Don’t worry – that’s not the new museum below. Patience. The first time I went to Athens I remember selling my blood. Those were my 1970s student days of drifting across Europe and running out of money – it was pre-credit-card and pre-email, so no quick emergency funds. All very footloose and fancyfree and it does make me sound like a dinosaur. However what everyone savvy knew at the time was in Athens you recouped your finances by selling a litre or so of haemoglobin, which we did on the way out and the way back. Very naughty. The other budget ploy was to sleep on a hotel rooftop for a few drachmas. I can’t remember how or where that was, but it was comfortable enough to give us a couple of days seeing Athens’ sights before we hit Piraeus, the ferries and the sybaritic islands.
Here’s the lovely Temple of Athena Nike up on the Acropolis (if only she knew where her name would end up) – without the hordes. And here are the hordes…
Those halcyon days are long gone and today Athens is working desperately to keep up with the rest of Western Europe. Characterless modernity rules while the once atmospheric Plaka has become even tackier than Montmartre or Covent Garden. But what every self-regarding city needs is a contemporary architectural masterpiece – as Bilbao, Valencia, Sydney, Paris and many others well know. So here is Athens’ bid for glory in the form of the spanking new Museum of the Acropolis, at last nearing completion.
Theoretically it’s four years late, as it was initially intended for the Athens Olympics in 2004, but pretty well everyone agrees how unrealistic that aim was. Now projected to be inaugurated this autumn (though still with no exact date – plus ça change), it now opens its doors to the public for a couple of hours each morning. A kind of work in progress. This in itself seems an intelligent idea, giving Athenians and tourists a preview of the architecture, if not of the actual exhibits. Some pieces are in place, though most sit in huge wooden crates awaiting the slow-moving team of expert unpackers.
The spectacular design is by the Swiss-French architect, Bernard Tschumi. Austere and very masculine, its swivelled roof sits in a prime position just below the actual mount of the Acropolis. Glass dominates, giving multiple perspectives over the hills and urban sprawl of Athens. As most exhibits are sculptural, solid walls become obsolete – and the surrounding cityscape becomes an exhibit in itself. The Centre Pompidou in Paris was one of the first world museums to do this in the late 1970s and Tshumi’s design develops this concept – though without the irony.
I remember Tschumi’s work 20 years ago at Paris’ Parc de la Villette, and he hasn’t lost that rather hard 1980s aesthetic, despite a small concession to ‘green’ concerns in the heat-absorbing glass and the incredible flow of natural light. Otherwise the structure is angular, geometrical and very hard – sometimes over-present.
And here’s the room at the top, a luminous space with fabulous views to the Acropolis (hazily visible in the pic) that’s designed to accommodate the entire Parthenon frieze, although half of it is still in the British Museum (where it is dubbed the Elgin Marbles). Cleverly, the Athenians have replaced the missing panels and some segments with plaster casts – so well executed that you wonder if it’s worth getting those original back. Discussions are apparently ongoing between Greek authorities and the BM but the return of the marbles would create a tricky precedent – most of the contents of Western European museums could then be reclaimed. So why should Athens be any different from, say, Cairo or Baghdad?
This beautiful set of sculptures from the Parthenon pediment actually sits in the Acropolis metro station a few yards away from the museum. They may well be reclaimed by the museum – a shame, because how fantastic it is to absorb such ancient beauty in what would otherwise be a pretty mundane moment in any commuter’s life. Well actually not so mundane, as the Athens metro is a rare joy: well designed, clean, packed with shiny marble surfaces, no advertisements… Transport for London take note.
A last tip on Athens for anyone heading that way: don’t miss the collection of Cycladic Art at the private museum of that name. The sleek marble sculptures of human figures dating from the 3rd millennium BC no doubt inspired countless modernist artists from Brancusi to Picasso. Simple, stunning, highly sophisticated – sadly, unlike most of the rest of Athens.