It was seen as a stark, grey building surrounded by much controversy, from tearing down heritage houses in the immediate vicinity and moving age-old sculptures from the old Acropolis museum to overlooking the archeological ruins discovered in the new foundations. Yet the museum managed to become a profound piece of work, designed by one of today’s most famous adherents of deconstructivism. “No sane architect would want to invite comparisons between his building and the Parthenon,” wrote Nicolai Ouroussoff in the New York Times. “So it comes as little surprise that the New Acropolis Museum, which stands at the foot of one of the great achievements of human history, is a quiet work, especially by the standards of its flamboyant Swiss-born architect, Bernard Tschumi.” Ouroussoff called the building “an enlightening meditation on the Parthenon and a mesmerizing work in its own right.”
On the outside and from a distance, the New Acropolis Museum does look somewhat austere in its surroundings – almost like a well-designed industrial building from the Soviet era – albeit one of the more avant-garde ones. It is more modernist than post-modernist, whose powerful presence can only be appreciated up close – and infinitely more from the inside out.
In a sense, this is exactly what is needed at the foot of an Acropolis crowned by its imposing Parthenon, something that does not compare itself or try to eclipse the artistic and architectural achievements it represents. The museum was architecturally conceived as a play on light, movement and tectonics according to Tschumi, who wanted to “turn the constraints of the site into an architectural opportunity, offering a simple and precise museum”. The new museum, nonetheless, still manages to incorporate the conceptual and mathematical clarity of ancient Greek architecture somehow.
The archaeological treasures and sculptures in the museum – in a way representing one of the most advanced cultures to influence western civilization – are distributed over 20,000 square meters on three levels. The space is needed so that all the surviving antiquities from the Acropolis can be appreciated from a distance, unlike in the cramped old museum where the presence of visitors and tourists in summer undermined the whole experience drastically.
The use of glass is outstanding in how it communicates with the past, such as in the transparent floors that reveal important excavations unearthed during the construction of the museum, as well as the glass façade which faces the Acropolis itself and juxtaposes the museum’s contents against the venerable hill. Important finds from the Archaic to the Roman era grace the ground floor. Swimming in the midst of all this on the Museum’s mezzanine is a modern coffee shop and restaurant that faces the acropolis through the giant glass façade, almost as if looking at Athens’ past – a mere 250 meters away – from a just-landed giant space ship.
The most controversial part of the museum is the Parthenon Gallery, tilted 23 degrees to orient it towards the Acropolis, on the third floor of the building. This is where the Parthenon Marbles should lie, a series of 17 marble sculptures and a 160-meter-long frieze featuring the gods and heroes of classical Athens. In one of the art world’s most blatant travesties, many of these were taken by Scottish diplomat Lord Elgin some two centuries ago during Ottoman rule and ended up in the British Museum. London today claims that Athens never had the right infrastructure to house such extraordinary artefacts, a statement that has been rendered null and void with the establishment of the new museum. The battle for the Parthenon marbles is still raging on, and Athens is hoping to replace its symbolic copies displayed behind a transparent veil once its bid to return them is successful.
Overall, the New Acropolis Museum offers the visitor a spatial, three-dimensional promenade that unveils its collection in chronological order, from pre-historic times to the Roman era, reaching its ‘high point’ with the Parthenon marbles and sculptures. It embodies the best of Greek art in the last three millennia including the provocative design of Tschumi’s museum itself. No visit to Athens should be undertaken without a trip to this profound experience that embodies the very best of humanity.
Tip: Watch the short video in English or French on the third floor for some great insight into the Parthenon.
Underground ruins in the Acropolis museum courtyard
Beneath the Acropolis museum are the ruins of an ancient Athenian neighborhood, which can be seen through special openings in the courtyard outside the museum and some glass flooring within the modern museum itself. Clearly visible are the remains of streets and houses, bathhouses and workshops. In what was initially considered a controversial move, the museum was constructed on the archaeology in such a way that enables visitors to look onto these ancient foundations. Although much of what you can see today dates to the late antiquity and early Byzantine periods (7th – 9th century AD), there are still traces of Athens from the fifth century AD.
More specifically, at the entrance to the museum you’ll see the remains of a tower and a large circular structure from the 7th century AD, while on the inside and below the glass floors there are walls from the 5th century AD. In effect, while the museum highlights the classical Greek period, between the museum and the archeological ruins below it, visitors get a glimpse of what life was like around the Acropolis over many centuries.