In September 2001, Bernard Tschumi won the international competition to design a museum to contain all surviving antiquities from the Acropolis, including those housed in the British Museum since 1817. Originally scheduled to open during the 2004 Olympic Games and focus attention on Greece’s campaign to get the marbles repatriated, the museum’s official inauguration was repeatedly stalled by political infighting and construction delays. The public opening date is now set for June 20. Tschumi talked to Julie V. Iovine about the anxieties and opportunities of designing a contemporary building hinged so intimately upon a complicated and powerful past and uncertain future.
You have disagreed in the past with those who said you have to be historicist to be historical. Do you still?
I have always believed there is no such thing as a tabula rasa. There’s always something you have to take into consideration. Sometimes it’s something on your part, sometimes it’s a major constraint.
In the case of a building like the New Acropolis Museum, the site and the context are so unbelievably present and powerful that you are inevitably caught within them. Either you try to act against them or you try to work with them. It has nothing to do with contextualism. I hate contextualism as much today as I did once upon a time. But it is absolutely about understanding the conditions of the site, the culture, and the constraints. It’s in a sense a love of constraints.
How did you approach the historical constraints in Athens?
Of the three major challenges, the first one, as you’ll notice, is that it’s 300 yards from the Parthenon, the most influential building in western civilization. How do you as an architect do a building that is actually just a tiny bit bigger than the Parthenon?
Second, the site is covered with archaeological ruins that you have to keep. The third challenge is that one of the main objectives of this particular building is to hold the Elgin (now called the Parthenon) Marbles, half of which are still in the British Museum. The building has to be good enough to convince the Brits, or rather the British Museum because the British people already agree, to return the marbles.
Due to these three factors, an architect cannot start with form, cannot start with theory. You have to start with those conditions and they lead to a concept. I use the expression, “conceptualizing context.” And that’s what we’ve done: One part of the building responds to the archaeological ruins; another deals with the collection of statues and relates to the street pattern around it. And the top of the building is in direct dialogue with the Parthenon itself.
These different interpretations of the site conditions may even contradict each other. For instance, the glass enclosure of the third layer is aligned parallel to the Parthenon itself. That means it is slightly rotated in relationship to the grid below, creating a tension with the other levels. This contemporary sensibility of slight disjunctions is not what people did in earlier periods, when they were trying to erase distinctions to make everything into one synthetic whole.
So you wanted to confront the past?
Not to be confrontational, but also not to erase its inconsistencies or paradoxes. On the contrary, I want to reveal in a subtle way that things are not as homogenous as they seem to be. Not necessarily celebrating conflict. I am not Daniel Libeskind, who invents conflicts when they aren’t real.
You seem in your approach here more influenced by the mathematical than the monumental achievements of the ancient Greeks.
I had to avoid the issue of form. You are in front of the Parthenon; you are not going to compete with Phidias. It’s just not possible. But if you want to make certain parallels with that culture, then rather, look to Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician. Actually, I never start with form. I start with a concept, a hypothesis, or a theorem.
The Greek papers attacked us for not trying hard enough to look like the style of the Parthenon. We wanted to be as abstract and minimal as possible, placing a great importance on the materials, or rather, the materializing of the concept. To that end, we used only thee major materials: glass, concrete, and marble.
The glass is crucial in order to ensure transparency and dialogue between the frieze fragments in the museum and the temple itself. When you are walking around the frieze in the exhibition, you are actually able to look at the Parthenon at the same time.
The second material, concrete, was not only structural, but it is the background of all the sculptures. There is not a single partition in the building, no Sheetrock walls. The columns and the large core walls provide the background for the sculptures. And we worked very hard with the contractors to get exactly a concrete with a soft, almost velvety feel to absorb the light while the hardness of the marble pieces would reflect it.
Floors are beige marble in the exhibition areas, where the statues are a little darker. All other circulation, or anyplace that doesn’t have galleries, is in black marble.
This was hardly a project just about a new museum on a historic site. How involved were you in the controversy?
The enormous desire to have the return of the Parthenon Marbles precedes me by at least 100 years. And it was very alive in the 1960s, too, when the actress Melina Mercouri got involved. I would have always been in favor of their return. The museum itself is a political act, since the British Museum said you can’t have them back because you have no safe place for them. But the condition of their being in fragments all over the place is also absurd. There are pieces at the British Museum, at the Met, at the Louvre, and at the Glyptothek in Munich. I have a series of images showing one piece with its torso in London, a shoulder at the Louvre, another piece is someplace else, and for some reason, the penis is in Athens with the rest reconstituted in plaster all around it.
People couldn’t travel as much in the 19th century, but now they can go and see the real stuff. For me, the idea of bringing the pieces back together also had to do with my fascination with literature. The frieze is a narrative story, where the movement of your own body is a means of reading it as an experience in one place. In this sense, the building has a lot of reasons—both on an artistic level as well as on a political level—to exist.
But aren’t you now erasing a part of the story yourself, about the years they were elsewhere?
When you see the pieces together, it’s a very strange thing. They’ve aged differently, depending on where they have been. There was no attempt to clean them in the same way, fortunately, so you see that, indeed, they are 2,500 years old and some have suffered in the passage of time and some are practically intact. The ones from the west side are in fantastic condition; those on the east side are not so good. The ones from the British Museum are in pretty good condition, too. The pieces themselves tell the story.
You are dealing here with a history that is thousands of years old. Would you approach the remains and relics of a more recently bombed-out museum differently?
I am very cautious in terms of projecting or imposing one’s own subjectivity onto a site or onto a material. This is very problematic. You have to take a distance. You have to let the viewers, the visitors, judge for themselves. The architecture has to allow for emotions but should not dictate emotion. Let people bring their own range of emotions to the project.
Would you preserve bullet holes?
I would not try to hide prior histories at all. Here’s a strange, touching example: We wanted to reconstitute the continuity of the frieze but it is a continuous rectangle, so how do you penetrate when the frieze is only a little higher than you? As it happens, we can enter at the place in the frieze where it was entirely pulverized by Turkish powder in the explosion of 1687. It’s strange how you can conceptually take advantage of certain events in history.
There are also both replicas and originals in the frieze. Originally I wanted no reproductions at all, just bad black-and-white Xeroxes of them. But out of respect for the people coming to see them, we decided to play it straight. But it is obvious by the colorations which are real marble and which are white plaster.