A rose grows among the weeds which line Pireos, in an old industrial zone’s changing heartland

Pireos Street was gloomy on the cloudy day we visited the Benaki Museum’s new building, The sound of vehicles clashed with the silences of the post-industrial city, a gray place close by the tender greenness of the Kerameikos. Just after Gazi, on the way to Rouf in the heart of Athens, which is striving to make a leap forward, the pink building stands out like an enclosed rose. It is an ark, with its ears closed to the sound of car horns and brakes, with its eyes half open (looking through Venetian blinds and cracks) toward the city that vibrates; a universe that is not at all self-evident but planted in an arena of urban experimentation. Designed by Andreas Kourkoulas and Maria Kokkinou, the building is one of the three poles of the Outlook exhibition, an acquisition for Athens, an architectural point of reference, a temptation, a challenge and a stimulus. And it has an aura of emotion about it. Playful and allusive It is what new architecture should be – a playful building, allusive, fleeting but steady, fluid but solid – this new space where the Benaki Museum’s fresh cultural policy of opening up to society will go into practice. One wouldn’t say that the new Benaki Museum building on Pireos, which is currently being constructed (scheduled for completion in spring 2004), is easy to read, nor simple in terms of concept and symbolism. It seems to resonate with profound urban symbols that it employs judiciously. And it is perhaps this solid interpretation of the contemporary Athenian adventure that the new building has to offer, the element that places it, even before completion, in the forefront of the new Athens. For the passer-by or driver on Pireos, the color of the building is what first captures the eye. Rosy – brownish-red according to the architects – the monolithic, monochrome building is a surprise amid the pale vista of Pireos. A series of contrasts unfolds: red against the asphalt, solidity amid chaotic traffic, a hermetic shell in the disorder of public life, urban origins in a post-industrial zone, the 21st century in the unraveling of the 20th. Kourkoulas and Kokkinou, architects with a metropolitan sensibility and proven daring, have endowed their work with theoretical and practical dimensions. «From the outset,» they say, «our concern was the way in which one builds on a former industrial street that is being taken over again by the city for other purposes. «For a start, the building had to be set into the memory of the city and it also had to project a perspective. It is a game of memory and imagination.» The designers have created notional itineraries that are walled, enclosed, harmonized into passages, atria and partitions. This building, with its introverted facade and open interior, plays in exhilarating fashion with interior and exterior, closed and open, but above all with the challenge of a new social platform without exclusions. What the architects call an ark, referring to the facade, is in essence a building with cracks and outlets which functions allusively, enhancing natural curiosity and the desire to question. The Benaki Museum is implementing a new understanding of the contemporary function of museums. The architects themselves put it very well: «Now, more than ever before, museums go in for a natural coexistence between exhibits and visitors. As visitors move ritually about the museum, they feel part of society. They feel exposed to the gaze of other visitors, like members of a community – all on the receiving end of more or less the same thing. The movement of the people inside the museum, as they walk up a ramp, for example, is like a procession. The visitors can become as important as the exhibits.» Immaterial and material This interweaving of bodies, meanings, works of art and ideas in a notional confluence of the immaterial and the material is expressed architecturally in buildings which show – when not announcing boldly – the new principle of simultaneous complexity and transparency. The building, say the architects, is hermetically closed to the outside, like the human skin, only to reveal itself internally with all the warmth and the internal passages of the innards of an organism. If you feel like a stroll and can ignore the problematic sidewalks of Pireos, you can walk from Omonia or Gazi to the museum at 138 Pireos. For those who know the Aphrodite summer cinema, the museum is practically on top of it. Another pleasant walk is from the Thiseion electric railway station along pedestrianized Ermou which ends at Pireos. It is probably essential to acquaint oneself with the new building by going through the guts of Athens, through the transformations of Thiseion and the Kerameikos and the embarrassment of Omonia. Then one can appreciate even more the force of the new building.