The binary legacy of the Acropolis Museum

Built to safeguard central Athens’ ancient treasures, the institution fundamentally influenced the area’s future

The binary legacy of the Acropolis Museum

June 20, 2009 seems like a good starting point to be searching for the “ground zero” of the tourism boom in the central Athens neighborhood of Koukaki. But is it the only one? The inauguration of the (new) Acropolis Museum 15 years ago disrupted the pendulum of the capital’s attractions, which until then swung somewhat monotonously and predictably between the always popular monuments of the Sacred Rock and the struggling – in terms of visitor numbers – National Archaeological Museum quite some distance away.

Suddenly, the main pole of tourist interest, also aided by the so-called unification of archaeological sites, which provided residents and visitors with an unprecedentedly extensive and beautiful walkway below the Acropolis, took off. The new, monothematic museum, designed by the internationally renowned French-Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, attracted about 10,000 visitors daily from the moment it opened its gates. In the first 11 months of its operation alone, the number of tickets sold at this new Athens destination matched those sold in 2023, the greatest year so far in the history of Greek tourism. This wasn’t just a museum; it was a tourism whirlwind.

Real estate boom

The rest is more or less well-known: The residential hinterland behind the museum, the neighborhoods of Makrygianni and Koukaki, gradually evolved into the informal mecca of the fledgling Greek short-term rental industry. Available rental properties became desperately scarce, causing prices to skyrocket to unprecedented levels. In 2016, an Airbnb survey rated Koukaki #5 among the world’s top 16 trending neighborhoods, with an 800% increase in bookings and “excellent” visitor reviews. In the midst of Greece’s debt crisis, Koukaki’s success story became a confidence boost and a windfall for the battered morale and finances of Athens’ middle class. Alongside this, a whole market developed catering exclusively to this new tribe of tourists, who at least initially were mostly young, alternative (whatever that means), and theoretically lovers of authenticity: restaurants, bars, cafes, hostels, self-service laundromats, souvlaki joints, underground tavernas (known in Greek as “koutoukia”), minimarkets, bicycle rental shops, and of course all kinds of tourist traps replaced neighborhood shops that were either struggling or had gone out of business during the crisis. A new, multiethnic, lively, and demographically fluid neighborhood emerged next to the remnants of the old one.

‘I think Tschumi, with his Athenian project, went a bit against his own theory, which in itself is very interesting. Let’s say it was more monumental than one would have expected’

However, was the new museum the catalyst for such a sharp turn? I ask Panos Dragonas, an architect and professor of architecture and urban design at the University of Patras. “I think the fundamental decisions behind the creation of the museum have been absolutely vindicated by developments. The museum largely accelerated these [developments], but generally speaking, Makrygianni and Koukaki would look the same today even with a smaller and more modest museum. The museum successfully accommodated the huge tourist growth of Athens, facilitated it, and perhaps locally intensified it – but it did not cause it. I believe the synergy with the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) and consequently with the Onassis Stegi was more decisive, providing greater depth to the area’s development toward the south. If Makrygianni hadn’t been chosen instead of Koili (on Philopappou Hill), the city’s dynamics today might be slightly different toward Petralona. But I don’t think this scenario was ever seriously considered by archaeologists.” Speaking with architects like Dragonas, one understands that the old (and seemingly now forgotten) questions about the museum’s location and magnitude still retain their intensity in some people’s minds.

“The completion of the Acropolis Museum foreshadowed the current tourist development of Athens. The main principles on which Tschumi’s design was based – the large scale, the dialectical relationship with the Rock and the Parthenon, the clarity of the architectural promenade, and the museum narrative – were vindicated by the city’s evolution, the crowds of tourists that arrive daily, and the way the monuments of the Acropolis are perceived today. It is worth remembering that in the past, through a series of architectural competitions, a discussion was opened about the relationship of modern Athens with what is one of the most important monuments of Western civilization. [Architect and professor] Christos Papoulias, who recently passed away, had published an emotional proposal for an ‘Erichthonian’ (underground) museum on the Rock of the Acropolis, pointing at the necessity of keeping the ancient monuments on the very ground of the Acropolis where they were created and to which they refer. But what is more important? The understanding and interpretation of the multifaceted symbolic value of a monument, which remains nebulous for the vast majority of its visitors? Or the creation of a flawlessly executed, functional, and easily understandable infrastructure? The 15 years of successful operation of the museum may still not be enough to give a definitive answer to the above question.”

Metro and promenade

When discussing the Acropolis Museum, sooner or later the popular saying about the chicken and the egg will emerge: Was it the tourist aura of the area – on the fringes of Plaka and in visual contact with the Sacred Rock – that bestowed the new cultural infrastructure with the halo of the capital’s museum “champion,” or, conversely, was it the museum that drew the tourist crowds down to Dionysiou Areopagitou Street? The truth is that before the Acropolis Museum opened, three equally significant events had taken place that are often underestimated in their importance and seem to have served as “tinder” for what has unfolded since 2009: first, the operation of the Athens metro system in 2000, with two stations in the broader neighborhood (the Acropolis and Syngrou-Fix stations); second, the completion of the archaeological site unification works; and third, the pedestrianization of Makrygianni Street. The metro simplified access, the unification gave birth to the “Grand Promenade,” one of the most evocative urban routes on the planet, while the pedestrianization of Makrygianni created a new front of tourist dining and beverage establishments with a view of the Acropolis.

The pedestrianization of Makrygianni Street was also instrumental in the transformation of the neighborhood around the Acropolis Museum. [Nikos Kokkalias]

There is a fourth factor, argues architect and local resident Dimitris Theodoropoulos: the debt crisis. “The recession of the 2010s, which temporarily lowered housing and commercial property prices, created conditions for a significant cycle of redistribution of activities and the anthropological profile of residents and visitors. A significant number of people were so financially strained that they put their homes up for short-term rental to earn an income. Airbnb was the pinnacle of this wave, but it was not the only one. Koukaki simultaneously became a destination for creative people, similar to Exarchia, because it had architectural and urban qualities that matched their requirements.” Theodoropoulos elaborates: “Look, for example, at the two main parallel axes of Veikou and Dimitrakopoulou streets with their tree lines and covered walkways, which offer a different quality of walking compared to neighboring Neos Kosmos, let’s say; and I mention Neos Kosmos due to the increased interest [in the area] from members of the city’s broader creative community. Also, Koukaki always had a fairly tourist-oriented section, mainly in its northwestern part, toward Rovertou Galli Street and Dionysos [restaurant], with the hotels, tavernas near the [Philopappou] ringroad, and all those workshops and shops selling weavings and souvenirs to customers in large groups.” What is his opinion of the Acropolis Museum? “I think Tschumi, with his Athenian project, went a bit against his own theory, which in itself is very interesting. Let’s say it was more monumental than one would have expected. At the same time, the broader area acquired a point of reference, a reason to be proud – ‘I live next to the Acropolis Museum’ – something that I do not underestimate either as an architect or as a resident.” For Stathis Kalyvas, professor of political science at Oxford, the impact of cultural infrastructures on their wider area is certain but uneven. “A classic example of a major transformation is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which helped transform the city from a declining industrial center into a cultural hub of international significance. Similarly in Athens, although on a very different scale, the Acropolis Museum transformed Koukaki. This impact takes many forms, such as the development of tourist activities and the increase in property prices.” Kalyvas, a careful observer of the transformations in the Athenian center, identifies a contradiction that needs to be examined. “Cultural infrastructures sooner or later contribute to the improvement of their urban surroundings, but at the same time, they also lead to their touristification and gentrification.” Owning a residence in another hot spot of tourist Athens, he knows very well what he is talking about.

‘Why I left’

The above interpretation is confirmed by the experience of interior architect Ioli Papastamatiou (it is not her real name, as the person spoke to Kathimerini on condition of anonymity), who witnessed the transformation of Koukaki up close in the years before and after the inauguration of the Acropolis Museum. “Thanks to an excellent landlady, I had the opportunity to rent an apartment on Makrygianni Street, before it was pedestrianized, with a view of the Acropolis and the then construction site of the new museum. Before Makrygianni was pedestrianized, things were very quiet; although there was the prospect of the museum being built, the few shops had a more neighborhood character rather than a tourist one. From the moment the works were completed and the museum opened, and real estate agents and prospective shopkeepers realized the numbers of tourists who would visit it, things began to change. However, for a while, I remember nostalgically, the pedestrianization worked; no cars passed, there was still peace, the museum exuded grandeur and mystery at the same time. Over the years, though, Makrygianni’s pedestrian street dramatically deteriorated, treated as a tool for maximizing the profits of shops without any commitment on their part. Would tourists spend less money if the pedestrian street had not been so aesthetically degraded with such brutality?” she wonders. In any case, she packed up and left. “It wasn’t the high rents that drove me away, partly because I was fortunate enough to have a landlady who cared more about who her tenant was than her wallet. What definitely drove me away was the dirt and aesthetic barbarity brought about by all these so-called ‘traditional’ tavernas that pretend to tourists to be ‘historic’ but in reality have as much history behind them as an ice cream shop in Ano Kalamaki.”

The inauguration of the (new) Acropolis Museum 15 years ago disrupted the pendulum of the capital’s attractions. [Nikos Kokkalias]


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