Fred A. Bernstein

Greece's Colossal New Guilt Trip

Bernard Tschumi's New Acropolis Museum was designed to settle a score

Published in The New York Times, January 18, 2004

by Fred A. Bernstein

After almost two centuries of frustration, Greece had a new plan: to use the 2004 Summer Olympics, during which the eyes of the world will be on Athens, to pressure England into returning the missing sculptures that once adorned the Parthenon.

Known as the Elgin Marbles by those who say they belong to Britain, and as the Parthenon Marbles by those who say they don't, they have become the world's most famously contested works of art. But more than a century's diplomacy has not succeeded in getting them back to Athens, even for a short-term loan. Among the many reasons British officials give for not relinquishing the marbles: Greece doesn't even have a suitable museum in which to show them.

So the Greek government sponsored an international competition from which Bernard Tschumi, the celebrated New York architect, was chosen to build a new museum at the foot of the Acropolis. With the start of the Olympics, every television set in the world would broadcast its image, and announce the triumphant return of Greece's lost icons. And if they weren't returned, the building would stand as a gleaming reproach to Britain's intransigence.

But the structure intended to settle a controversy has become an object of controversy itself. The design clashes with the setting, some critics say. It jeopardizes an archaeological site, others claim. And perhaps most dispiritingly, the Olympic deadline is hopelessly out of reach. Like an athlete who trains for a lifetime and then sprains her ankle the week before the games, the New Acropolis Museum may have missed its best chance to make an impression. When the Olympic torch is lighted on Aug. 13, the museum will look like something that Athens already has plenty of: a giant excavation.

The marbles, carved more than 2,500 years ago, depict a procession of hundreds of ancient Athenians. Lord Elgin (pronounced with a hard "g"), who served as Great Britain's ambassador to the Ottoman Turks, claimed that by carting the marbles back to England in the early 19th century, he was "saving them from destruction" at the hands of "malevolent Turks who mutilated them for a senseless pleasure."

But many art historians have decried the British Museum's stewardship of the sculptures, which it displays out of sequence. Legal scholars have also joined in the dispute, contesting the legitimacy of Lord Elgin's claim. David Rudenstine, the dean of Cardozo Law School in New York, said the British parliament "committed fraud" when it claimed title to the marbles. And diplomats have argued that the statues are so important to the culture that created them - "the essence of Greece," in the words of Melina Mercouri, that nation's former minister of culture - that they constitute a special case, distinct from any other debates about art and ownership.

Because of the poor air quality in Athens, the marbles cannot be reinstalled on the Parthenon itself. The new museum is meant to be the next best thing.

Mr. Tschumi, in partnership with the Athens architect Michael Photiadis, won the design competition with a smoothly modern, light-suffused entry. Mr. Tschumi beat out Daniel Libeskind, whose plan was composed of triangular forms, and Japan's Arata Isozaki, who proposed an egg-shaped building. "It came at one moment," Mr. Tschumi said of his scheme, "and nothing ever changed."

The museum will have room for hundreds of antiquities, but its true reason for being is the glass-walled gallery on the upper floor, where the marbles would reside. Twisted 23 degrees from the floors below, it will match the precise orientation of the Parthenon some 300 yards away. Arranged in an outward-facing rectangle, 21 by 58 meters, the sculptures would stand as they did 2,500 years ago, and their original home - which Mr. Tschumi says "has had a greater influence on Western civilization than any other building" - would be visible behind them.

To some Athenians, the site deserved a truly classical building. Mr. Tschumi says an engineer working on the building's seismic protections wanted the museum to be symmetrical, like the Parthenon itself. "But how can you compete with a building that has reached a state of perfection?" Mr. Tschumi asked.

"We had a fight," the soft-spoken architect recalled, and eventually he had the engineer fired. "It became too unpleasant."

With floors made of the same marble as the Parthenon, and slender concrete columns recalling that building's massive Doric supports, Mr. Tschumi's design echoes Greece's heritage without stooping to imitation. Mr. Tschumi says of the museum's style: "The argument of the building is that you can address the past while being totally contemporary, totally unsentimental. The way to address a complex problem is with total clarity. There was a mathematical precision in the work of the ancient Greeks. I'm trying for an equivalent precision in this building."

A more significant challenge came from a faction of Greek archaeologists, who viewed the building not as cementing Greece's heritage - but as cementing over it. The museum's site contains ruins of a seventh-century A.D. village that, according to Ismini Trianti, the Acropolis's chief archaeologist, "could shed light on the dark ages of Athens's late antiquity."

Mr. Tschumi's design calls for a ground floor raised on stilts above the excavation, allowing work on the dig to continue. Much of the first level will be made of glass; museum visitors will be able to survey the excavation beneath them.

The idea of building while leaving the dig mostly undisturbed "should excite the archaeologists," he said. "There will be no remnants in the world displayed more beautifully." Mr. Tschumi said the group fighting the museum is "out of the mainstream of Greek archaeologists."

Nonetheless, last year, a group of scholars working with the Greek chapter of the International Council for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites convinced the Council of State, Greece's top administrative court, to stop work on the most sensitive part of the site, nicknamed the "red zone."

The building's prospective neighbors had their own concerns. The site is in the Makryianni district, full of drab 70's apartment buildings whose inhabitants didn't like the idea of a 200,000-square-foot building going up in their midst. They complained on the conservation and restoration council's Web site that "for the price of a ticket visitors will be able to peer into" their homes.

Mr. Tschumi, the debonair former dean of Columbia University's architecture school, is no stranger to politically charged architecture. His first built project was the Parc de la Villette in Paris, one of the "grand projets" of Francois Mitterrand. It took 15 years to complete, and required him to lobby five successive prime ministers. "What I learned is, you have to give time to time," he says. The maxim " sounds better in French," the Swiss-born Mr. Tschumi added. He vows to fly to Athens every six weeks for as many years as it takes to get the museum built.

Last March, Mr. Tschumi spent three days in Athens with concerned archaeologists, walking the building's intended site and, as he said, "negotiating the location of every column." Large concrete pipes were installed where the columns will be erected, and the site was filled with sand. When the museum is complete, the sand will be removed and, according to Mr. Tschumi, the dig will be just as the archaeologists left it.

As for those who don't like the design of the building, he says, "when I built Lerner Hall" - a student center at Columbia University, surrounded by beaux-arts structures - "I got the same letters and e-mails, many with sketches showing me how it should look." After Lerner Hall, he built a 7,000-seat concert hall in Rouen, France, and an architecture school in Miami, a series of boxes made (in deference to the school's tight budget) from unadorned concrete panels intended for parking garages. In 2002, Mr. Tschumi won a startling five major architectural competitions.

Meanwhile, with the Olympics approaching, the Greek government has grown increasingly heavy-handed in its efforts to move the project forward. Last December, it passed a law that doubled as the museum's building permit - an unprecedented move to override local authorities and pesky judges. (The Council of State is preparing to rule on the remaining legal claims.) Then last July, police units were ordered into the Makryianni district to empty flats that were condemned to make room for the new building. According to news reports, residents were barely given time to collect their personal belongings. One protest leader, Eleni Gika, was reportedly carried off in a head lock after refusing to leave her apartment.

Mr. Tschumi says the residents were "paid handsomely to move," and adds: "It's history. The Acropolis itself was built on the site of a smaller temple." Mr. Tschumi added: "Cities are built in layers. Otherwise, we'd be living in an Indian village in New York."

Still, Mr. Tschumi doesn't think of himself as siding with the establishment against protesters. The architect - who describes himself as "sympathetic to the left" - still has a scar from his arrest during the Paris protests of 1968.

But even from the left, there's more than one way to view the marbles conflict. In October, Mr. Tschumi met Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, at a symposium in Brighton, England. Over dinner, "he implied that to keep the marbles in London was the leftist position," Mr. Tschumi recalls with amazement. "He reminded me that Karl Marx wrote `Das Kapital' in the British Museum." Mr. MacGregor could not be reached for comment. But Hannah Boulton, a spokesperson for the British Museum, said that with more than 5 million visitors a year, and no admission charge, it is "a museum for the masses."

Despite an offer to send loads of other antiquities to Britain in exchange for the marbles, and, reportedly, to make the New Acropolis Museum a branch of the British Museum, its official policy is unyielding. Mr. MacGregor's latest public statement, posted on the Internet this month, insists, "Only here can the worldwide significance of the Parthenon sculptures be fully grasped." Ms. Boulton confirmed that the building of the Athens museum will not change the director's position.

But for the New Acropolis Museum to change anyone's position, it has to be built. Dimitris Pandermalis, a prominent archaeologist and president of the Organization for the Construction of the New Acropolis Museum, predicts that construction will gear up next month. Currently, a single crane is working on the uncontested portion of the site.

Evangelos Venizelos, Greece's minister of culture, says that if the new museum is finished but the marbles are not returned, that gallery will sit empty, "as a constant reminder of this unfulfilled debt to world heritage."

Hugh Pearman, the architecture critic of London's Sunday Times, reports that unofficially "there is a shift of mood. The old worries about correct museological conditions in Greece may start to fade."

As for Mr. Tschumi, he is optimistic that the building will serve its purpose."I truly believe that the day the museum is finished, the marbles will return," he said.