Musée Imaginaire

Christian Hubert & Ioanna Theocharopoulou

Published in LOG 18, Winter 2010


 “Some things seem to be virtuous, but if they are put into practice will be ruinous . . . other things seem to be vices, yet if put into practice will bring the prince security and well-being.” – Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (1513) 

The new Acropolis Museum in Athens has finally been built. Controversies over previous proposals and competitions, the struggles to select a site, to find the funding and the political will to build, are a thing of the past. But any attempt to evaluate the building today as a work of architecture remains inextricably enmeshed in the cultural politics that define the site and program of the project. Our reference to Machiavelli – as the preeminent theorist of political efficacy – is meant as no small compliment to the accomplishment of the museum’s architect, Bernard Tschumi, 1 in seeing the project to completion. The course of design and construction required an intense and focused discipline in managing what Machiavelli called the exigencies of necessità. It demanded the adroit navigation around a succession of obstacles, the careful deflection of passions, the cultivation of apparent detachment – in short, all the refinements of the political art. In a recent presentation of the building, its author showed one of his “architectural postcards” of 1978, Ropes and Rules, and compared the design process to a sadomasochistic play of bondage, in which architectural pleasure is a function of its constraints, whose forms of jouissance are intensified by the fetters applied to it. In this definition, the architectural design itself is a diagram of constraint, an articulation of force with intimations of violence.

Architects have to make their peace with power in order to build, but thinking about this project in particular requires an ongoing appreciation of historical irony, with its accidents, its discontinuities, and its reversals. If the design process could only succeed through the studious avoidance of polemic (in a telling answer to a question of interpretation posed by this author to the architect, the succinct answer was, “Don’t get involved”), any critical interpretation requires both taking a position and admitting to the pleasures of qualifying or withholding further judgment – in much the same way as one can savor the codependencies of the sadist and the masochist. In any attempt to apportion praise or blame, this project in particular requires one to recognize that those roles will keep reversing, that virtues will become vices and vices virtues in turn.

 Whatever the rights and wrongs of this dispute (and they are much trickier to judge than campaigners would have us believe), the unquenchable controversy has had one clear effect. It has helped keep the Parthenon at the very top of our cultural agenda. . . . We are visiting a monument that has been fought over for generations, that inflames passions and prompts government intervention. It has the added distinction, in other words, of being worth arguing about. 2

Mary Beard’s scholarly and entertaining history of the Parthenon wryly notes that the Athenian Acropolis is “famous for being famous.” A celebrity among monuments, it is notorious for controversy. It is a site of cultural projections, of contested claims, and rewritings of history.

In yet another rewriting of history as a form of redress, the recently completed museum is a significant new wager in the battle over the claims of countries like Italy, Egypt, and Greece for the return of “plundered” artifacts – a term that these countries apply to both objects stolen or smuggled in recent times and to objects that were removed, often just as egregiously, under conditions of colonialism and occupation. In a bold work of political imagination, these modern nation-states have asserted that artifacts from antiquity belong to them, and they have recently passed laws to enforce their claims to ownership. While the stated intent of these laws is to put an end to the market in stolen or smuggled antiquities, their actual effect on deterring theft and illegal trade in antiquities has been limited. The most notorious example of cultural plunder remains the 19th-century removal of the architectural sculptures from the Parthenon, prior to the foundation of the modern Greek state, at a time when Greece was still part of the Ottoman Empire. Since then the sculptures have resided at the British Museum, where they have been known as the Elgin Marbles, and Greece has waged a long campaign, still unresolved, for their return.3

 The primary reason for the construction of the new Acropolis Museum was the Greek state’s determination to counter the charge that the country was poorly equipped for any return of the marbles, and that these were better off in their custom-built gallery at the British Museum.

But British complacency about the stewardship and “safety” of the marbles in London was recently shaken when another controversy came to light: During the 1930s, the British Museum bowed to the pressure of Lord Duveen, a millionaire art dealer who had offered to finance new galleries to house the marbles, and whose agents “cleaned” them in order to make them whiter, destroying almost all of their protective surface patina, as well as the outermost layer of the marbles themselves.4 It takes little in the way of a post-colonial imagination to suspect this “whitewash” of history as yet another arrogant projection of cultural superiority by the “Great Western Powers,” with all their dubious interest in aesthetic “purity.”

 As part of the cultural politics of “return,” the “encyclopedic” museums of the wealthy Western countries, such as the British Museum, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum, as well as parvenu newcomers like the Getty Museum, have been accused of participating in the illegal trade of antiquities of dubious provenance in the 20th century and of outright imperialist plunder prior to that. After years of contempt for these claims, several major museums have handed over some of their “loot.” 5

In 2008, prior to the opening of the upper floors, the inaugural show in the ground-floor galleries of the new Acropolis Museum, in a joint venture of the Italian and Greek governments, proudly displayed many of the works recently “returned.” The exhibition was defiantly and dramatically entitled Nostoi (a reference to the triumphant return of the Greek heroes from the Trojan wars), with fervent captions celebrating their recovery. The exhibit served to remind visitors in no uncertain terms that the political passions surrounding this museum are not about to be extinguished, and that, at least for now, the claims and counterclaims to possession of the Parthenon marbles continue unabated. Aside from any arguments for historical redress, the Greek state’s claim to actual ownership of the Elgin Marbles does not appear legally persuasive under international law,6 so during the course of the argument over their “rightful place,” Greece has tempered its claims from asserting that the marbles belong to Greece to the claim that they belong in Greece. But where precisely?

The Museum

The Tschumi building was originally meant to open in 2004, to take advantage of worldwide attention on the Athens Olympics, but it ultimately opened in the summer of 2009. This large modernist object sits in a residential area known as Makryianni, opposite the Acropolis. The building itself is designed to support the rhetoric of “return.” The glazed gallery on the top floor establishes a direct visual relationship with the Parthenon, through its dimensions and orientation, and most of all by the view of the Acropolis from inside the glass box. This floor hovers like a dark monolith over the rooflines of the city, with one corner projecting out over the lower galleries, and it has been designed to contain the Parthenon sculptures in a spatially mimetic arrangement.7 Since it would not be possible to return the original sculptures to the Parthenon itself without exposing them to atmospheric damage (and making them impossible to see up close) the purpose of this element of the design is both to argue for the return of the sculptures and to enable an imaginary relationship between the exhibition space and the ruins of the Parthenon visible nearby. Whatever one thinks of the claims and counterclaims to possession of the works themselves, the visual relationship has been clearly announced, even with some questionable architectural conceits. 8

exploded view.jpg

But this visual relationship carries significant ideological baggage. The modern Greek state has invested heavily in the symbolic legitimacy of its claim to a direct relationship to antiquity. This claim not only extends to ownership of artifacts, but to an association of the modern Greek state with an idealized version of the fifth-century Periclean building program, an association that serves the state’s interest in promoting an “imagined community” of national sentiment and pride. The “perfect” state of the building is the elusive object of the ongoing, and apparently endless, reconstruction of the Parthenon itself, which has transformed the Acropolis into a construction site and has been fraught with controversy and technical problems of its own. The idealization of the Periclean program and the deliberate suppression of memories of foreign rule have erased significant parts of the real history and changing use of the site over two and a half millennia. The Acropolis has been cleared of any vestige of its Christian and Ottoman use and of any structures that might distract from the powerful unity of temple and rock, which has impressed so many visitors, including Sigmund Freud and Le Corbusier.9


The physical embodiments of memory, the erasure of traumas, the return(s) of the repressed – all of these Freudian preoccupations swirl around the debates about architecture, archaeology, and cultural patrimony, particularly in the emotionally charged landscape of Greece. Le Corbusier’s iconic juxtaposition of the Parthenon and an automobile reminds us of how modern architecture sought to identify technical precision with enduring cultural ideals and how rapidly contemporary artifacts can recede in time – with their technical obsolescence ironically described as “classic.” The architect of the new Acropolis Museum has, for better or worse, taken up schematic elements of the Corbusian building formula: pilotis, brise-soleils, toit jardin – or in this case, a kind of antigarden, the glass box atop the building with high-performance technologies working to not trap solar radiation like a greenhouse. On the inside of the museum, the ramps and dynamic circulation pathways – another signature Corbusian element – are bulked up, if not to airport scale, at least to subway scale, an association made all the more inevitable by the row of turnstiles that leads onto the main ramp to the exhibits. This is a building clearly designed for a large number of visitors. Its size and scale – and it is a very big building, with its stainless steel brise-soleils on the projecting middle section – asserts a muscular demand for space that was so typical of modern “object buildings.”


Recent public works projects in Athens, such as the subway and the new museum, have exposed buried remnants of earlier constructions, which, instead of being brutally pushed aside as so often before, have here been the subject of careful archaeological documentation. The museum site turned out to be particularly rich in artifacts from everyday urban life in the ancient world. In an ingenious adaptation of the Corbusian formula, the apparent ground level at the building site itself has been dropped down to reveal the archaeological strata below, and all new construction has been raised above the excavations, with interior glass floors revealing what might otherwise have been hidden below.10


The Acropolis and the City

To this day almost all descriptions of Athens have at their core a contrast between the splendor of the Acropolis and the banality of the surrounding city. Starting with the first European visitors to the still-occupied country in the late 18th century – Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire from 1453 to 1821 – the contrast between ancient grandeur and modern abjection has been a consistent element of travel accounts, both local and international. Archaeological projects for the Acropolis have generally perpetuated this opposition, with their emphasis on the “sacred” precincts of the Acropolis as opposed to the profane or polluted city. As the European-trained architects of the first urban plan of Athens (1833) remarked:


It would be desirable if the northern slopes of the Acropolis with their antiquities were freed little by little from the rubble that thousands of years have heaped upon it. . . . The closeness of the antiquities to the poor decrepit huts or modern houses only darkens and disturbs the impression that they should make on the beholder. Freeing the antiquities from their surroundings would display them in all their beauty to the eyes of the admirers of ancient art as well as to the artists and scientists.11


From the outset, the “cleansing” of the history of the site, its appropriation by European idealist aesthetics, and the removal of any trace of the almost four centuries of Ottoman occupation have been integral to the project of the Greek nation-state.12 The first archaeological act for the care and preservation of these antiquities – drafted by the regent and lawmaker Georg Ludwig von Mauer, who accompanied the first king of the Hellenes, the Bavarian Prince Otto of Wittelsbach – was passed in May 1834, barely a year after the foundation of the modern Greek state. Another companion to the first king, the architect Leo von Klenze, urged the cleansing of the Acropolis hill of all nonclassical antiquities, the removal of the Bavarian garrison, and the restoration of the Parthenon, which soon came under the jurisdiction of the Archaeological Service. Known also as the designer of the Walhalla (1830–1842), a monument in honor of distinguished Germans, designed as an identical copy of the Parthenon, Klenze was also an accomplished painter known for his “imaginative reconstructions” of ancient Athens showing the city in classical times, such as his Ideal View of Athens with the Acropolis and the Areios Pagos from 1846.13 Klenze himself symbolically initiated the restoration of the Parthenon in an elaborately staged ceremony: “All the remains of barbarity will be removed, here as in all of Greece, and the remains of the glorious past will be brought in new light, as the solid foundation of a glorious present and future.”14


But barbarity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and it can take on many forms. Around the time of the 2004 Olympics, when the eyes of the world were on Athens, one writer noted:

From the Acropolis, it looks as if a giant – in a moment of boredom, or perhaps disgust – threw his toy houses in the air. Where they landed, modern Athens was formed. Now the toys, in revenge for their neglect, seem to be multiplying, filling every nook of the Athenian basin and slowly climbing the mountains to the north, east, and west.15


The “toy houses” in question are a kind of simplified modern architecture that sprang up primarily during the decades immediately following World War II. Generically called polykatoikìa (multistory apartment blocks), they were built in a more or less unregulated fashion in response to the urgent need for housing from 1950 to the end of the military junta in 1974. The sprawling proliferation of polykatoikìa, most of them produced without much involvement from architects, brought about the almost complete disappearance of the 19th-century neoclassical domestic architecture that had made up a large part of the city’s fabric up to the late 1940s. Unlike other European countries, where a great deal of emphasis was placed on providing housing after World War II, the Greek government tacitly left the rebuilding of domestic infrastructure to the private sector.


Construction of polykatoikìa did not entail large banks or mortgages. Rather, through an ingenious and locally invented financial mechanism, the antiparochè (exchange), small plots of land with or without existing dwellings were exchanged for the rights to one or more apartments in the new buildings. This mechanism proved extremely efficient. It not only served the need for shelter for the vast numbers of people who moved to the capital after the war and the ensuing Civil War (1946–49), but also inadvertently worked as a way of sharing income among the migrant urbanizing class, since everyone profited: from the small teams of builders and developers who built the polykatoikìa, to those who were able to sell an old (neoclassical) single-family home and obtain instead one or more “modern” apartments.


The ways in which Athens grew from the mid-19th to the late-20th centuries – haphazardly, chaotically – is inextricably bound to the growth of the modern Greek state itself, which has alternated between attempts to assert itself and concessions to forces beyond its control. The history of Athenian building regulations is a game of cat-and-mouse between illegal building activities and revisions to the building codes that both acknowledge actual conditions and attempt to limit further encroachments. The erratic and inconsistent attitude toward the city’s growth and the apparent lack of order has been a subject of critique and disapproval since the 19th century. In that era, this debate was primarily played out in the planning of the new city and the design of iconic public buildings. In the 20th century, the domestic polykatoikìa construction was obsessively discussed and criticized, all the while filling every available urban space.

The selection of the Makryianni site for the new Acropolis Museum entailed both some of the drastic erasures of the existing city fabric (a move so often attributed to modern architects like Le Corbusier) and the deployment of some of the techniques of “imaginative reconstruction” previously limited to the Acropolis itself.


In preparation for the new construction, the area was “cleared” of some 35 apartment buildings, and at the time of its completion the museum was surrounded by other buildings either slated for, or already in various stages of, demolition. These included, it turns out, two listed buildings – one of them a rare example of an art-deco apartment house – facing the Acropolis along the adjacent Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, which had previously delineated the edge of the Acropolis precinct. As the museum had been built in the middle of an urban block, the rear of these buildings now faced museum visitors. Despite the fact that the preservation of these buildings had previously been used in arguments to justify the choice of the site – with the claim that their presence would mitigate the effects of placing a large museum in a residential block – the authorities now sought to tear down these protected buildings on the grounds that they interrupted the view between the museum and the Acropolis. After all, the brief of this museum was to create a “dialogue” with the Parthenon – not with the city.16


The very project for the Acropolis Museum, with all the controversies surrounding the four design competitions (the first was in 1976), the endless court cases, and the large number of demolitions, both actual and proposed, are modern-day forms of those imaginary reconstructions. The desire for a “pure,” uninterrupted visual connection with antiquity seems to return Athens straight to the 19th century, albeit with more contemporary architectural strategies. The decision to hire an internationally acclaimed “21st-century” architect to design the museum seems motivated by the same romantic nationalism indulged by the European philhellenes, almost two centuries ago. Perhaps the Greek state still perceives itself as a new country, eager to be accepted by its elusive, larger European family. The argument for demolishing the two listed buildings (for a time strongly supported by the authorities) seems particularly curious when one realizes that, as the Parthenon marbles are installed higher than the buildings’ roofs, the demolitions were planned so as to allow visitors of the museum café to have a clear view toward the Acropolis – a particularly submissive gesture to the tourist’s gaze.

A cartoon from the national daily newspaper Kathimerini, by Andreas Petroulakis, shows the Parliament building under demolition. A voice says, in justification, “why should a tourist, back at the Hilton, ready to sip his drink after a visit to the museum, not be able to gaze at the Acropolis?”

 After a prolonged battle between the residents of these two buildings and the authorities, the High Court of Appeal decided to halt their demolition. But even if this particular threat has passed, the proposal to raze them in the name of a purified view is still instructive as to the dynamics of imaginary identification. The impulse to remove them resonates with previous proposals for the Acropolis site and its succession of reconstructions, and with a history of problematic attitudes toward the city of Athens. And as has often been the case, fantasies of redress and of revenge for historical events are expressed through a kind of self-mutilation. It is here that sadism and masochism are most entwined.


The attempt to demolish the two listed buildings in the cause of an alleged relation to the ancient temple fits squarely in the logic of the state’s willingness to sacrifice the actual history of its capital city in its attempts to rewrite it. This indifference, if not an attack on the abject modern city itself, fits within the longer history of the state’s efforts to suppress or ignore the layers of time between antiquity and the present – as if everything in between is expendable.


Yet the sudden threat of demolition of these two buildings mobilized a huge wave of resentment, a collective cry to stop by both citizens and visitors, both local and international. About 48,000 signatures were gathered on petitions, both outside the buildings’ doors and on Facebook and the residents’ blog.17 This wave of popular reaction is completely new to the Greek context. It is as if the threat of demolition energized latent self-doubts as to the place of Greek national culture in the world. Some of the more interesting articles in the local press, such as a piece by architectural journalist Nikos Vatopoulos, commented on an overwhelming sense of “popular mourning” that could not simply be explained by an unlikely, sudden, and widespread appreciation for historic architecture. Instead, it pointed to “the existence of a deep collective ‘trauma’ about the destruction of the old form of the city during the postwar period.”18 It is as if attempts by the state to mobilize national pride backfired, bringing to the surface some deeply felt collective national anxieties.

The opening ceremonies for the museum in late June 2009 were an occasion for an elaborate pageant by the political elite. Both the ruling Nea Dimokratia (conservatives) and the opposition Pasok (socialist) parties (whose roles have since reversed) sought to mobilize nationalist sentiment and to identify the completion of the museum with national rather than international culture. The event included the spectacular projection of images of antique sculpture on the stainless-steel panels of the new building and a melodramatic “laying on of hands” when Minister of Culture Antonis Samaras inserted a marble head of Iris into a plaster cast of a section of the frieze currently housed in the British Museum. These ceremonies marked a high point of political posturing around the marbles as a source of national pride tinged with xenophobia. In his speech, the minister described the Parthenon marbles as “parts of our soul.” He invoked the “strong, sacred bonds connecting us with every single item, from the humblest archaeological fragment to the most ornate figure,” and compared them to a family portrait “with loved ones missing.” “The Parthenon and its sculptures were the victims of plunder,” Samaras said. “This crime, today, can be corrected. The museum serves as the moral force to invite them back; to reunite them.”19

 Despite the ritualistic invocations, the opening of the museum did not mark the end of the controversy over the marbles, nor even the “new beginning” that politicians had so recently proclaimed. Shortly after the museum opened, the chorus of claims and counterclaims started anew when the Greek government rejected a (short-lived) loan offer from the British Museum on the grounds that Greece would thus recognize British ownership of the marbles.20

 And while the ongoing controversy about the demolition of adjacent buildings was peripheral to the issues of the moment, the same minister of culture (Samaras, currently the head of the opposition conservative party) agreed to another symbolic suppression of the historical record, in response to a demand by the Greek Orthodox Church, by excising a segment of an animated video that served as the museum’s introduction to the various physical transformations of the Parthenon. To the consternation of the church, the video included simulated scenes of black-robed priests destroying some of the Parthenon sculptures in the eighth century, when the building was converted to a church, its east pediment torn down, and a number of its sculptures destroyed in an iconoclastic act of Elginism avant la lettre. That the video was made by the celebrated director Costa-Gavras, known for his political thrillers and opposition to repressive regimes, could only add to the irony.

 Yet the spectacular palimpsest afforded by photographs of the opening event (which juxtaposed projected images of classical sculptures, the new galleries containing both originals and plaster casts, with the dramatically lit Acropolis beyond) suggests some alternative and more nuanced possibilities for the future. The conflicts over the cultural “ownership” of the Parthenon and its marbles have been burdened by an idealistic interpretation of perfection as both an aesthetic and a historical idea. In the aesthetic conception, the ideal of perfection implies that nothing can be added or removed without detracting from the pure state, an idea that is not very helpful in dealing with the Acropolis. But the Parthenon as “perfect object” has only ever existed in the imagination, and any thoughtful aesthetic experience is only enriched by thinking the full range of imaginary reconstructions, without trying to single out only one. We have merely to consider what the completed restoration of the Acropolis should look like to realize the difficulty of any realization of the ideal. Would it be painted? Would parts still be missing? Would it resemble the Nashville Parthenon? With the romantic and nationalistic appropriations of the neoclassic aesthetic, the historical idea has likewise been reduced to a single moment, to the exclusion of the vagaries of actual historical experience. Both a different aesthetic and a different historical understanding are required.

At this point, opinions are divided as to whether the completion of the museum reinforces or diminishes the power of the argument for the “return” of the Parthenon marbles. The display of the frieze that sets plaster casts and originals side-by-side has added more layers of ambiguity rather than simply letting the marbles “speak for themselves.”21 Some wags have proposed new twists to the tale of two cities – suggesting, for example, that Britain send over Stonehenge if they won’t send over the marbles. Perhaps Greece could offer Britain the two buildings on Dionysiou Areopagitou Street (if they promise to take care of them).

 The relation of the new building to the city itself will still evolve, but the existence of the museum has already made a significant contribution to the cultural landscape of Athens. Even if the marbles are never returned, Athenians share a great deal of pride in the fact that the museum did finally get built, while retaining their own wariness about the limits of state power. In a recent special issue of the national Kathimerini newspaper, the museum was presented as one of the major events of 2009: “Most of all, the new Acropolis Museum goes against the resignation ‘nothing happens in Greece’. It serves as a morale boost . . . and has put us ‘on the map’ of elite international museums. It is for sure a reason for us to feel proud.”22

 The struggles for “ownership” of antiquity and its rhetorical appropriations are far from over. Some of the conflicting claims of national cultures and emerging forms of global culture have been physically embodied as conflicts rather than resolved in the building of the new Acropolis Museum. The reversals of fortune that so fascinated Machiavelli will continue to apply to the relations between contemporary Athens and idealizations of the past. And the Parthenon will continue to be famous for being famous.

 Ioanna Theocharopoulou is an architectural historian and architect based in New York. She teaches at Parsons / The New School for Design and at Columbia University’s graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

 Christian Hubert is an architect, writer, and translator based in New York.