Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Acropolis Museum, brand new and already a classic landmark

Michael Galanakis impressions from the new Acropolis Museum

It was a sunny afternoon of November 2009 that I visited the Acropolis Museum in Athens. The prestigious albeit modest built environment around the museum was bustling with construction work as it seems that the museum creates conditions fertile for more gentrification.

The pedestrianisation of the area around Acropolis has very much revived this part of the centre and the museum couldn’t find itself at a better place. Although all the surrounding buildings, mostly residential, are by no means architectural jewels, they however embrace the museum with a down to earth everydayness. Due to the inclination of the plot the museum – a block on block twisted configuration - sinks down from the main pedestrian street and it is as if it presents itself humbly to its neighbouring buildings and to the Acropolis on the top of the opposite hill. The first thing that I noticed approaching the museum entrance was the people staring at the ancient ruins discovered at the site of the museum while construction work was underway. We were all looking at what seemed to be walls of houses, rooms and yards, through the thick glass flooring strategically placed on the pavement of the outdoor area. Then there was the large hole with the glass railing around it for us to get a good glimpse of a larger part of the excavated ruins unearthed but still under the museum.
The crowds’ demographics were mixed but surely younger than your usual archaeological museum visitors, as schools around Greece get subsidise for their students to visit the new museum. After entering and going through the security control the foyer didn’t really prepare me for the beauty of the museum until I entered the gallery of the slopes with the inclined glass floor and the big staircase. Much of this area is an atrium with an impressive height where one can see the visitors standing on the glass flooring many metres above on the second level.
The central vertical unit of the museum (box in a box) carries the vertical circulation, distributes flows of movement and provides the toilets (it was strange that a toilet for wheelchair users couldn’t be locked from the inside something the personnel couldn’t explain), and surrounds the big atrium.
The main exhibition areas of the museum are organized so that the higher one goes the closer to the exhibits of Parthenon she gets.
The archaic gallery of the first floor is specious and luminous. The main attraction of the second floor is the multimedia room with a well-made (although a bit traditional) video on Acropolis. The third and top floor is for the Parthenon gallery. In the peripheral areas of the first floor one can study from close by many of the impressive sculptures of Acropolis. In these areas the statues are bathed in the great light of Attica. The generous height and the full-height glazing that surrounds the exhibition halls make sure that the modern city, along with its ancient ruins, is in direct dialogue with the exhibits and the interior of the museum. I found the top floor to be the most favourable exhibition area. The external glass panels are there but for some reason the museum authorities had decided to use the blinds, and the light as well as the temperature were very agreeable. This is the floor where the pediments of Parthenon are exhibited. What a strange feeling it was to see once more how fragmented the compositions are and how much there seem to be missing. For a while I thought I was at a minimalist gallery where the luck of clutter was remarkable. The pediments, I am afraid didn’t take my breath away (maybe due to their fragmentation and disembodiment I felt even a bit sad), but they certainly were imposing in the monochromatic neutrality of the interior (which is noticeable everywhere but here even more). What did take my breath away was the view to the Acropolis and Parthenon itself. All around the top floor and adjacent to the glass external panels there is built a continuous marble covered tier that also includes some air-conditioning (give away: the grids on top of the tier). The tiers are built so that one properly sitting on them faces towards the interior of the museum (although views to the city are hard to miss). Without thinking too much I sat cross-legged on the tier by the glass panel facing Acropolis and with my back to the interior of the museum.
I am not going to write much about the museum shop or the café/restaurant. Suffice to say that the museum shop is just another shop selling not terribly original merchandise. The café/restaurant is appropriate to the museum aesthetic although a bit too bare. The terrace on the other hand that “hangs” on the side facing Acropolis is rightfully a popular spot. People were waiting in queues to get a table and enjoy their cappuccino overlooking Acropolis, and in precious shade.
The entrance to the museum was a symbolic 1€. That was probably the best spent 1€, in Athens!

In conclusion the museum of Acropolis is sober, and elegant although rather monolithic (surely the plot of land dictated that). The finishings correspond to what modernists would call “honest use of materials,” and the intermingling of interior and exterior is true to a very modernist virtue; transparency. The grey palette of finished concrete is dominant, as the pre-fabricated concrete elements are refined and visible. With the museum of Acropolis architects Tschumi and Photiadis give a lesson of neo-modernism; some Greeks will see it as foreign to their aesthetic values, while others will be happy to endorse it as one more example of good official architecture in Greece. Something is definitely cooking in Athens!

Michail Galanakis, D.Arts. Helsinki

Acropolis Museum

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