The New Acropolis Museum is an intelligent building. Rational, unadorned, didactic, experiential, it’s a major achievement by Bernard Tschumi, the Swiss-French-American architect and theorist who, since winning the competition for Paris’s Parc de la Villette now a quarter century ago, has surprised - if not silenced - his critics by applying polemical concepts to the assembly of steel, concrete and glass. Tschumi’s work is abstract rather than empirical or representational; his architecture has ambitions far removed from any simple replication of known architectural imagery.
The New Acropolis Museum is also a political trophy for Greece’s ruling class. It’s a bravura, 130 million Euro propaganda machine recently inaugurated, after decades of false starts and bureaucratic setbacks, amid vaguely comic pomp and circumstance. Its mission is not only to house stunning historic artefacts from the ancient Acropolis (a mere stone’s throw away) and now protected for future generations. The New Acropolis Museum is a potentially lethal weapon in Greece’s demand that the British Museum return the so-called Elgin Marbles from London to their origin in Athens.
You easily see the museum from the Acropolis and you easily see the Acropolis from inside the museum. Visitors to the ancient hilltop site still take the meandering path up a steep slope to enjoy the group of buildings that symbolise classic Athenian achievement. The Acropolis has suffered over the millennia: from Christians, who defaced representations of the ancient Gods; from Venetians, who bombarded the arsenal of the Ottoman Turks; from dire atmospheric pollution; and from a single British aristocrat, Lord Elgin, who shipped key components of a linear frieze from the most important building, the Parthenon, back to his foggy homeland in the early nineteenth century.
On the Acropolis, you are drawn inexorably to the Parthenon with its outer ring of Doric columns silhouetted against the sky. You sense the subtle curvature of the podium and the vertical tapering of columns. And you cannot but notice brutal voids in the middle of the two longer sides, the result of an explosion in the late seventeenth century. The famous frieze ran about the inner volume, a double chamber dedicated to a massive statue of Athena, protector of the city. Archaeologists are constantly at work hereabouts. Purists may disagree yet the mixture of old and new, repair and renovation helps give such historical sites a certain frisson.
Now look down at the new museum: it’s also geometric, but stratified in superimposed horizontal layers. There’s a giant canopy leading in from a public street, its upper surface doubling as café terrace. It meets an oblong box - with what appear to be opalescent glass walls - hovering above a lower tray with perforated concrete sides. Above, and clearly angled vis-à-vis the pale lower structure, is a black monolithic penthouse; see how its smooth flat roof is eroded by a rectangular cut. You also catch glimpses of movement through the exterior membrane of this upper layer. Down there, museum visitors are looking back up at you.
Modes of looking, voyeurism, the framed view and a consciousness of spectacle are central to Tschumi’s theoretical and built work. Here in Athens, approaching the new Acropolis Museum on foot, you traverse horizontal vitrines through which the rubble of earlier eras is visible. Beneath the canopy, a hole opens up, like a dry pool, to reveal the foundations of early Christian settlement. Notice the unusual structure as Tschumi’s robust concrete columns split, as they descend, into trios of smaller columns - tripods that rotate in plan in order to tiptoe about the ruins unearthed in recent site excavations.
Once inside the building, you stand on a broad swathe of glass paving and turn at right angles to discover a tall linear hall with sheer concrete walls and a contiguous ramped floor. This is the start of a procession choreographed by Tschumi up through his multi-layered museum. An occasional frit of black dots across the glass (an aid for vertigo sufferers) is the first of several dotted surfaces, a functionalist motif rather than mere decoration. Similarly the vertical wall panels are perforated with many circular holes for acoustic absorption. With services corralled in narrow bands behind these walls, the grand central hall is suffused with natural light admitted via a square-gridded ceiling.
The promenade exits sideways into the double-storey oblong box. The two longer facades are made of glass, allowing for a linear panorama of the hill and temple to the north. These spaces are the most surprising, perhaps even aleatory, of the building. Dozens of statues are distributed, seemingly at random, on pedestals of white marble. Tschumi notes that the exposed concrete of his many columns absorbs, whereas the marble used for floor and pedestals reflects, the abundant light. Although the Museum’s primary circulation is prescribed, you make your own way through this informal grove of priceless statuary.
The skewing of his penultimate and topmost layers (the lower, and more extensive, aligned with the city, the upper parallel to the Parthenon) allows Tschumi to introduce natural light to the galleries from the ceiling overhead. The shorter ends of the penultimate, gallery layer house the Museum’s smallest holdings in alcoves inlaid with stainless steel mesh. These recesses are embedded in fin-like walls that block direct sunlight and views of immediate neighbours. However they also stagger in plan and are separated from each other by glass such that you discover unexpected peripheral glimpses of the Acropolis.
Tschumi’s route continues past five of the Erechtheion caryatids looking out across a vertical void (the central erosion seen from the Acropolis) yet missing their sixth sister, still held captive in the British Museum. You ascend upwards by escalator and reach the penthouse to discover the outer walls of Tschumi’s central hall lined with the Parthenon frieze. This is the raison d’être and iconic image of the institution. Original slabs, are joined here with plaster casts of the Elgin Marbles currently in London. You clearly see the difference between real slabs and casts, also the sequential gaps due to the explosion three centuries ago.
Tschumi takes advantage of these gaps to allow access from the central hall out into the glazed terrace which wraps the frieze and an outer layer of metopes hung above head height, as they were intended to be viewed. The outermost layer is a flush membrane of glass shading upwards, clear to black. Typically keen to work with progressive engineers, Tschumi collaborated here with Hugh Dutton. The thrust of their project is to direct you back to the Acropolis, for visitors to compare and contrast that external view with the artefacts now assembled within the museum. Their Greek clients hope you will also contemplate, if not demand, the return of Elgin’s missing marbles from “perfidious Albion”.