The new rooftop gallery built to display the Parthenon marbles is one of the most beautiful exhibition spaces in modern architecture.
Just as the Parthenon itself enjoys a 360-degree panorama of sparkling sea and green hills, the new ¤130 million gallery has a continuous view over the rooftops of Athens, interrupted only by the Acropolis itself. Sunlight fills the gallery through floor-to-ceiling glass, and the windows have such slender supports you might be standing in the open air enjoying blue skies and the crystal light which is the wonder of Attica.
The Parthenon friezes now being installed consist of original stones belonging to the museum and casts of the 50-odd blocks removed by Lord Elgin in the 19th century. The friezes are being set at eye level, arranged precisely as they were on the Parthenon, so the effect is akin to viewing them from a scaffold such as the original sculptors might have used.
From outside the new museum gives away little of its amazing interior. It is a sleek Modernist dark-glass box that appeals for its clean lines, smooth surfaces and clever geometry. A flaw is the attractiveness of the many ledges to pigeons which are already staining the lower façades.
The Swiss-French architect Bernard Tschumi who designed the museum overcame the problem of constructing it in an area rich in archaeological remains by elevating it on 100 slender concrete columns, carefully placed to avoid damage to the remains.
The interior of the museum is a thrilling progression from dark to light. The black marble floor of the entrance hall creates an immediate sense of cool. As you turn the first corner you enter a lofty atrium with a rising floor suggestive of the ascent of the Acropolis itself. Glass panels beneath your feet provide dramatic views of the remains up to 30ft below.
Shafts of light above the grand steps create the illusion that you are staring at a series of giant fluted Doric columns like those of the Parthenon itself.
The smooth 30ft columns of the Archaic Sculpture Gallery on the first floor provide an immensely airy space in which the early Acropolis statues surviving from a Persian assault of 480BC can be admired in the round. The rows of columns are not parallel with the walls and in places there are perspectives as dramatic as in an Egyptian hypostyle temple. Statues are being tested in different positions with the help of a large model on which miniatures of the prize pieces can be moved around like chessmen.
By contrast the top-floor gallery for the Parthenon marbles is a perfectly ordered rectangle, precisely reflecting the measurements of the temple itself and set on exactly the same east-west alignment. Tellingly the recesses in which the friezes are being set vary greatly in depth. This reflects the fact that after Lord Elgin removed the friezes he had a large section cut off the back of each block to make it easier to transport. By contrast the blocks removed more recently from the Parthenon to avoid continuing erosion are the full blocks. Though the friezes will run continuously, entrances have been made at the points where sections were completely destroyed in an explosion of 1687.
The Parthenon friezes were set inside the colonnades of the temple. The new museum will also display the superb sculpture from the outside of the temple with the statues of gods, horses and chariots from the end pediments displayed so the fully carved backs can be seen as well as the fronts.
Other famous sculptures from the Acropolis going on display include the famous female caryatids from the Erechtheion and friezes from the Temple of Athena Nike.
A big test of the gallery will be impact of noise from guided tours. The open-plan, marble floors and concrete walls could intensify noise, but Tshumi has studied the acoustic as carefully as in an opera house, providing “portholes” in the atrium walls which act as sound sponges and an absorbent coating on the ceilings.
A second challenge will come at the end of November when the museum is scheduled to open and visitors will be able to decide whether the Greeks have trumped the superb interpretative displays of the British Museum.