthed during excavations on the site.

The ancient Athenian village that was revealed was always going to be an integral part of the design, and architect Bernard Tschumi’s simple, precise solution, which features the floating of the museum on one hundred concrete pilotis (protecting and consecrating the archaeological excavations below) is thought-provoking and totally successful.

Once inside, the inclined glass ramp of the Gallery of the Slopes beckons you like some futuristic walkway into a vast time-traveling machine. Exhibits from the slopes of the Acropolis mark the way to the Archaic Gallery on the first floor. It’s here that you fully appreciate the unique approach taken to the presentation of the museum’s collection of over 4000 pieces, principally ancient classical sculptures.

Created to be seen outdoors and illuminated by subtle variations of daylight, the museum’s design ensures that natural light provides the dominant lighting condition in every gallery, allowing the viewer to see the rich textural quality of the sculpted surfaces, The gallery’s minimalist style allows no distraction from the objects presented, and the experience is enriched by the positioning of the sculptures, allowing you to examine each through 360 degrees.

The mezzanine above, features a bar, restaurant and terrace looking out towards the Acropolis less than three hundred metres away. Midway in the distance is the neoclassical heritage listed building (part of which is the home of composer Vangelis, controversially scheduled for demolition in order to allow, what the Greek Culture Ministry describes as ‘an unimpeded view’ of the Acropolis from the museum. With over 100 court cases in relation to contested real estate issues, the new museum, like all major urban building projects, has had to fight for its place in this historic, polemical part of the contemporary city.

The top section of the building is its crowning achievement, holding the glass-enclosed Parthenon Gallery. Shifted 23 degrees from the rest of the building to orient it directly parallel to the Parthenon, the gallery is devoted to the The Parthenon Frieze and sculptures found within the Parthenon. Here the building’s concrete core, which penetrates upward through all levels, becomes the surface upon which the 160 metre long frieze, are mounted. Of course the original frieze in its entirety is not here, with some 40 per cent of it residing, as it has done since the early 1800s, in the British Museum.

The return of the missing sections, most of which are known as the Elgin Marbles, remains a tantalising and unresolved issue. As I walk around the frieze, and technicians are carefully positioning one of the original blocks, I ask myself a question,, the question, that every visitor is certain to ask themselves:  ‘Now that an extraordinary world-class museum exists where this extraordinary frieze, this icon of western civilization, is presented so superbly and celebrated, in a setting which offers an unprecedented context, what argument could possibly be sustained to prevent the marbles being returned to their homeland?

For now, each missing piece has been replaced with a copy that has an unmistakable lighter colour. They stand out like the proverbial sore thumb – the issue understated, but graphically illustrated. During the course of the museum’s construction, President of The Organisation for the Construction of the New Acropolis Museum, Professor Dimitrios Pandermalis has met with British Museum Director Neil MacGregor to discuss matters arising.

The professor describes the meetings as having been “fruitful”. “We found ways to communicate,” he says optimistically. Though making clear the return of the marbles is not his task, “I’m creating a space for this,” he notes.  Does he feel the British Museum will become more amenable when the museum opens? “Nobody knows. Let’s see.”

Visiting the New Acropolis Museum is a sublime experience. Bernard Tschumi set out to design a museum ‘with the mathematical and conceptual clarity of ancient Greece’. He has undoubtedly succeeded, and in doing so, has created one of the great new museums of the world.

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