An unseen yet palpable presence seemed to hover over Athens this June during the inaugural festivities for the New Acropolis Museum, which was designed by the New York–based architect Bernard Tschumi. This pervasive emanation was not the aura of Athena Parthenos (“Athena the Virgin”), dedicatee of her namesake city’s principal temple atop the Acropolis—the Parthenon of 447–432 BC, long esteemed as the apex of Classical architecture. Neither was it the shade of Ictinus, the building’s architect; nor that of Phidias, who sculpted the gold-and-ivory effigy of the goddess that nearly touched the inner sanctum’s forty-foot ceiling. Nor was it Agoracritus, putative head of the sizable Parthenon workshop that carved tons of white Pentelic marble into numerous fully dimensional figures for the two triangular pediments; ninety-two high-relief panels, called metopes, for the frieze above the oblong structure’s peripheral colonnade; and the bas-relief that wrapped like a ribbon around the exterior of Athena’s inner sanctum and depicted the Panathenaic Procession (the citizenry’s celebration of their divine protector’s birthday).
Instead, the regnant spirit of the New Acropolis Museum’s opening turned out to be a departed diva of the silver screen, Melina Mercouri, the actress-turned-politician whose name was repeatedly invoked at the ceremony, and over whose grave in Athens’s First Cemetery prayers were said as part of the consecratory observances. Those who recall Mercouri only as a mid-century sex symbol outshone by her more celebrated contemporaries Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot might be bemused by the exalted place she now occupies in the modern Greek pantheon, rather as if Angie Dickinson had become head of the National Endowment for the Arts. But more than anyone else, Mercouri vivified the continuing campaign to bring Greece’s long-lost archaeological treasures back to their homeland.
Three decades ago, she began agitating for the unconditional return of marble carvings that were sawn off the Parthenon between 1801 and 1812 under the direction of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, an amateur antiquarian and British ambassador to the Sublime Porte (as the seat of the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople was called in diplomatic parlance). Elgin’s representative in Athens exploited loopholes in a vaguely worded permit from Greece’s Ottoman overlords and stripped both the Parthenon and an adjoining shrine, the Erechtheum, of their choicest surviving sculptures (many had been destroyed in the infamous Venetian bombardment of 1687). Elgin’s removal of the marbles provoked immediate outrage, not least from Lord Byron, who castigated him in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage of 1812 as “the last, the worst, dull spoiler” who “rive[d] what Goth, and Turk, and Time hath spar’d.”
Four years later, the British government bought the booty from the cash-strapped earl for £35,000 (about $4 million today), and the Elgin Marbles, as they became known, remain in the British Museum. Sporadic demands for their return to Greece flared up and died down over the years. But by the time the sculptures were reinstalled, to breathtaking effect, in John Russell Pope’s purpose-built Duveen Gallery of 1936–1938 (after they received an ill-advised acid scrub), the Elgin Marbles had attained the transcendent status shared by those very few artworks universally agreed to be the common spiritual inheritance of all mankind—and thus just as legitimately held in London as in Athens or anywhere else, so long as they remain accessible to the public and are safeguarded for future generations.
This Olympian view of custodianship was vehemently rejected by Mercouri, who in 1981 became her country’s minister of culture (a post she held, save a four-year interregnum, until her death in 1994). Self-described as the Parthenon’s La Pasionaria, she reignited a smoldering controversy and turned the sculptures’ restitution into an international crusade that her countrymen have continued. Those efforts reached an emotional crescendo with the unveiling of Bernard Tschumi’s $200 million showplace, which seems less an architectural event or a museological accomplishment than the costliest and craftiest weapon in a Kulturkampf of Homeric intensity and duration. That perception was underscored by the foreign press brigade flown in by the Greek government for the strenuously orchestrated opening, a rare promotional extravaganza at a time of retrenchment for cultural institutions worldwide.
Any prior pretense to the lack of a political agenda was dropped at the dedication of the New Acropolis Museum when the current minister of culture, Antonis Samaras, spoke to the building’s true function in the bluntest of terms:
We cannot dedicate this magnificent new museum with full hearts. We cannot illuminate fully the artistic achievement created in fifth-century Athens, because almost half of the sculptures from the Parthenon were taken from here 207 years ago to reside in enforced exile 4,000 kilometers away.
The abduction of these sculptures is not only an injustice to us Greeks but to everyone in the world, the English included, because they were made to be seen in sequence and in total, something that cannot happen as long as half of them are held hostage in the British Museum.
Samaras went on to quote a reluctantly compliant American museum head, who surely had forced his honeyed words through gritted teeth:
After three decades of trying to avoid the inevitable[, i]n explaining the decision to return the [Euphronios] vase [to Italy], the Met’s director, Philippe de Montebello, said: ” The world is changing and you have to play by the rules.”
Then, in the evening’s coup de théâtre, the minister put on a pair of white conservator’s gloves, lifted a fragmentary marble relief of a boy’s head toward the massed photographers, inserted the shard into a shattered metope, and beamed like a child who had completed his first jigsaw puzzle.
Several foreign-owned (and insignificant) bits of the Parthenon sculptures have been donated to the new museum recently, but the one Samaras brandished is on loan from the Vatican Museum for only a year. Days before the opening, he indignantly rebuffed the British Museum’s offer to lend the Elgin Marbles to Athens for three months in return for Greek recognition of British ownership. According to Samaras’s communiqué, “Accepting it would legalise the snatching of the Marbles and the monument’s carving-up.” But he nonetheless seized upon the Holy See’s paltry benefice as though it were a papal endorse-ment, and milked it to maximum effect as the Platonic ideal of a photo- op prop.
Mercouri’s strategy has emboldened other countries to press for possession of artworks they likewise judge essential to their national identity, and in many cases those efforts have succeeded. However, the proliferation of such suits clearly endangers the free and open diffusion of culture in the higher service of international understanding.* Masterpieces of art possess immense potential to advance a worldview that could help assuage the societal terrors posed by globalization, the most thoroughgoing socioeconomic upheaval since the Industrial Revolution, which has set off a pandemic of retrogressive nationalism, regional separatism, and religious extremism.
In the cultural sphere, this baneful development was anticipated by Mercouri’s discovery of the hot-button issue that would secure her second career. Daughter of a high-ranking Athens politician, she shared the leftist sympathies of her American-born husband, the director Jules Dassin, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy period and moved to Europe. Most memorable of their eight films to-gether was Dassin’s Never on Sunday (1960), in which she portrayed a definitive golden-hearted whore. But her finest hour came as a fearless opponent of the right-wing dictatorship that seized power in Greece in 1967. When the military despots revoked her citizenship, Mercouri spat out: “I was born a Greek and I will die a Greek. Mr. Pattakos [a leader of the junta] was born a fascist and will die a fascist.”
After democracy was restored, she was elected to parliament and made the Elgin Marbles into a cause that not only played irresistibly to the Greek national psyche, but reunited her country after decades of partisan strife. In the role of a lifetime, she morphed from earthy sexpot to Euripidean avenger and personified what had previously been but a vague legal abstraction. For her final, posthumous metamorphosis, Mercouri’s compatriots erected a white marble herm—with a bust of her that is classically correct save for its anachronistic hairdo and facsimile autograph—across from Athens’s Arch of Hadrian and Temple of Olympian Zeus, the perfect place to immortalize the woman they called “the last Greek goddess.”
Bernard Tschumi was born in Lausanne in 1944, son of Jean Tschumi (1904–1962), an estimable yet little-remembered Swiss-French architect who was trained in the Classical tradition at the École des Beaux-Arts but became a committed Modernist. The elder Tschumi’s somewhat conservative aesthetic and high standard of execution (much like his contemporary Marcel Breuer) won him large corporate and institutional commissions in Europe. His Nestlé headquarters of 1959–1960 in Vevey, Switzerland, and the World Health Organization headquarters of 1962–1966 in Geneva are among the works discussed in the first monograph on this underappreciated figure, Jean Tschumi: Architecture at Full Scale, by Jacques Gubler.
Tschumi fils lived with his family in Paris until he was ten, when they moved back to Switzerland. Following his father’s career path he studied architecture, at the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, but was repeatedly drawn back to Paris, which remains his spiritual home. He was there during the événements du Mai of 1968, a year before he graduated, and though the precise nature of his involvement in the protests remains hazy, ever since then he has advertised his soixante-huitard sympathies with a ubiquitous revolutionary-red scarf, a trademark akin to Frank Lloyd Wright’s porkpie hat and Le Corbusier’s round spectacles. At the Athens press preview, Tschumi’s écharpe rouge was a summery chiffon, but as one fashion-conscious journalist on the press junket advised me, “In winter it’s red cashmere.”
After Tschumi received his diploma, he taught for several years in London at the experimentally oriented Architectural Association, and in 1976 resettled in New York. He taught at Cooper Union as well as Princeton, and gravitated toward the theoretically minded architects and scholars associated with the now-defunct Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, the avant-garde think tank and academy that exerted an enormous influence on advanced architectural thought between 1967 and 1984. His big career breakthrough came when he won the design competition for one of François Mitterrand’s lesser-known grands projets: the Parc de La Villette of 1983–1986 in Paris, a redevelopment of 135 acres in the city’s northeast section formerly occupied by cattle yards, abattoirs, and meatpacking plants.
In Tschumi’s intriguing if overworked attempt to reconceive the urban park, he dispersed twenty-six red-painted metal-clad follies (most of them two or three stories tall) in a grid pattern that blanketed the site. These fantasias recombined snippets of familiar early Modernist motifs—especially the dynamic forms of Russian Constructivism—and although charming, they soon seemed of little consequence. Tschumi’s stalled building career prompted him to become dean of Columbia’s architecture school, and thanks to the exposure and contacts the position provided, he began to get more work. But his executed oeuvre is hardly extensive, as demonstrated in Bernard Tschumi, a breezy monograph by the journalist Gilles de Bure.