A+ R A-

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

 

 


 

 

 

 

Flying High

 Yiannis Paraschis, CEO of the Athens International Airport, knows what it means to set up a new airport from scratch and to ensure its prosperity in times of adversity. He knows it so well as to be honored with the internationally prestigious «Airport Chief Executive of the Year 2015» award.

 Interview by Paris Kormaris

 

 

 When I asked Yiannis Paraschis which his favourite spot at the Athens International Airport was, his answer took me by surprise: “It’s like asking me to choose which of my children I love the most”. Yet as I am reflecting on his course I understand how the airport could be seen as his “child”. And it goes beyond the fact that he started working for it before it was even completed and has had the opportunity to contribute from upper management posts in shaping its “personality”. He has also seen it grow and, as its CEO, he offered the guiding lines and the means needed to withstand the crisis plaguing Greece. It is an achievement that exceeds the confines of the country and an exemplar internationally, culminating in an important distinction: his being awarded with the «Airport Chief Executive of the Year 2015» award by CAPA – Centre for Aviation.

 

What does this award mean to you?

A distinction of such caliber is always an honor, especially when it comes from CAPA, the leading provider of independent aviation market intelligence, analysis and data services, covering worldwide developments. But it is not the achievement of a single individual. It is the result of a joint effort of 13,000 employees from 300 public and private sector operating entities that coexist in the Athens International Airport community. I would say that this award belongs to everyone.

 

What do you think are the necessary traits of a successful CEO;

The main duties in administration regard this component called strategy formulation, defining objectives, selecting partners and their appropriate reward. One also needs to make sure that the business meets the expectations of the shareholders, employees and the society, and acts on every level with responsibility.

 

Which are the greatest challenges?

The Athens International Airport is an enterprise that operates 24/7, 365 days a year, and the number of passengers this year is expected to exceed 17.5 million. This means an enormous responsibility with a variety of daily challenges. Another major challenge was when – 20 years ago – we had the opportunity to lay the proper foundation for this company, which was being built from scratch. I was not the CEO at the time, but held upper management posts. It meant attracting talent and people, putting the systems in place and making strategic choices among all the possibilities that exist in this “service supermarket” called an airport.

  

How does the Athens International Airport manage not only to remain unscathed by the recession but to also evolve?

The challenge was great. We have responded by adjusting the cost structure and by protecting our earnings to the fullest, while at the same time we supported the airlines with a very important discount incentive program and readjusted several investment policies, taking care to maintain a high quality level.

 

Τhe impression obtained by a traveler at an airport depends both on service and functionality, as well as on the environment and its aesthetic. What is you assessment of the Athens International Airport on those fronts?

On the basis of the overall innovation we sought to introduce since the opening of the airport, we “listen” to passengers and visitors through a satisfaction survey that we conduct on a daily basis. According to our research, the level of the overall service we provide scores highly in relation to international competition. Concurrently, in order to enrich and advance the travel experience, we realize a series of significant aesthetic and functional upgrades in spaces and infrastructure by utilizing the high technological profile our company has. I believe that a combination of innovative services, dynamic information, modern design and more aspects of Athens and the world further improves the experience of the traveler.

 

 

 

 

If you had the opportunity to change something at the airport, what would that be?

It always depends on the observer’s viewpoint. We are constantly adding elements, large and small, to the service segment, leisure and consumption. Strong commitment and perseverance are needed to make the necessary transcendences and innovations. From the management’s perspective, I am particularly proud of the fact that we have been running a contemporary infrastructure responsibly and proudly for so many years, with a governance system that protects the company’s operation under privately run funds and meritocracy, showing tangible results and good prospects.

 

Have you taken steps to boost the number of visiting tourists?

In our effort to meaningfully invest in promoting our city as an attractive destination, we often exceed our “institutional role”. We support destination marketing immensely, either by our own initiatives and programs, or in cooperation with other organizations of the touristic domain. An important initiative of the airport was the inspired “Perhaψ you’re an AΘenian too!” campaign which ran with great success in 2014 in 18 airports around the world and promoted the city’s individuals and the universality of theAthenian identity in a unique way, to a traveling population of over 170 million. Moreover, we have created the “city card” many years ago and we constantly assume new initiatives.

 

How much does the state of other Greek airports affect tourism?

When taking a look at the numbers, one could say that tourists go to Santorini, Mykonos and elsewhere anyway, by choosing based on the attractiveness of the destination, regardless of the condition of the airport. Yet, this would certainly be a wrong approach to things. Greek tourism has every right to hope for upgrades in infrastructure and high quality services that play a part in the positive experience of the visitor on the whole. Let us not forget that today, when airports are no longer just aircraft parking facilities, but multidimensional business entities, their contribution to tourism, employment and local economies is multiplicative and of outstanding importance.

 

–Τhrough the contacts you have due to your position, do you consider what foreigners think of the current state of Greece to be representative?

The truth is that no one can escape the overwhelming power of “the big picture” and “quickly drawn conclusions”, whether we are talking about a simple citizen or a technocrat or colleagues from abroad. I can pass on that the things we are discussing at home with our own people are the same ones being asked by or presumed by people conversing abroad. We have all found ourselves addressing myths and obsessions at some point, ones which rightly or wrongly have been instilled in our minds at one time or another, especially during the crisis. The aviation industry has peculiar reflexes: just a small crack in the image of a city or an industry is enough to cause a “domino effect”. One thing can lead to another, something we have seen happen to airlines and how affected they had been by the negative developments, before Athens making an impressive comeback, two years ago. However, the country and our product have the capacity of immediate recasting, certainly not with magic solutions and findings, but with effort, actions, partnerships and a holistic approach from stakeholders.

 

How do you balance the demands of such a high rank position with your personal life?

I consider the balance between personal and professional life a crucial prerequisite for endurance and efficiency at work. Travel and sports have always been important factors of “decompression” for me.

 

 

 

Which places in Athens and Greece in general would you choose to take a foreigner to?

I am not resorting to some communication trick to avoid the question when saying that our country has such a glaring variety and alternation of scenery that I don’t think it is possible to indicate where someone will feel beautifully. The surroundings of our islands, the sea and the style of the island settlements always surprise me with their simplicity and purity, nevertheless, the Greek mainland offers a marvelous biodiversity that deserves to be explored. Athens on the other hand, has such great potential – the climate, the cultural wealth and the vibrant metropolitan environment which is uniquely connected to the coastline and the islands of the Argo-Saronic Gulf render it an exceptional destination, one forever redefining itself by incorporating fresh elements beyond its stereotypical interpretations.

 

Map