New architectural idiom for new museums

There are plans in the works to create 75 new archaeological museums in Greece in the next few years, adding to the 165 existing museums and other collections. By the end of this year, eight new museum spaces will open, including major ones in Thessaloniki, Piraeus and Patras. Nearly three quarters of their construction costs are to come from the Cultural Operation Program, along with money from European Regional Programs and national sources. Not all the museums are new. Some, such as the National Archaeological Museum, have been radically renovated, while others have been expanded. Some are within archaeological sites, in areas such as Messara, Crete and Pella. Others are in towns, such as Didymoteicho, Hania, Icaria and Aegina. Funds have not been secured for all of them. According to Vassilis Handakas, general director of the Culture Ministry’s Department of Restoration, Museums and Technical Projects, there are two categories of new museums. The first are those included in the Third Community Support Framework (CSFIII), which has ensured funds for construction. The second covers those projects to be included in the next EU package, which has been delayed. «We are setting up a bank of designs,» Handakas said, «so that when funds are secured in future, we will be ready.» Before the museums are constructed, two major tasks must be completed. Outdated infrastructure must be replaced, and a new museum ethos reflecting the needs of today’s visitors must be cultivated. Meanwhile, construction fever has resulted in a failure to hold architectural tenders for public works. The problem is not only one of quantity. The modernization program could be compared to similar ones in the past, including the construction of new school buildings in the 1930s (an initiative identified with the height of the Modernist movement in Greece) or hotels in the 1950s and 1960s (such as the Xenia Hotel chain). Today, there are no such distinct architectural styles that could influence the new museums. The new museums’ designs, including the one of the new Acropolis Museum, are far removed from the ideals of the 1950s and 1960s, when most of Greece’s archaeological museums were built. Who would have expected the Culture Ministry to award first prize in the competition for the new archaeological museum in Patras to Theofanis Bobotis? His design is interesting architecturally, but it also reconfigures our view of what an archaeological museum means in 2005 Greece. It also reminds us that it has been nearly 40 years since Aris Constantinidis created his imposing design for the Archaeological Museum of Ioannina. «An outer shell must keep to certain rules, to meet specific needs and be designed in such a way as to host exhibitions even 20 years later,» said Bobotis, though he admitted there is no way to predict how exhibitions will be staged in two or three decades. «It is highly likely that in the mid-term there will be a completely different viewpoint,» he said. «That determines the architectural approach: The interior has to be as pure and simple as possible so that in the future your design will not be an obstacle to new applications and ideas. You will not find the slightest decorative element in either of the museums we designed, in Patras or in Hania. The fewer decorative elements there are in museum spaces, the fewer the restrictions for future applications.» Bobotis admits that there is a design approach to Greek museums which he does not understand. He believes the design of a new museum at the dawn of the 21st century has mainly to do with the flow of movement within the building. «One has to facilitate the users, their choices, where they will go and what they will be looking at,» Bobotis said. «Museums should create the conditions for observing the exhibits in a way that will lead to an understanding and knowledge of the culture they represent.» No more distance Architect Harry Bougadelis, who won the competition for the new Messara Museum, takes a similar approach. «The traditional function of museums, based on categorization of exhibits and their viewing from a distance, is being replaced more and more by integrated presentations of thematic entities aimed at drawing the visitor into the atmosphere of the world from which the exhibited objects were derived. It is no longer enough simply to describe the exhibits,» he said. Instead, he said, exhibits must be comprehensible and interactive to be successful. «Modern museum spaces create the appropriate atmosphere so that visitors can both enter the world of the museum and comprehend what they are seeing, not only academically, but in relation to the thematic whole,» he said. «Museums used to be, to a greater or lesser extent, neutral receptacles for exhibits, but these days museums are designed around the exhibits. More fundamentally, perhaps, they aim to elicit the desired emotions on the part of the visitor for an unforgettable experience.» The impressive thing about the design for the Patras museum is the prismatic masses of the exterior. «I know that many people would prefer this design for a modern art gallery rather than an archaeological museum,» Bobotis said. «However, it is significant – and a very pleasant surprise for us – that the design was chosen by the Culture Ministry and was particularly well-received by the Central Archaeological Museum.» According to Bobotis, the shell of a building must represent its time, exude charm and fit into its surrounding environment. «A museum is not built in the air,» he said. «The Patras museum is along the highway. So we wanted a building which would imprint itself in the mind of someone driving past it at 70 or 80 kilometers per hour.» Above all, the exterior of a building should project an ethos. This means avoiding elements that create transient impressions in order to achieve a sense of permanency. Bobotis says this can only be done through simplicity.