Athens makes architects’ hearts beat faster. Britain’s David Chipperfield is no exception. After years between Schinkel and Stüler on Berlin’s Museum Island, Chipperfield is now building in the face of the antique original. Against nine renowned competitors, including Herzog & de Meuron and Rem Koolhaas, Chipperfield’s design for an extension of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens won the unanimous approval of an international jury of experts initiated by the Greek government. When presenting his plans in Athens, Chipperfield showed that he, too, cannot ignore the classic model.
This time the Brit is modestly building underground, two floors deep. The museum with its enormous holdings gets significantly more space and an inviting transparent entrance to the street, one of the most inhospitable Athens traffic lanes. A park above the new building, which is sunk into the ground, is intended to create an inner-city arcadia. The participating Belgian landscape architect Peter Wirtz sees it as a continuation of “the romantic philhellenic idea of an urban landscape”. Chipperfield also calls the park a necessity in the face of climate change. The architecture I have so far “reacted too slowly to this challenge, now we have no other choice,” he said in Athens. “We can no longer get marble from China either.” Part of the new building is to be made of clay, suitable for walls with a structure. The natural material is abundant in Greece.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called the modernization of the important Greek museum “a long-cherished dream”. He said nothing about the costs when presenting the plans, only that “private donations” were also hoped for. The foundation of the shipowner family Lemos made a start. The guests at the event had to make their way through a police line on Wednesday evening as striking archaeologists demonstrated in front of the museum. They are protesting against a new law by the conservative government, which is due for elections in a few weeks. It puts the greatest Greek Museums the obligation to develop one’s own sources of finance, including donations, makes it easier for loans abroad and gives the government more access to the museum management.
The museum, the most visited in Greece, will remain open during the construction work. It was built between 1866 and 1874 according to plans by the German architects Ludwig Lange and Ernst Ziller. The Greek King Otto, a son of the Bavarian Hellas enthusiast Ludwig I, initiated the first tender. Chipperfield also adopts the symmetry of the museum temple. But he opens the view into the holy of holies. That’s the appeal of this new home for the old art.