Aerial view of the Acropolis, the Theater of Dionysus, and the New Acropolis Museum.

Forum: The New Acropolis Museum

If architecture can be seen as sculpture writ large, the New Acropolis Museum in Athens qualifies as a fine example of the form. Housing works so splendid that they echo with meaning millennia after their making, a building of such singing grace, that calls attention to its contents rather than itself, is like a gift from the gods. The artworks themselves, as everyone knows, have suffered mightily over the years: neglect, battles, dispersion, and time itself have marked them. The New Acropolis Museum, a gleam in the eye since the 1970s, has 10 times the space of the hopelessly cramped 19th-century museum located on the Acropolis.

Deciding on a location took years. Fruitless architectural competitions were staged before the final site was determined—the base of the Acropolis, with sight lines flowing directly to the Parthenon. Because the area has been central to the city since its founding, with modern houses resting on archaeological remains dating from prehistoric times to the 12th century CE, concerns for the homes of both living and ancient Athenians had to be addressed. The courts settled present-day matters, while 100 concrete pillars lift the building above the excavations, which are visible through glass floors—a brilliant solution by architect Bernard Tschumi, whose appointment didn’t come until the new century was underway. Optimistic expectations for an opening coinciding with the 2004 Olympics didn’t materialize. Successive years produced successive projections; most of the building opened in early 2009, with the official ceremonies celebrated in June.

When I visited in fall 2008, parts of the museum were open to the public, and the grand scheme could be understood. Wisely, I think—others disagree—there is no attempt to mimic classical structures. Instead, a decidedly 21st-century building protects and displays ancient sculptures and archaeological remains. As self-effacing as a non-traditional building can be, the museum uses glass lavishly as a way to disappear among reflections of its surroundings. The glass walls defining the top-floor Parthenon Gallery (its footprint skewed from the rest of the structure to parallel the orientation of the temple itself) reflect that building’s noble bones, while, inside, the Parthenon sculptures still in Greece are on view in natural light, their intended illumination. The smog that once soiled the city’s glorious daylight has been diminished, and high-spec glass allows sunlight without damage to the artworks.

The elephant in the gallery, of course, is the controversy over the so-called Elgin Marbles, long in place at the British Museum. Asked whether the New Acropolis Museum is intended to expedite the repatriation of scattered national heritage, particularly the missing Parthenon sculptures, a spokesperson said, “The mission is to present the history of the Acropolis through the finds from that archaeological site, among other [unnamed] objectives. The museum no doubt will make the absence of missing pieces more obvious.”