Monday, September 28, 2009

The Acropolis Museum: Tschumi's Masterpiece

The ancient Greeks, revered for their phenomenal and lasting contributions to architecture, philosophy, foundational science, and the body politic, have every reason to smile down proudly on their descendants in 2009. This year marks the opening of the Acropolis Museum in Athens, a structure which effectively merges every aspect of the ancient Greek contribution to the world order, and elevates it into once again to the realm of the ethereal. Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi has really outdone himself, bestowing on the world an architectural statement that provides an unimagined joinder of ancient architecture and archeology with the all that is wonderful about new technology, building material and construction processes, landscape architecture, and palpable espirit.

The museum has been under planning and construction for well over a decade, and fell years behind schedule, having at one time been heralded to open for the Olympics in 2004. It was looked upon by most Greeks as a space that would house the many treasures literally spilling forth from the existing, small museum situated on high adjacent to the Parthenon of the Acropolis. What few expected was that when finished, the new museum would not only perfectly complement one of the most recognized architectural works on Earth, but would approach it in grandeur and popularity. More than 4,000 works are displayed at the museum, making this collection the largest of ancient Greek antiquities on Earth.

The brilliance of Tschumi’s design is his choice of geographic juxtaposition of the museum to the site it honors. Seated at the base of the Acropolis, only 1,000 feet from the Parthenon, the museum’s entrance opens toward the Parthenon giving visitors a chance to pay homage as they pass through the doors. From the outside, the museum’s mass of grey concrete does not overwhelm the site, as some critics feared it would. The museum is indeed an enormous structure, modern in design and material, highly visible, but seemingly so at home in its venue as to make Athenians press themselves to remember what structures occupied the space before. It is integrated, so much that even despite its monumental size, no part obtrudes. The museum sits near the border of Plaka in Makryianni, the oldest area of Athens, and marks a rare departure from rigid zoning regulations that prohibit construction not in keeping with the period. Predictably, when digging for the foundation began, ancient ruins were discovered throughout the site. What might have threatened the project before it even got started proved a worthy challenge for Tschumi and one that he resolved with a feat of creative genius: he used a glass ramp and a number of glass panels for the entry space and floor that enable visitors to peer beneath the edifice to witness the marvel of ruins just as appeared when first uncovered. The glass floor theme continues all the way to the uppermost level, and creates a drama that is mimicked outside the building where holograms of Greek statues create a frieze as beautiful as it is memorable.

Inside the museum, the richest display of ancient Greek statuary and other antiquities await. The lines within the building are dramatic and bold, yet the space througout is highly accessible.

During his tenure as Dean of the School of Architecture at Columbia University, Tschumi, whose office is in New York, was hailed for his ability to connect people. In this work, he has surpassed himself, satisfying a critical and often overlooked function of architecture: to create a conversation between the new and the old. There is a tremendous and meaningful communication between the Acropolis Museum and the great architectural patrimoine of Athens --and a visit to one compels a visit to the other. As with the truly great works of architecture, the Athens landmark becomes much less about a specific venue, and much more about an experience. It has served to open Greek history to the world, and from the hundreds of thousands of visitors who have already made the pilgrimage to the museum, this is a history people clearly want to discover.