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Truth and Dare

 

What did it take to design a museum facing the Parthenon, destined to house the monument’s invaluable sculptures? One had to be very humble and at the same time very arrogant, says Bernard Tschumi, the architect of the Acropolis Museum.

By Paris Kormaris

 

 

It was the early 1960s. Melina Mercouri, the Greek actress who had won an award at the Cannes Film Festival and an Oscar nomination for her performance in Jules Dassin’s “Never on Sunday” was filming “Phaedra” with the same director – who also happened to be her husband. The script, a contemporary retelling of the eponymous ancient Greek tragedy, required filming at the British Museum, in the room where the Parthenon Marbles brought to England by Lord Elgin are exhibited. The Greek crew was required to pay a fee for filming something that essentially belonged to the Greek heritage, and it was then that Mercouri first thought about the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles. Decades later, as Minister of Culture, she realised that to answer those claiming there was no appropriate museum to house them in Athens, a new Acropolis Museum had to be built. Hard as she worked for it, at the time of her death in 1994 various obstacles had prevented her dream from materializing. 

In 2000, after three architectural competitions had either been unsuccessful or annulled, the Organization for the Construction of the New Acropolis Museum announced an invitation to a new tender, which was realised in accord with the Directives of the European Union. A groundbreaking design by Bernard Tschumi with Greek architect Michael Photiadis and their associates was chosen, placing the new Museum in a direct dialogue to what is considered the apotheosis of Greece’s artistic achievement, and the most important ancient site in the Western world: the Acropolis of the 5th century BC. In a densely populated area, with archeological findings that had to be integrated into the new museum, convincing part of the public that this was the right choice was no mean feat. Today, there seems to be no doubt about it. Or, as Bernard Tschumi says in an exclusive interview, “I feel it’s exactly right”.

Since opening in 2009, the Acropolis Museum is one of the most popular museums in Athens, if not the most popular. How does this make you feel?

I am immensely proud of our achievements, which must be shared with the director of the Museum, Dr. Pandermalis, and with the team of contractors in charge of constructing the Museum. It was an extraordinary relationship, of a kind rarely seen on major projects.

Do you remember the first time you ever visited the Acropolis?

I first visited the Acropolis when I was a young architecture student. My admiration for it only increased as I got to know it better.

 

        

 

What was it that compelled you to take part in the international competition for the Acropolis Museum?

The subject matter could not have been more challenging for an architect. How can anyone build directly facing the Parthenon, in order to house its extraordinary sculptures and the incredible Parthenon Marbles? I now think I needed to be both very humble and very arrogant at the same time in order to be able to do it.

After receiving the first prize in the competition, you faced a lot of criticism for things both pertaining to your design and not – such as the location. What is your reaction to criticism in general?

My reaction to criticisms varies. In this case, I had no doubt that our project was absolutely right for the Museum and context and could not be anything else. So I felt I just had to help the detractors by explaining to them what they didn’t see at the time. When the Museum was built, most changed their mind and became very supportive of what they saw.

How would you describe the architectural concept of the Museum?

The architectural concept is a direct outcome of the context. The archeological ruins below, the Athens street grid in the middle, and the relationship to the Parthenon at the top: this resulted in a concept made out of superposed volumes, the top one all in glass. Another concept was the spatial sequence for the visitors as they walk through the Museum.

Which have been the main obstacles you had to overcome during construction?

All buildings have constraints, whether technical or political. It’s part of the job…

Working so many years for the Museum, what is the opinion you formed about Greeks? 

Either I was very lucky, or all Greeks are great. Maybe a little bit of both. But what I certainly discovered is that Greeks love polemics. That is probably why they invented the word.

Have you visited the Museum since its opening?

I have been back to the Museum many times, and it is always with the same emotion. It’s an unusual case when all the parts fit together, including the active presence of the public.

If you were to “guide” visitors to unseen parts and features, which do you think would be the most impressive?

The Museum should speak for itself.

What is your favourite spot?

The surprising exterior where the top glass Parthenon Gallery is at an angle with the bottom part, so it can be aligned with the Parthenon; the Archaic Gallery with its forest of columns; and the glazed Parthenon Gallery, of course.

 

 

If you were to start designing it now, would it be different?

I feel it’s exactly right. Maybe I would put more trees on the South side, to bring more shade.

How would you define your approach to architecture in general?

There is no architecture without a concept or an idea. After that, you need to do it right, with materials that reinforce the concept.

Which do you consider to be your most important works?

I change my mind all the time about the top three, but the Parc de la Villette in Paris and the Acropolis Museum are always among them.

The hope that the museum’s completion would make a strong argument for the return of the Parthenon marbles taken to Britain by Lord Elgin has not been fulfilled yet. What is your opinion?

 It may take time, but I really believe that the Parthenon Marbles will eventually come back to Athens.

 

* A retrospective exhibition titled «Bernard Tschumi/Architecture: Concept and Notation» is on show at the Power Station of Art in Shanghai, China. Featuring more than 35 projects, both built and unbuilt, the 10,000-square-foot display includes recent Chinese projects and a Chinese-language catalogue. Until June 19, www.powerstationofart.com