Art Deco Gem in Athens Faces Demolition

The Associated Press
Thursday, August 2, 2007; 5:05 AM

ATHENS, Greece -- A reflection of the Parthenon shimmers from the windows of Greece's new Acropolis Museum in a convergence of antiquity and modern architecture.

But from inside the glass and concrete museum, the view of the Parthenon is ruined by two buildings, and a plan to demolish them has opened a fierce debate about sacrificing Greece's modern treasures to showcase its ancient history.

One of the two buildings is 1930s Art Deco gem designated a monument in its own right. The other is owned by Oscar-winning composer Vangelis Papathanassiou of "Chariots of Fire" fame.

With its pink marbled exterior, the Art Deco building is the most eye-catching along the leafy road leading to the Acropolis entrance. A mosaic of Oedipus and the Sphinx adorn the top story, and marble statues of women in traditional dress flank the wrought iron door.

But a visitor looking out from the new museum _ scheduled to open in early 2008 _ would see only the rear of the two buildings _ plain and charmless facades.

Culture Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis announced in May that the two buildings would be torn down. Two months later, Greece's archaeological council voted to revoke the Art Deco structure's protection from demolition and its status as a monument.

Residents and architects were outraged. They have started an Internet campaign to save both buildings and have received e-mails of support from around the world.

"Let's be more open-minded. Greece is not just antiquities," said architect Nikos Rousseas, whose office is on the ground floor of the Art Deco building.

The new museum "is not the one to judge what part of history is important and what is not," he said. "We can't do things like that at the expense of other monuments and works of art."

Defenders of the two buildings _ No. 17 and No. 19 Dionyssiou Areopagitou St. _ are urging Voulgarakis not to sign the archaeological council's recommendation to demolish them. Rousseas has posted information on the Art Deco building outside its front door, along with an appeal to visitors to help by writing to the culture minister.

The Culture Ministry said it would comment later on the controversy.

The Art Deco building, No. 17, was built by Vassilis Kouremenos, a graduate of Paris' Ecole des Beaux Arts and reportedly a friend of Pablo Picasso.

It is "probably the most impressive example of its kind" in Athens, said Kostas Stamatopoulos of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environment and Cultural Heritage.

The debate threatens to overshadow the long-anticipated opening of the new museum next year.

Athens has sorely needed a new place to house antiquities from the 2,600-year-old Acropolis. The old museum on the Acropolis hill near the Parthenon temple was cramped and overcrowded. It closed down in June, and the new museum promises to display artifacts hidden away in storage rooms because of a lack of exhibition space. Next month, 300 marble statues from atop the Acropolis will be moved into the museum.

Greeks hope it will one day house the Elgin Marbles _ a collection of sculptures removed from the Parthenon in the early 19th century and currently housed in London's British Museum. Athens has sought their return for years. The British Museum has refused, but a space awaits them in a gallery on the top floor of the new museum.

The gallery was meant to be enhanced by an untarnished view of the Acropolis.

"The glass enclosure of the gallery provides ideal light for sculpture in direct view to and from the historical reference point of the Acropolis," U.S.-based architect Bernard Tschumi, who designed the museum, wrote in a promotional leaflet.

The museum was constructed after years of delays and fierce criticism over its location, structure and hulking size. Critics say its style is incongruous with its surroundings, on the edge of Athens' old district of Plaka.

"We are tearing down two protected buildings to showcase one of dubious aesthetics and bulk," said Stamatopoulos.

The Art Deco building caught the eye of visitors gazing down on Athens from the Acropolis.

"Looking from above, you can see the new museum and these buildings," said Michael Seigel, visiting from Tampa, Fla., with his family. "They're very pretty. There's no reason to see them destroyed."

© 2007 The Associated Press