New museum stirs fierce passions, both ways

It’s revolting,» spat out my friend, making a gesture when I asked his opinion of the New Acropolis Museum – and that was the end of the conversation. It was nothing I hadn’t heard before. «A monstrosity of architecture,» «an aesthetic disgrace,» «all pomp and no substance,» «an eyesore,» «the crime of the century,» «a disgusting blot on the landscape,» «an example of fussy and arrogant modernism» – these are just some of the accusations that have been fired at the emblematic building designed by the usually flashy US-based architect Bernard Tschumi and local Michalis Fotiadis. Let’s face it. Most people do not like the new museum. Most of the Greeks, that is. Because the foreigners seem to love it. «A geometrical marvel… unpretentious, well-built and wearing its ingenuity lightly,» the Guardian said of the forceful structure that stands at the foot of the ancient citadel. «A building that is both an enlightening meditation on the Parthenon and a mesmerizing work in its own right. I can’t remember seeing a design that is so eloquent about another work of architecture,» a New York Times commentator wrote in an exalting article offering praise that will probably never be matched by any of his local counterparts. How can the gap be so wide? A first interpretation is that this is indeed an ugly piece of architecture and that foreign commentators have no sense of taste. However, if the past is any guide, Greeks rarely like something new – at least not until they get used to it (what lured the crowds in the case of The Mall was its size and philosophy, not its design). Plus there’s that I-could-have-done-a-better-job attitude. It makes us feel smarter, savvier to voice our disapproval of something, particularly when that «something» is imposed on us, as it were, without involving our participation in any way. Reactionism nourishes our ego. «I whinge, therefore I am.» Had a neoclassical building been raised instead of the glass-and-marble structure, there would definitely be someone to stand up and say: «Why can’t we just make a decent modern building in this country? Do you guys remember that super design by that Tschumi guy?» Of course, there are some who complain that the new museum does not suit the urban landscape. Well, so much the better. Otherwise we would have to put up with a filthy building with the torn awnings, the forest of television aerials and clothes hanging on the washing line. As for the concrete archipelago spread out around the Acropolis, at least there we agree that it’s a mess. Or do we? After all, it’s got «character.»