A triple challenge:

  • How to provide a museum for an exceptional collection containing significant sculptures of classical Greece and one masterpiece, the Parthenon frieze?
  • How to design a museum on a complex site hovering over excavations while aiming at maximum transparency through expanses of glass, all in the hot climate of an earthquake region?
  • How to make an architectural statement for a major museum located at the foot of the Parthenon, arguably one of the most influential buildings of all time?

The site of the New Acropolis Museum is immediately below the Acropolis, three hundred meters from the Parthenon. It is filled with ongoing archaeological excavations and contains valuable ruins. The ruins must remain untouched but also be part of the museum visit. The task is daunting, since Athens is a place of regular earthquakes and new construction is subject to strict structural constraints.

Moreover, the artifacts to be exhibited in the new museum are priceless and irreplaceable yet will be visited by tens of thousands of viewers every day. The plan of the museum must allow a chronological sequence that culminates in the famous frieze of the Parthenon Marbles. While direct visual contact with the original site of the Parthenon above should be established, glazing in a hot climate raises technical challenges. Lastly, nearly half of the frieze is currently at the British Museum in London, and its restitution is the object of major political struggles. At the outset, it was decided to "play down" the architectural approach and to address the evident dramatic complexities of the collection and the site with minimalist simplicity. The aim was maximum sobriety.

If architecture can be described as the materialization of concepts, the building is about the clarity of an exhibition route expressed through three materials-marble, concrete, and glass. Within the unusual constraints of the site, the project ought to appear effortless and almost undesigned: a base of pilotis above the ruins, a middle section containing the main galleries, and a glass top at the summit containing the Parthenon frieze. The goal of this orchestrated simplicity is to focus the viewers' emotions and intellect on extraordinary works of art.

The project

Three concepts turn the unusual constraints and circumstances of the museum into an architectural opportunity, offering a simple and precise artistic context with the mathematical and conceptual clarity of ancient Greece.

Blue Sky: A Concept of light

More than in any other type of museum, the conditions animating the New Acropolis
Museum revolve around natural light. Much as the daylight in Athens differs from light in London, Berlin, or Bilbao, so light for the exhibition of sculpture differs from the light involved in displaying paintings or drawings. The museum not only begins from a specific collection but must also be preeminently a museum of ambient natural light, concerned with the presentation of sculptural objects within it.

People in Motion:
A Concept of Circulation

The visitor's route through the museum forms a clear three-dimensional loop, affording an architectural promenade with a rich spatial experience that extends from the archeological excavations to the Parthenon Marbles and back through the Roman period.

This movement sequence
is akin to a narrative that develops

chronologically from the early slope findings through artifacts from the Archaic period to the Parthenon Marbles, ending with sculptures from the Roman Empire. The spatial narrative combines linear movement through space with artistic and historical storytelling.

Movement in and through time, always a crucial dimension of architecture, is an important aspect of this museum
in particular. With more than 10,000 visitors daily, the sequence of movement through the museum artifacts is designed to be of the utmost clarity.

A Base, A Middle, and A Top:
(A programmatic concept turned into architecture)

The base of the museum design hovers over the existing archaeological excavations on pilotis. This level contains the entrance lobby as well as temporary exhibition spaces. retail space, and all supporting facilities. The

middle is a large, double-height, trapezoidal plate that accommodates all galleries from the Archaic period to the Roman Empire. A mezzanine level includes a bar and restaurant with views toward the Acropolis and a multimedia auditorium. The top is made up of the rectangular Parthenon Gallery arranged around an indoor court. The glass enclosure of the gallery provides ideal light for sculpture in direct view to and from the historical reference point of the Acropolis. The Parthenon Marbles will be displayed in the gallery so as to be visible from the Acropolis above. The design of the enclosure is conceived to protect both the sculptures and visitors against excessive heat and light, thanks to the most contemporary glass technology. The orientation of the Marbles will be exactly as it was at the Parthenon centuries ago, and their setting will provide an unprecedented context for understanding the accomplishments of the Parthenon complex itself

Bernard Tschumi

(Posting date 3 January 2007)

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