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?
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?
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?
You seem in your approach here more influenced by the mathematical than the monumental achievements of the ancient Greeks.
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?
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?
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?
Would you preserve bullet holes?
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.