A long view of history

Times Staff Writer

For most of her 85 years, Elly Kouremenos has awakened and looked out her window to see a breathtakingly clear picture of the ancient Parthenon, Greece’s revered temple atop the Acropolis mountain.

It brings joy, she said, “the grandeur of it.”

“I say, ‘Oh my God,’ every day,” added Kouremenos’ equally reverent daughter, Marina.

The Kouremenos’ apartment building faces the Acropolis and is one of the last and most important examples of early 20th century Art Deco architecture in Athens.


But Elly Kouremenos and her family may soon lose their four-story home with its storybook view, because it obstructs another view: that of a new $178-million museum dedicated to the Acropolis.

The Kouremenos building, with its gray-and-pink Pentelic marble facade and mosaics of Oedipus and the Sphinx, has been slated for demolition so that the museum, still under construction, can have a straight line of sight to the Acropolis and the 2,500-year-old Parthenon.

And so the battle lines are drawn. Defenders of the museum say it is far too important a project to let anything get in the way; they hope it will one day house the so-called Elgin Marbles that Greece wants Britain to give back.

The Kouremenos family and their supporters say it is unjust to sacrifice one layer of cultural history for another. Athens, they say, is more than just antiquities.

“We are all on the side of cultural heritage -- this is a matter of how to go about preserving it and whether there is a hierarchy,” said Nikos Rousseas, an architect whose firm occupies half of the ground floor of the Kouremenos’ Art Deco building.

“Greece has a continuing existence of thousands of years,” he added. “We should show respect for all different facets of our civilization.”

For decades, it has been the dream of many Greeks to have a world-class museum to showcase their world-famous archeological wonders: the Parthenon and the “sacred hill,” as the Acropolis is known locally, upon which it sits.

The Acropolis dominates Athens’ skyline and its history; the Parthenon’s marble friezes, elegant sculptures and mathematically perfect columns are among the most fabulous treasures of ancient Greece.

Today, that museum, designed by award-winning Swiss-born architect Bernard Tschumi, is finally coming into existence. On Sunday, workers began to transport objects from a small gallery atop the Acropolis to the new building.

But the project has moved forward amid much criticism over its cost, design and delays in construction.

From the moment ground was broken, problems commenced. Builders discovered a subterranean warren of streets and homes, from Roman and early Christian periods, that temporarily halted the project but that is now being incorporated into the facility. The museum will have glass floors so that visitors can see the excavation of the ancient city below.

In fact, much of the 226,000-square-foot museum is made of glass. It will display 4,000 masterpieces and other antiquities found in the Acropolis’ various temples, and will include an exhibit that dramatizes that which is missing from the Parthenon -- namely the friezes taken by Lord Elgin in the 19th century and then sold to the British Museum.

These so-called Elgin Marbles have been at the heart of a Greek-British tug of war that has gone on for decades, and Greek officials hope that the new Acropolis Museum will put added pressure on the British Museum to return the marble plaques and sculptures.

Installation will take place throughout the next year, said Dimitris Pandermalis, head of the museum project.

“This is a big public project involving our history and national identity,” Pandermalis, a professor of archeology, said in an interview as he toured the construction site.

Government officials hope the museum will triple the number of visitors to the Acropolis, to more than 3.5 million, which would translate into millions of dollars in potential tourism revenue -- a major chunk of the Greek economy.

The museum will have a panoramic vista of the Acropolis about 1,000 feet away -- nipped by a few plane trees and the homes on Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, a no-cars-allowed road that leads up to the Acropolis and sits between it and the museum.

One home is the four-story building belonging to the Kouremenos family; the other is owned by composer Vangelis (Evangelos Papathanasiou), who won an Oscar for scoring the 1981 film “Chariots of Fire.”

In 1978, the Greek government declared the houses architectural monuments and ordered they be preserved. It was a time of chaotic overdevelopment in Athens, when urbanization sacrificed many charming buildings to boxy apartment blocks. The order was also meant to prevent the neighborhoods around the Acropolis from becoming strips of souvenir shops selling miniature Parthenons and fake caryatid figurines.

Today’s Greek government, however, rescinded the protected status, a prerequisite to demolishing the buildings.

“The museum really should be optically combined with the Acropolis, and the houses interrupt that,” Pandermalis said. “The museum loses optically. The houses are very ugly from behind. I don’t think any architect in the world would look at the backside of these buildings . . . and be proud.”

The Kouremenos family remains determined to fight to save its building, constructed in 1930 by Vassilis Kouremenos, a relative and architect of some fame who graduated from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. They have launched an Internet campaign and received backing from prominent architects, ordinary Greeks and other supporters from around the world. Greek media have reported that Papathanasiou too opposes the demolition.

The Kouremenos family notes that every submission in the design competition for the museum assumed the homes would remain. Every entry, including the ultimately successful one by Tschumi, incorporated the houses in their drawings. That has made the looming demolition an even more bitter pill to swallow.

Marina Kouremenos, who was born and raised in the building, said removing the homes is the government’s effort to sanitize the Acropolis area and turn it into a Greek Disneyland.

Architect Rousseas agreed, saying the homes represent a piece of authentic Athenian life, sustained on the same spot where the ancient Greeks once lived, a continuum of civilization.

“It’s not just a building,” he said, “it’s the aura of the place.”