appropriating antiquity

(the following is a project statement from a grant proposal i’m working on)

Project Thesis

From the Renaissance until the recent past, the use of classicism as an architectural style has served primarily to establish equivalence between the current systems of government and an idealized antiquity.

The architects of the renaissance reintroduced classical forms as an appeal to reason. The rise of humanism demanded architectural styles based on geometric forms that represented the truth and beauty of a rational universe, but in the following epoch, with the nascent spread of global capitalism, classical styles began to be utilized as nationalistic propaganda. The early architecture of the United States is an exemplar: simultaneously an appeal to the ideals of Athenian democracy and an attempt to establish a utopian republic on a tabula rasa, the reintroduction of classical style was to be a harbinger of the culmination of Greek democratic philosophy.

While fledgling America could only mine the architectural styles of the ancients, European nations had the ambition and means to literally take representative relics. Such is the case with the Elgin Marbles, the 247 feet of Parthenon frieze dislodged and brought to Britain by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, in 1806. Taking advantage of the declining Ottoman Empire, the British legally took half of the Parthenon’s sculptural program, placing the formerly sacred in that new haven of spirituality: the museum. As a weakened Greece hemorrhaged antiquities, European nation-building relied heavily on the cultural cachet of Greek artifacts.

The combination of classical styles in new construction and the capture and preservation of authentic fragments of the past demonstrate the sustained effectiveness of the aesthetics of ancient civilizations. From Thomas Jefferson to Albert Speer, use of the classical has been a representation of ideality: the aesthetic reference to antiquity is an obvious appeal to equivalence.

Today, however, neither mimetic classicism nor the appropriation of artifacts is sufficient to convey an air of equivalence. National power is no longer founded on political efficacy or cultural tradition, but on economic might. Since the construction of the Guggenheim Bilbao, planers have recognized the potential of architecture for economic revitalization.

In Greece, the proposition of the 2004 Olympics, combined with a relatively stable government, fostered a popular notion that a new, iconic museum could prompt the return of the Parthenon frieze to its rightful home, with an accompanying tourist boom. While the museum construction proceeded slowly, the Olympics came and went, but Bernard Tschumi’s New Acropolis Museum will finally be revealed this summer, its vacant displays awaiting the Parthenon sculptures that may never arrive. While the British Museum claims that their 1800-era casts of the sculptures that remain at the Parthenon are better representations than the weathered originals in Athens, they still maintain steadfast in their refusal to return their originals to the Acropolis.

In this research project, I will examine the role played by the preservation and presentation of artifacts in contemporary culture. An analysis of Bernard Tschumi’s New Acropolis Museum will provide a basis for this discussion. A comparison of Tschumi’s museum with historical (Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Project for A Palace on the Acropolis, Leo Von Klenze Project for the Acropolis) and contemporary projects (William/Tsien’s Folk Art Museum, and Nouvel’s Musée du quai Branly) will allow me to draw conclusions regarding the role of the artifact in contemporary museum design and to analyze the utilization of artifacts for national political or economic gain.


Between May and August 2007 I will attempt to establish contacts with the British Museum and the New Acropolis Museum. Following interviews with the appropriate parties, I hope to discover the motivations and attitudes behind the particularities of display of the antiquities in question. In addition, I will research and analyze contemporary and historical museum projects in an attempt to establish a coherent evolution of museum design in regard to the display of artifacts.

The time spent in London and Athens will therefore consist primarily of interviews, photo documentation, and substantial journal entries regarding the detailing and effect of the museum displays in question, to be supplemented by material collected through library research both before and following the trip.


  • Anonymous

    This sounds awesome.

    I feel like something needs to be said about WHY the Greeks of all civs to become the birth of civilization. Racism of course (not that I am any expert) — keep in mind that “civilization” and “culture” at this time were not relative terms, they implicitly referred to Europeans, all others being barbarians without culture or civilization. So why the Greeks? Well, the Turks were breathing rather heavily down Europe’s neck at the time, and the Greeks had always done such a bang-up job of sticking it to those Others that tried to come across the Bosporus…

    Or something.


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