23 July, 2009
First published in Orthodoxy Today on 20 November 2007. Reprinted here with the author's permission.
I grew up in Athens. My family lived in the old part of the city, near the center. As a young boy, I walked and played in the historic regions and archaeological sites. Those places formed my character and being. My ancestor Angelos Salingaros fought on the Acropolis, defending it during the siege of 1826. It thus pains me deeply now when I see Athenians keen to destroy Athens's architectural and urban character, in a frenzy of supposed modernization. Most of old Athens has already fallen victim to a post-war building boom that replaced the old courtyard houses with ugly five-storey apartment blocks. It would be hard today to find in Athens even a single example of the courtyard house, whose typology goes back to ancient Greece (and was transmitted via Rome to the Islamic world and Spain, then to the New World, and to California of the 1920s). A few neoclassical buildings remain, built in the period between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the Second World War, but not many (Salingaros, 2005).
Like so many other countries around the world, Greece is facing architectural cannibalism driven by the onslaught of a new worldview. This worldview is intolerant, substituting and replacing a nation's tradition, culture, and even its religion. But it is not imposed by an invasion of a foreign military force (unless you identify globalization and the international media, as many do, as insidious forces of occupation); architectural cannibalism is a civil war. A few Greeks have been brainwashed to destroy their own heritage. They desperately wish to conform to the cult of contemporariness.
Fanaticized ideologues whose minds are infected with alien images and anti-humanist principles are desecrating the city of Athens and its history. Willing, eager collaborators have betrayed their heritage and embraced the fashionable cult of architectural nihilism imported from Europe and the US. Even as the rest of the world begins to reject that nightmarish period of inhuman architecture and urbanism (Salingaros & Masden, 2007), some individuals within Greece are proud to promote it. Always a little behind the times, this group nevertheless makes up for its lag by showing a proper fanaticism in its willingness to pay homage to the cult.
The New Acropolis Museum is finally finished, a prime example of cult architecture. It is now threatening two protected neoclassical buildings, however, demanding that they be demolished in order to give it a better view of the Acropolis. Their removal will seriously damage Athens's historic urban fabric. There is general outrage in Athens, while at the same time, the present government is calmly proceeding with steps towards an eventual demolition of the previously listed buildings. I would like to focus away from my personal emotions (entirely legitimate), and formulate a sharp attack on the perpetrators, which is sorely needed.
The two buildings in question are numbers 17 and 19 Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, two architectural gems. One is Neoclassical (from around 1890), and the other more Art Deco (from around 1930). Architect Nikos Karydis admires number 17 especially: "The fantastic four storey Classical - Art Nouveau residence by Kouremenos, with its magnificent sculptures flanking the entrance, and its fine proportions and clever use of marble in the façade is one of the best buildings in Athens". This past July, while wildfires were devastating all of Greece and threatening to burn Ancient Olympia (that is, at a moment when national attention was focused elsewhere), the legal protection of these two historic buildings was lifted. This procedure parallels the unexpected declassification of the new museum's site that lifted its archeological protection so as to allow excavation of the foundation columns. Many ordinary citizens are disgusted by the political maneuvers that have followed the project. Numerous lawsuits dogged this museum because of a string of such seemingly "irregular" procedures. But everything has been pushed through regardless, and by both successive governments.
I wish to compare the New Acropolis Museum directly with the two historic buildings that it now threatens with demolition. Despite unrestrained declarations of praise by its supporters, the museum building is of negligible architectural value. It has no coherence, no logic, and near zero degree of architectural life (Salingaros, 2006). It is a typical product of the deconstructivist fashion, albeit not twisted and contorted as the most extreme examples of that style. The two threatened and modestly scaled older buildings, by contrast, embody a highly elevated degree of architectural life. That life is what viewers intuitively perceive, and that is why this particular pedestrian walk, passing in front of the two buildings while facing the Acropolis, is among the most gratifying anywhere in the world.
The New York Times architecture critic felt he had to justify this abomination (the New Acropolis Museum) by calling it: "An impressive accomplishment: a building that is both an enlightening meditation on the Parthenon and a mesmerizing work in its own right (Ouroussoff, 2007)". How, I wonder, could the reviewer believe what he has written? He must certainly be dissociated from his feeling and experience. Such effusive praise has to be interpreted within its proper context, as New York architect John Massengale writes: "Like his predecessor at the [New York] Times, who hand-picked him, Ouroussoff is an activist advocate for a small group of Starchitects. For Ouroussoff, ideology trumps experience (Massengale, 2005)... Mr. Ouroussoff knows his is not to reason why, his is to praise Starchitects to the sky (2007a)... And so it goes, while the architecture critic of the New York Times continues working as a press agent for Starchitects and their egocentric ideology (2007b)". The cult is self-reinforcing.
Far more perceptive and honest is John Massengale's own critique: "Bernard Tschumi's New Acropolis Museum [is] a behemoth completely out of scale with the buildings that shape the street... Tschumi's building is an alien invader that smashes the space, looms over it with no human scale and makes a terrific regional place look like any crass development anywhere. If the two buildings are destroyed, the continued assault on the character of the place would cause even more damage to Athens than the loss of a fine individual building." (Massengale, 2007c).
Those few Greek architects who support the demolition of the previously listed buildings wish to implement the modernist ideal of a building disconnected from its surroundings. Thus, the heated debate is also driven by ideology: the arrogance of the contemporary showcase building that needs to stand apart from its "inferior" older siblings. One Greek architectural academic supporting demolition of the older buildings urged that: "Athens has to invest in the highest level of contemporary architecture without reservations, and this demands ruptures". This is a cult statement by someone who dismisses humanistic, adaptive architecture as merely "nostalgia for the past". Failing to appreciate the historic urban fabric's enormous life-enhancing value, anyone holding those convictions can only damage it.
Prominent figures both in Greece and in the rest of the world are apparently shocked by the New Museum's design, which refuses to harmonize with anything in its environment. The design of the new building has an ultra-contemporary high-tech look, so that it relates to absolutely nothing in the long history of Greek architecture. People are also surprised at this manifestation of architectural "cannibalism", which has now exposed the two previously listed buildings to destruction. Puzzled observers interpret these events to be an inexplicable oversight or mistake by the architect, Bernard Tschumi.
I am neither puzzled nor surprised by all of this. It doesn't occur to critics of the design that intolerance and destruction are the defining characteristics of Deconstructivist architecture. Deconstruction is an architecture of aggression carried out by viral means. It is fundamentally nihilistic (Salingaros, 2007). Unfortunately, its cult followers and the architectural media have deliberately misled the public. Not to belabor the point, but the proposed demolition of the two listed buildings would also cut down a row of magnificent four-storey tall shade trees as well. Nothing should stand in front of the Museum! Whoever chose Mr. Tschumi should have known what they were getting. It is meaningless to complain now. Some people understood what the term "cutting edge" really means (literally!), but others only woke up suddenly after this building has devoured everything within reach.
Writer Vassilis Vassilikos (author of the book "Z") was appalled. "Mr. Tschumi attacks and is provocative. This triangular platform, the balcony of the Cafeteria... this open terrace is a concrete arrow aimed at the back of the two protected buildings, as if wanting to tear them down by its sheer vehemence. It is savage; it is from the third world. Naturally, it matches the monstrous conception of the whole museum. But such an aggression, which is unworthy of an important architect like Mr. Tschumi, I never expected. If the protected buildings are demolished, this arrow will then target the Acropolis itself, as if wanting to destroy it as well. Mr. Tschumi, is this the much-desired dialogue with the ancient monument? Oh, Melina [Mercouri], who started this project, you would now be on a hunger strike until they pulled down this arrow of revenge that is the terrace of Tschumi's Cafeteria (Vassilikos, 2007)".
A total of 25 houses were demolished to make space for the new museum. The two neoclassical buildings were legally protected. The original brief preserved these two buildings on the plan, and the design had to respect their position. Now that the museum is complete, however, someone seems to have changed his mind, or was planning to do this from the very beginning. The details of the controversy, according to many observers, can be reduced to a very mundane reason: having a better view from the Museum's cafeteria terrace. At present, the clients of the Museum's cafeteria will have to face the back of the two listed buildings, which were never designed to be particularly attractive. The Greek press is saying that the expected income from tourists lunching at the Museum Cafeteria overrides any concerns for historic preservation.
The irony in all of this is that the Greek Government (actually two successive governments, which, while disagreeing on almost everything else, have exerted their considerable power to build the New Acropolis Museum) could be seriously risking its reputation. Far from promoting architectural and cultural enlightenment through an ultra-contemporary new museum, it could conceivably be accused of embracing a preposterous (and ephemeral) architectural fashion while destroying its priceless heritage. How has history judged those governments who, in the past, demolished their historic buildings so as to impose an idiosyncratic idea of architectural modernity?
It is worthwhile analyzing the conditions under which so many reasonably good people were led to commit senseless acts of destruction. After all, these are government officials, not professional vandals. Furthermore, the project evolved during a peacetime democracy, so there was ample time and opportunity for citizens to complain if they did not agree with what was going on at the time. Sadly to say, a majority of the Greek public was duped into enthusiastically supporting the idea of the New Acropolis Museum. It became a national cause, acquiring a certain degree of mass hysteria that usually goes along with such causes. Successive governments presented the following propositions to the public (in my own words):
1. Greece desperately needed a new museum to house the antiquities related to the Acropolis, since the old museum is too small.
2. Bernard Tschumi is an important and accomplished architect, validated by international fame and demonstrated competence.
3. Famous architects are learned professionals, who are supposed to respect a nation's history and architectural heritage.
4. England will return that portion of the Parthenon frieze now displayed in the British Museum (known as the Elgin marbles) as soon as a new museum is built in Athens to house it.
5. This is a prestige project for "the greater national good", which should therefore be supported BY ALL POSSIBLE MEANS.
Point 1 is probably correct, whereas I would argue with point 2. Glowing projections of huge numbers of visitors to the new museum (totally hypothetical) are treated as ticket receipts already cashed in. I'm not so sure. What if visitors feel psychologically ill in the building, as they do in so many other deconstructivist buildings? What if they cannot focus on the sculptures because of the nasty glare (a basic design defect also present in Richard Meier's Ara Pacis Museum in Rome)? This quasi-religious conviction of superior architectural achievement makes a rational critique next to impossible.
Point 3 represents an honest mistake that anyone unfamiliar with current trends in architecture and what is misleadingly labeled "architectural theory" can make. I have tried to explain in my books and articles why assumption 3 is false; in fact, it is deadly wrong. So much damage has been done by deliberately confusing what is famous, good, and contemporary. In reality, it is more accurate to label the most famous contemporary architects as anti-architects. They are not interested in architecture that adapts to human sensibilities, or to the local culture, but only in imposing their monstrous ego on a hapless public. They disdain everything built at any time and at any location that has an intense degree of architectural life; since older buildings have this characteristic, those are their most frequent targets. This should not be misunderstood simply as an attack on the old, however, but as an attack on architectural life.
Point 4 is crucial here. The British Museum stated categorically that it is not ready to return the Parthenon sculptures to Greece. Despite this clear pronouncement, the Greek government decided to play a "clever" game of embarrassing the British government into giving back the sculptures. It would accomplish this by building a museum with specially designed spaces for their eventual exhibition. While that was admittedly an astute (if chancy) propaganda move, it has absolutely no basis in reality. It was a game of bluff played on the international political arena: a ploy based on the psychology of humiliation. When you don't have any real bargaining power, you can try to shame your opponent into capitulation. The propaganda campaign within Greece was so intense that it misled everyone, including those who initiated it. After a while, even the propagandists believe their own lies.
The Elgin marbles were used as the "hook" to manipulate public opinion into supporting the new museum. From the very beginning, those concerned made sure to link reality with fantasy so as to keep the project moving along, and this game continues today.
Now I come to the most disturbing aspect of the story. Point 5 encapsulates the New Acropolis Museum as an "important" project, for which no sacrifice was too great to make. A shared national dream backed by authority - from the State, a famous architect, and the international sycophantic press - permitted and even urged crimes against architecture, history, and civilization. As already mentioned, critics have accused the Greek government of the destruction of archeological antiquities on the site itself. Preparing the foundations of this massive building was bitterly referred to as "archeology by bulldozer". People who protested against this were labeled as spoilers; as being against progress and the national vision.
One Greek reprimanded the critics who revealed the destruction of the archeological site with these words: "You are writing in English, so as to slander our fatherland and the Greeks... You are doing terrible harm... Already [some people] are utilizing your disclosures as an argument so that the pieces seized from the Parthenon will never be returned to our homeland... I am saddened." After a certain point, promoters of the new museum wished that everyone should submit to a conspiracy of silence about what's happening here in Athens. We don't want the outside to learn of the atrocities committed against our archaeological and architectural heritage, because that would jeopardize our game of international bluff.
There was a church on the site, the Church of St. George. It can be seen on the original plans within the region to be preserved, and outside the Museum's foundations. One day it was demolished. Fait accompli! Critics of the project managed to film the destruction - carried out by a giant excavator. There is no mention of this act of barbarism in the press. I don't know if that was due to a lack of interest or to self-imposed news censorship. Demolishing a church for no apparent reason (other than that it doesn't fit into a megalomaniacal conception for a new museum) is an egregious sacrilege. Did the Greek Orthodox Church not object? I have been unable to find out. When the residents of the two protected buildings were asked why they never complained before about the neighboring buildings falling victims to the bulldozer, they confessed that they kept quiet, reluctant to speak up: "We were faithfully supporting the higher public interest."
Seeing destruction around you and being intimidated into silence... until your own turn comes... seeing the nation's laws violated or manipulated by those who are sworn to uphold them... feeling helpless because protest makes absolutely no difference to the obsessive pursuit of a goal set by others... crying out for help but having your pleads silenced by both local and international authorities (in this case from New York)... this situation reminds me of past times when humanity slid into darkness. Surely, even then, the perpetrators' goal was "noble", working according to a frighteningly narrow interpretation of "the greater national good". After the destruction, what happens?
We usually associate the deliberate demolition of churches in our times with the regimes of Joseph Stalin and Nicolae Ceauçescu. Stalin dynamited the superb 19C Cathedral of Christ the Savior to make room for erecting the monstrous Palace of the Soviets. Le Corbusier (another Swiss/French architect, like Tschumi) eagerly took part in the architectural competition without any problems of conscience, but failed to win the commission. Maybe God objected to this project, since the foundations kept flooding, and the proposed modernist (actually, totalitarian style with typical misuse of stripped classical elements) building could not be erected. The only thing that could be built on the site was a giant circular open-air swimming pool (not very practical for swimming laps). After the fall of Soviet Communism, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was rebuilt as closely as possible according to the original plans.
I propose that, whatever the future holds in store for the New Acropolis Museum (remodeling to make it more modest? pulling down the problematic cafeteria terrace?), succeeding generations of Athenians have a moral obligation to rebuild the tiny Church of St. George. This martyred building will, like its much more important brother in Moscow, stand for the memory of a dark past, in which people foolishly embraced a warped idea of architecture and urbanism, founded upon intolerance and destruction.
Digging deeper into the motivations for what happened - and what may still take place - uncovers a frightening reality. The archaeological antiquities, the church, the two historic buildings, and the gorgeous trees in front of them were annoying to the project for a new museum. Someone whose reality has been infected by images of a futuristic modernity tells us that they cannot coexist; they have to be demolished. But we don't normally destroy whatever annoys us... we need, in addition, the authorization to do so. Not only from the State as a legal document (and that was provided here without any hesitation), but we also require MORAL authorization. Deconstructivist ideology (and the clique that supports it) has identified whatever annoys the new building as being beneath human consideration; as expendable; as without cultural value; as an obstacle to progress; as having no reason for existence; as being a detriment to our own wellbeing!
Reality is thus forced to conform to an extraordinarily impoverished vision of the world. That imposes a clear value distinction: what is new, shiny, and fashionable is good, whereas whatever differs from this (arbitrarily-defined) ideal is undesirable - and will continue to trouble us until it is annihilated.
So many things are being lost in this bargain, therefore most people can see that it is a wretched deal. Athens is trading away centuries of its heritage for a few shiny trinkets. We are witnessing a few individuals seduced by "architecture as giant sculpture" infecting Athenians with their intolerant visions of a machine-age future. This mind infection then drives people into a culture of hatred for their own past. They cannot appreciate the timeless patterns of the Acropolis, nor the human experience of walking around the sacred hill and ascending up the path, nor the experience of living in the architectural palimpsest that is historic Athens.
Nikos A. Salingaros