A room with a view awaits the Marbles

Bernard Tschumi can finally afford a smile as he looks around at his new creation, the New Acropolis Museum, after an eight-year campaign to get it designed and built. The Swiss-born architect has been on a Greek odyssey to get the $177 million structure ready, visiting Athens frequently to balance the various demands of conservationists, planners and archaeologists. The museum officially opens on June 20 and is Greece’s answer to the British argument that there’s nowhere in the country’s capital to house the Parthenon Marbles, the sculptures taken by Lord Elgin from the Parthenon’s frieze to the British Museum. Tschumi argues that the stones should be the centerpiece of his gleaming concrete-and-glass building, which was constructed to house them as well as to boost the Greek case for their return. Replicas of the London stones will sit next to those that remain in Greece. «You can have a van Gogh at the Metropolitan and another at the Louvre,» Tschumi says. But, the Parthenon Marbles are «one story.» «It’s got to be together at the same place and there’s no better place than here.» Successive UK governments have repeatedly declared that the Marbles will not be returned. The British Museum’s director, Neil MacGregor, in a 2007 interview, said objects in the collection could, in theory, be loaned for three or six months, though this would be impossible while the Greek government refused to acknowledge that his trustees are the legal owners of the stones. The 5th-century BC frieze depicts gods, giants, Greeks and centaurs in the annual Panathenaic procession. The new museum’s rectangular shape marks the continuity and narrative with the Parthenon temple on the top of a hill 300 meters above it. Tschumi, 65, says that some archaeologists didn’t want him to build above an ancient city. He had to negotiate over where to put the concrete pillars that support the three-story museum. At the entrance, some of the pillars are just four inches (10 centimeters) away from millennia-old walls. And all of it had to be built to be able to withstand earthquakes. «I was caught between a rock and a hard place,» said Tschumi, who has longish graying hair. «I had my structural engineers who wanted to put a lot of walls and beams and, on the other hand, the archaeologists who said, ‘Touch nothing.’ I spent days walking and saying: ‘Can we put it here? Let’s move it a little bit to the left.’» The museum will open more than three decades after the first call for a design in 1976. The final concrete-and-marble geometric design, by Tschumi in collaboration with Greek architect Michael Photiadis, was chosen after a competition in September 2001. The glass gallery is the main attraction, swiveled at an angle to the rest of the building. With the temple above, excavations and archaeologists underfoot and constrained by a small plot surrounded by apartment buildings, Tschumi says the design is inspired more by Pythagoras, the 6th-century BC mathematician, than by Phidias, the master sculptor of the time who oversaw the construction of the temple. «There’s no way at the beginning of the 21st century you can try to imitate even superficially the art of 2,500 years ago,» he says. The «precision of the concept was really what counted and we were not going to do little design games.» On the move Tschumi is constantly on the move: talking to a glazier who says he has invented a new kind of glass for one of the displays, greeting workmen and discussing the angles of a promotional shot with a photographer. He designed Paris’s Parc de la Villette and is a former dean of Columbia University’s school of architecture. Tschumi has spent longer on this construction site than on any other project, working on everything from decor to structure. «A lot of time» was used in testing glazing for the middle section, the Archaic gallery. It was important to blur the view of «people putting out their washing and broken refrigerators left on the balcony,» he says. Now, as visitors wind their way amid the freestanding statues of gods, fragments and busts, there’s only outlines of the modern city and the apartment terraces just meters away. Tschumi calls them «the ghosts of Athens.» Artisans and builders are swarming over the structure and paving the streets outside. A dilapidated building still sits on one corner of the plot, testimony to the court challenges from residents and homeowners that helped delay construction. Tschumi says the museum will be ready. «I’m not worried about it,» he shrugs. «The Greek way.» He won’t be drawn into the latest debate over the museum, whether two historic buildings facing the Acropolis should be torn down to provide an uninterrupted view and archaeologists’ access to more ruins. «Polemic is a Greek word,» he says. For more on the museum, visit