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.
In 2003, after fifteen years at Columbia, Tschumi left to concentrate on the Athens project, whose complicated evolution is vividly conveyed in The New Acropolis Museum, an excellent factual and photographic account assembled by the architect’s office. By any measure, this was one of the most prestigious commissions of the past quarter-century, on a par with I.M. Pei’s Grand Louvre of 1983–1993 in Paris, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s Sainsbury Wing of 1985–1991 at the National Gallery in London, and Norman Foster’s Reichstag of 1992–1999 in Berlin. The hiring of foreign architects for all those highly coveted assignments in national capitals reflected the increasing globalization of the profession, reconfirmed when Tschumi was called to the Acropolis. These selections may well have indicated the sponsors’ desire to attract worldwide attention or avoid cultural chauvinism, or both. But by choosing the cosmopolitan Tschumi, exemplar of today’s architectes sans frontières, his Greek clients found both an adept practitioner and perfect camouflage for their nationalistic motivations.
As a work of architecture, the New Acropolis Museum brings to mind Mark Twain’s deadpan observation that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds,” for in certain respects Tschumi’s design is better than it looks, especially after one recovers from the terrible first impression it makes. This triple-decker sandwich of lattice-work concrete at the bottom, angled panels of corrugated metal in the middle, and dark-gray glass at the top looks more like a provincial convention center than a national treasure house. Athenians have complained that the hulking structure—as high as a seven-story building—is out of scale with its low-rise residential surroundings. But the museum’s site is ideally positioned in relation to the Acropolis, which rises three hundred yards to the northwest, and a public institution of such extraordinary importance could hardly have been confined to a domestic scale.
The museum’s ground floor and piano nobile are trapezoidal in plan and parallel the surrounding streets. However, the rectangular top story is shifted on a diagonal to align with the Parthenon. This contrary inflection recalls Tschumi’s premillennial Deconstructivist phase, though luckily not the most extreme example, his Alfred Lerner Hall of 1996–1999 at Columbia University, a dizzying mash-up of frenetic angular tricks. Perhaps he intended the infinitely calmer Athens museum’s tripartite elevations to evoke the base/shaft/capital format prescribed by the Five Orders of Classical architecture. Particularly unfortunate is the structure’s ground level, with deeply recessed concrete panels that were quickly colonized by pigeons as a readymade dovecote.
The main entrance is dramatized by a long, upswept concrete canopy that extends toward the broad pedestrian promenade where tourists begin the ascent to the Acropolis. This grandiloquent porte cochère is raised on four fat concrete cylinders typical of the building’s ungainly and overabundant concrete supports (forty-three in all). According to the architect, massive columns were dictated by building codes for the earthquake-prone Attica region, and also allowed him to make fewer incursions into Roman-era ruins that were unearthed as the foundation was dug. Remnants of a fourth- to seventh-century-AD commercial neighborhood are visible through a large opening in the entry plaza pavement beneath the canopy, but are unlikely to excite anyone but archaeologists.
Where, one thought, is Renzo Piano now that we really need him? In fact, he is at work on the other side of town, where his Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (which comprises a new national library, opera house, and park, the latter by the American landscape designer Deborah Nevins) is scheduled to open in 2015. Much sought after for his dependable Modernist variations on the Classical colonnaded pavilion, Piano would have seemed the self-evident choice for the Acropolis project, but he eschews design competitions and accepts only direct commissions. (Best known among the dozen contenders for the job Tschumi won in 2001 were Arata Isozaki and Daniel Libeskind.) Not only would Piano’s hallmark style have been most appropriate at its veritable source, but his aptitude for lightweight engineering would likely have assured a much more elegant outcome.
Visitors to the New Acropolis Museum pass under the entry marquee, move into a disappointingly generic low-ceilinged reception lobby, and then are directed toward the Gallery of the Slopes, named for its ramped floor (segments of which are glass to offer more glimpses of subterranean ruins). This vast central hall expands the recent tendency for museum concourses to mimic airport terminals (exemplified by Yoshio Taniguchi’s Museum of Modern Art expansion of 1997 – 2003 in New York and Piano’s Modern Wing of 1999 – 2009 at the Art Institute of Chicago) but instead suggests an airplane hangar. The gallery’s lateral walls are paneled with dot-patterned concrete rectangles that resemble super-scale dominos, while on the floor are vitrines chockablock with ancient objects discovered on the site (similar to displays in the Athens airport). At the far end of the space, a wall-to-wall flight of steps rises up to the second-floor exhibition areas for works from the surrounding Attica region, Athens, and the Acropolis, though not the Parthenon itself.
One is greeted on that level by a fragmentary reconstruction of the pediment from an earlier Acropolis temple of Athena. To the right of this assemblage one passes into the wedge-shaped Archaic Gallery, and all at once another, unimaginably sublime, world materializes. The exterior glass walls of this sculpture hall are coated with tiny white ceramic dots (called frits) that screen city views and suffuse a supernal glow heightened by filtered daylight that streams down from deeply inset skylights—an effect equal to the lighting of Piano at his best—made possible when Tschumi rotated the story above this middle level of the museum. The sculptures are thus shown to much better advantage than comparable works at Athens’s drab National Archaeological Museum, where many masterpieces are undermined by poor one-source illumination.
Under the lambent daylight of the Archaic Gallery, marbles disclose translucence that eludes even the finest photography, and reveal rare traces of original pigment—a shock to those unaware that the ancient Greeks painted their statuary in bold polychrome. The pedestals were individually calibrated to the center of gravity of each object as a seismic precaution. Only breakable artifacts are kept behind glass, and one’s ability to view pieces from all angles lends further credence to the free-form display concept. This lively convocation of gods, goddesses, demigods, kouroi, korai, horses, mythical beasts, and grave stelai is electrifying, all the more so because the ensemble includes such Ancient Art 101 mainstays as the Kritios Kouros and the torso of the Rampin Rider (fitted with a casting of the horseman’s head, now in the Louvre).
Some critics have deplored the Archaic Gallery’s lack of clearly differentiated display and traffic zones. But to me this seems a well-nigh-perfect installation, perhaps a result of the museum’s staff having devised the arrangement not through the usual scale models and cutout replicas of artworks, but rather by experimenting with the actual sculptures in the space itself. That almost unheard-of method was afforded by the twenty-month lead time between the initial transfer of the collection from the old Acropolis Museum of 1874 (a small, undistinguished structure next to the Parthenon) and this building’s debut. The Archaic Gallery demonstrates, better than any other museum space in recent memory, that when great works are superlatively presented, architectural deficiencies seem practically irrelevant.
With the exception of the Archaic Gallery, all of the New Acropolis Museum until one arrives at the top-floor Parthenon Gallery is a disappointment. That is especially true of the museum’s worst organizational blunder. Increasing levels of air pollution in Athens have prompted removal of the Acropolis’s remaining sculptures to prevent further erosion from acid rain. (They are being replaced with facsimiles made from the same Pentelic marble as the originals.) Among those pieces are five caryatids (columns in the form of draped standing women) that formerly supported the so-called Porch of the Maidens on the Erechtheum, a small temple just to the north of the Parthenon. (One maiden had been abducted by Elgin, who in addition to decorative sculptures took away architectural elements as study models for Britain’s burgeoning building-products industry.)
In the New Acropolis Museum, the quintet of Greek-owned caryatids and one replica have been reinstalled in their original configuration, but what ought to have been a showstopper is a fiasco. These ever-popular chiton-clad figures were placed on a mezzanine balcony under which visitors pass into the Gallery of the Slopes on the first floor, and the sculptures are easy to miss if one does not turn around and look up. Furthermore, even though much of that soaring hall receives natural light, the caryatids are diminished by inept artificial illumination.
At last visitors come to the museum’s make-or-break moment at the top of the building, the Parthenon Gallery, which might be called Exhibit A in Greece’s case before the court of world opinion. Here we are immediately confronted by a thrilling panorama framed by the floor-to-ceiling wraparound window wall: we see the invincibly glorious sanctuary of Athena Parthenos from a vantage point superbly calibrated in orientation (the temple seems illuminated in even northern light, like a model in an artist’s studio), proximity (from this three-hundred-yard remove, the full length of the monument can be encompassed in a single glance), and perspective (the gentle thirty-one-degree sightline from the gallery up to the Acropolis does not unduly foreshorten the Parthenon).
Less felicitously, the majestic vista is distractingly broken up by two overlapping, discordant metal grids: one holds the oblong panes of the top story’s curtain wall, the other supports an inner screen of glass panels with steel cables and square gaskets. The two-and-a-half-foot interstice between the two layers maximizes the circulation of cooled air mandatory for a glass-skinned building in the desert-like Attic climate. But this plethora of superimposed, misaligned rectangles recalls David Hockney’s mosaic-like composites of pieced-together photographs. One yearns for glazing details as seamless as the hyper-Minimalist transparency achieved by the Japanese firm SANAA for their nearly invisible Glass Pavilion of 2001–2006 at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio.
Architects often purport to have reached design decisions that were so logical as to be inevitable and irrefutable, whereas almost all such choices are arbitrary to some extent. Tschumi maintains that the Parthenon Gallery had to echo its subject as closely as possible. It was easiest for him to approximate the outline of the Parthenon’s ground plan within the confines of the museum’s loftlike, 128-by-276-foot top story. That story’s outer dimensions allowed a broad ambulatory for viewing the sculptures on all four sides of the floor-to-ceiling rectangular structure that the architect positioned at the center of the space. However, he could not also replicate the prototype’s forty-foot height in a building that towers over its surroundings as it is. Thus, in 23.5-foot-high Parthenon Gallery, the metopes are seen from a vantage point lower than they originally were on the temple.
The architect’s adherence to Modernism’s ban on outright imitation is reflected in a display that is schematic enough to avoid “Disneyfication,” an unforgivable sin in the intellectual circles Tschumi frequents. Therefore, although the Parthenon Gallery has the exact number of columns placed around the central display rectangle in the same arrangement visible in the near distance, these supports are chilly stainless-steel tubes rather than warm fluted-marble drums. And in one crucial respect, this commendable installation creates an impression quite the opposite of the client’s desired result.
Mixed among the pristine plaster metopes and Panathenaic Procession frieze—molded during the nineteenth century from the British Museum’s holdings—are the degraded and discolored pieces lately saved from the Parthenon. Granted that even the Elgin Marbles themselves are not as white as these immaculate reproductions, anyone who has seen the London originals will agree that they are in far better shape than the Athens remnants, some of which appear to have been marinated in tobacco juice. Other pieces seem like half-dissolved sugar cubes, and it takes a good visual imagination and knowledge of Classical iconography to figure out what some panels represent. (Helpfully, small reproductions of precise drawings made before the 1687 bombardment have been placed next to the sculptures they document.) Present-day Greeks dismiss any suggestion that Elgin may have actually performed a great service by ensuring the protection of many masterworks that otherwise would likely be in the same state of deterioration. But this side-by-side, before-and-after evidence speaks for itself.
One had half expected a polemical presentation on the order of the artist Hans Haacke’s scathing installation pieces, in which he takes deadly aim at the sinister symbiosis between cultural institutions and corporate interests. But instead of rhetorical stunts—pedestals standing empty under spotlights, vacant walls emblazoned with accusatory texts—Tschumi’s neutrally detailed, gray-painted matrix makes Greece’s portion of the Parthenon legacy seem unexpectedly abundant, and the facsimile inserts are not so jarring as anticipated. No matter what the outcome of the Elgin Marbles saga, this long-suffering treasure will never be complete because of the many irretrievable losses it has suffered, even if all the surviving pieces were reassembled in one place.
The Parthenon Gallery conveys a remarkably full and perhaps unimprovable impression of the original ensemble. Given the riches on display one story below this, and the stupendous holdings in Athens’s National Archaeological Museum, the Greeks’ relentless determination to own every last one of the Parthenon marbles seems a bit selfish. These are not trading cards with a wrapper urging “Collect them all!” Greece is to be congratulated for finally improving upon the dumpy old Acropolis Museum. But monopolizing a common inheritance of all mankind is anything but desirable, and it would be a far greater boon to the entire world if both the British Museum and the New Acropolis Museum continue to share this glory that was Greece.
September 24, 2009