Acropolis Museum, Athens
Bernard Tschumi (Bernard Tschumi Architects)


Bernard Tschumi

©Bernard Tschumi Architects

Everybody knows the Parthenon and the Acropolis. There is probably no more influential building in the whole history of western civilization. The Parthenon itself was not only the building, but a number of extraordinary sculptures attached, or part embedded in the stone of the temple itself. Over the years, over the centuries - we are talking about a building which was completed over twenty five hundred years ago - these fragments have started to be taken away from the building, either through accidents of history - earthquakes, wars - or simply looting by, or sometimes simply in order to protect those marvels, and they went to other museums. We'll come back to that part of the story in a minute. Namely, as the pieces of the Parthenon, and the pieces of Greek sculpture were disseminated. Eventually the Greek cultural establishment felt that it was important to bring things together in one single Museum, and about thirty years ago, a first competition was held, and another one and another one, to try to find a way to give the history, or the story, of that extraordinary period that was 500 BC, 450 BC, where art and architecture reached an extraordinary level of perfection. Meanwhile, there were other polemics, which of course had to do with the fact that one of the most extraordinary fragments of the Parthenon had found its way to the British Museum. Lord Elgin in the nineteenth century bought from - I won't go into the political detail and how they end up, ended up in London - but suffice to say that half of that extraordinary frieze that was around the Parthenon is in Athens, the other half is in London, and imagine to have to read a book by having one part of the book in one location and another in another location; the story is always incomplete. So when, in around 2000, the decision was made to organise one more competition, it is quite important because it has a number of issues attached to the fact of building a new museum at the foot of the Acropolis.


Acropolis Museum. Aerial View

©Bernard Tschumi Architects

The issues were as follows: the first one - I've mentioned it already - how do you build a building three hundred yards from the most influential piece of architecture ever built? The second issue was the fact that the site was so close to the Acropolis meant that you had extraordinary archaeological ruins on the site itself, and our competition site had seventy percent of it you were not allowed to build on it or you had to find a way to protect those extraordinary archaeological finds. That was the second challenge. And the third one, you can guess, is to do a museum sufficiently impressive that, eventually, the British Museum would be pleased to return the marble to Greece so we could locate them in the museum. So that's how it all started and we were one of the fifteen teams invited to compete. The amount of constraints was quite extraordinary. In other words, it was not only the excavations in this location; it was the street pattern around it, the site is very tight, there is a subway station - we couldn't build there - there are earthquakes - it's Greece, it's a seismic zone - the heat is a major factor when you build the building. Consciousness about the environment was also part of the criteria. They were the ones that we had to deal with, you know, to arrive to a solution. Important for me was to establish a visual connection between the Parthenon and our building. To establish a visual connection which would mean that when you would be in the museum you would see the Parthenon and when you'd be in the Parthenon depending on the light condition you might even see through what is within the new museum. Not only that, Greece is known for it's an extraordinary light and those sculptures were designed, were sculpted, in order to play with the natural light. So we wanted to have as much light as possible in the museum, so what material do you use; of course you use glass. But using glass, again in a seismic zone when it's very hot is not the simplest thing. So we started to look at the museum in relation to the site itself, and we said, and that was new to me I'm known for having done a number of buildings that were trying to challenge the site; La Villette with the red follies is a way to play contrasts and oppositions and tensions and conflicts. You wouldn't play conflicts and contrasts next to the Acropolis, would you? And so the way we approached...

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