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New Acropolis Museum, Athens

Christian Richters The modern exterior of the New Acropolis Museum, in Athens.

Photo: Christian Richters

It’s an incongruous sight: a super-modern, glass-walled building set at the foot of the ancient Acropolis. But while the New Acropolis Museum, designed by New York–based architect Bernard Tschumi, may appear to defy Athens’s great history, it is, in fact, the city’s most ambitious attempt to reclaim its cultural patrimony: built to hold archaeological finds spanning 2,500 years, including the absent Elgin Marbles (portions of the Parthenon frieze), which the Greek government has been trying to recover from the British Museum since the mid 1800’s. On the new museum’s first level, raised glass floors give visitors a view of excavated sixth-century B.C. ruins below; on the second, the Archaic gallery is filled with freestanding korai (ancient statues of female figures); and the third is a crowning box, built to the same dimensions as the Parthenon, in which the Athenian-held sections of the frieze are displayed with reproductions—placeholders for the British Museum’s portions. Although Tschumi’s bold design has generated serious controversy, with critics claiming that the structure is out of place in Athens’s historic center, he defends the intentional contrast of old and new. “People said, ‘You have to be contextual; it ought to be in the Doric style of traditional Greek temples,’ ” he says. “Forget it! You can’t do Doric as well as the ancient Greeks did it. Instead, I aimed for the same precision, the same clarity as the original temple.” People are already arriving in droves; the ground floor, opened as a preview in January (the entire museum is set to debut in early 2009), receives up to 500 visitors a day. But the museum’s real proof of success is yet to come. “It has to convince the world that the Elgin Marbles should come back,” Tschumi says. “And I believe it will.”

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