As one of the most esteemed monuments of Western civilization, the Parthenon has both inspired and cast its shadow over many an architect. Visiting the Athenian Acropolis for 12 days straight in 1911, Le Corbusier was by turns exhilarated and oppressed by the glory of its buildings. He pronounced himself “stupefied by this gigantic apparition” which provoked “heartrending doubt” in his own abilities. “It crushes you until you’re ground to dust,” he lamented.

Karl Friedrich Schinkel was less intimidated. After Bavarian Prince Otto became king of Greece in 1834, the Prussian architect boldly drew up a royal palace that would have partly surrounded the Parthenon’s ruins, but it was never built. More recently, Walter Gropius attempted a modernist reimagining of the temple to Athena when he designed a white marble U.S. Embassy in the Greek capital in 1956.

There are a number of 20th century high-rises in Athens—Vincent Scully denounced the 14-story Hilton designed by a trio of Greek architects as “vandalism” when it opened in 1963—but the primacy of the Acropolis on the skyline has been largely preserved. Still, building anywhere in its proximity can be a vexed task.

With his long-awaited New Acropolis Museum, which opened in June at the base of the once-sacred plateau, Bernard Tschumi becomes the latest to wrestle with the Parthenon’s daunting precedent. The former dean of Columbia University’s architecture school has had mixed success in creating a showcase worthy of the sculptures of the Acropolis and what remains in Greece of the Parthenon frieze, after half was removed with saws and crowbars at the behest of Britain’s Lord Elgin two centuries ago.

Swiss-born Tschumi had no interest in overtly miming the Parthenon’s form. Instead, the museum pays subtle homage to the Doric landmark and landscape through a monolithic minimalism. From the outside, the building’s façade of black fritted glass inserts a massive, inky rectangular box into the cityscape, which provoked intense controversy among many Athenians for being overscaled. This was, for sure, a supersized commission with a double-pronged task—diplomatic as well as archaeological.  It aims not only to preserve the remnants of Acropolis sculpture that can no longer be left out in the open air due to pollution, but also to convince the British government to return the Athenian artworks to their place of origin.

Demands for Britain to give back the sculptures emerged almost as soon as the so-called Elgin Marbles were first removed in the early 1800s. The dispute over what Greece prefers to call the Parthenon sculptures has been waged by scores of politicians and in poetry and prose by Thomas Hardy, Lord Byron, Constantine Cavafy, and John Keats. But the calls for their return gained renewed fervor in the 1970s after the sculptures became increasingly identified with Greek democracy after the fall of military rule in Athens.

When fiery actress Melina Mercouri gave up her film career to become culture minister in 1981, she brought renewed attention to the issue. High on her agenda was dispelling Britain’s doubt that the Greeks could be trusted as custodians of their own heritage by creating a purpose-built museum to spotlight and safeguard the sculptures—something to outshine the British Museum’s imposing Neo-Classical Parthenon gallery, designed by American architect John Russell Pope and completed in 1938.

Tschumi’s design, realized with Greek architect Michael Photiadis, won the fourth in a succession of competitions held to come up with a concept for the new museum. Arguments over excavations repeatedly delayed construction of the museum, originally due to open in time for the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. “Polemic is a Greek word,” noted Tschumi as he walked around the finished building, adding that 104 lawsuits sought to halt the $180 million project.

At 46,000 square feet and containing some 4,000 artifacts, the museum is nearly 10 times as big as the cramped, 19th century Acropolis Museum just behind the Parthenon. From the outside, Tschumi’s tri-level composition is clearly visible, but the façade mutates from side to side, with individual segments consisting variously of precast concrete panels, corrugated steel, and long expanses of dark glass. By placing the top segment off-kilter from the rest, Tschumi attempted to give a sense of movement to the behemoth that he has wedged in among low-rise modern apartment blocks and 19th century Neo-Classical buildings.

The structure hovers over the now nearly completed excavations, held aloft by 43 concrete columns placed in consultation with archaeologists as well as engineers. Glass pavers give views of the archaeological finds below, revealing multiple layers of Athenian history, including homes, bathhouses, and workshops dating from periods after the creation of the Parthenon in the fifth century B.C.

The interior of the building is far better than its bulky exterior, and circulation through it is intended to recall the experience of mounting the Acropolis itself. After entering beneath a grand cantilevered concrete overhang, visitors amble up a glass ramp toward the displayed fragments of an ancient temple, ransacked by the Persians in 480 B.C. on what became the site of the Parthenon.

Turning to the right, visitors enter a vast, triangular gallery filled with an astounding collection of archaic sculpture arranged as if in an agora. Natural light has been deployed here to maximum effect, pouring through south-facing windows into the white marble-floored room with its forest of sandblasted concrete pillars. Because sunlight from the east and west is so intense, at these ends of the building Tschumi has created louvered walls of corrugated stainless steel panels.

From here there is another ascent, to the uppermost gallery, a huge glass rectangle containing the remains of the Parthenon frieze, metope reliefs, and pediment sculptures. This dazzling gallery has been shifted from the lower portion of the museum to bring it in parallel alignment with the Parthenon outside. The room has roughly the same footprint as the Athenian temple, which can be seen 300 yards away by visitors as they review the Parthenon frieze and the metopes.

The caryatids look across Tschumi’s central atrium to pediment sculptures from the Parthenon.
Peter Mauss The caryatids look across Tschumi’s central atrium to pediment sculptures from the Parthenon.

Rather than leave voids where the pieces taken by Lord Elgin once stood, the museum inserted white plaster casts among the original honey colored segments. The casts were given to the Greeks by the British Museum in 1845 and are being exhibited here for the first time. Each one is clearly labeled, and the entire exhibit can’t help but suggest an accusatory finger, particularly when one sees fragments like a figure of Poseidon, whose torso is in Athens, but whose shoulders are in London. An added bonus comes at night, when the entire sculptural assemblage can be seen from outside the illuminated building and the unwieldy bulk of the exterior fades into the darkness. At both ends of the top floor stand the remaining sculptures from the pediments, held aloft on prongs of titanium and stainless steel. The overall display is effective; but the metopes are inelegantly encased between pieces of gray cement board that are attached to brushed stainless steel columns. Tschumi’s office oversaw the museum installation in conjunction with curators, without help from an outside exhibition design team, and in other areas as well, the architecture falls short of an optimal backdrop to the apogee of classical art.

After viewing the Parthenon gallery, visitors descend by way of a mezzanine showcasing the Porch of the Caryatids, once part of the temple of the Erechtheion, near the Parthenon. There were originally six of these tunic-clad stone maidens, but Elgin took one. The remaining five were moved from the Erechtheion to the old Acropolis Museum in 1977 and replaced with plaster replicas to halt erosion due to acid rain.

The caryatids no longer loom against the blue sky but stand sentry in the new museum’s atrium core, its concrete walls perforated to dampen sound in a hard-surfaced space. Skylights don’t prevent the precast gray slabs from resembling colossal dominoes, and the concrete grid overhead makes the atrium feel like a birthing chamber for a 21st century Frankenstein’s monster instead of an exalted setting for some of the most beautiful statuary ever made.

Yet the bulk of the minimalist museum cedes the foreground to the treasures of the Periclean Golden Age and meets numerous structural and technical challenges. The entire structure stands atop sliding bearings of Teflon steel to enable it to withstand severe earthquakes, and according to Tschumi, it has already endured two minor ones. Special gaskets in the glass window panels also allow movement in the event of seismic activity, while marble stands for the sculptures are crafted to prevent the masterpieces themselves from crashing to the floor. Working with glass consultant Hugh Dutton, Tschumi also devised a means of keeping the top floor temperate in the often scorching sun. Warm air is evacuated through the ceiling, and a cooling system combined with double-layered glass recycles the air through the gallery.

Building in the immediate shadow of the temple that made Le Corbusier and countless others tremble, Tschumi has deftly harnessed Attic light and supplied an architectural argument that, at least in the opinion of his Greek clients, has the power to loosen Britain’s grip on its hoard of the Parthenon statues.