Published in ON magazine, 1989
Whoever has gone to Athens will no doubt have visited the National Archaeological Museum, where some of the greatest works of art of ancient Greece are exhibited. The breathtaking collection of cycladic art, with the small lute player as an absolute masterpiece, is a delight for the eyes and the spirit. The golden jewels and masks found by Schliemann in the royal graves of Mykene give testimony that Homer did not exagerate when he sang the power and wealth of Agamemnon. In another room the incomparable Poseidon of 460 B.C., is the majestic symbol of the plenitude of the golden Periclean age of Athens. As to the rest, the oeuvres exhibited in the other rooms, such as the archaic sculptures, the ceramics of the geometric period or the numerous bronzen pieces and sculptures evidences that this is one of the great museums of the world.
At the Acropolis another museum dazzles the visitor. There, the gazes from the marmoreal faces of the old deities still contemplate us. The Thinking Athena, a marbre relief of modest dimension where the Godess leans with her staff against the base of a low stone wall, has been described as the oeuvre which most purely represents the Attic-Athenian spirit which thinks the limits (Martin Heidegger). Nothing can quench the luminous youth and beauty of the ancient protectoress of Athens, not even the undignified place which has been assigned to the Godess in this museum.
The Benakis museum offers another aspect of Greek culture to the visitor. It shelters oeuvres from all periods of Greek history. Cycladic sculptures; votive figures; religious paintings from the Byzantine period; weavings from the Middle East; handwritten Bibles and a great number of traditional clothes from the islands and various regions of continental Greece.
For the visitor interested in the military and strategic aspects of the ancestral fight of the Greeks for their independence against the perpetual invaders from the East, there is a War Museum where, with the help of maps and mock-ups, one can understand and see, for example, in what geographic surroundigs and in which way the decisive battles against the Persians were fought at Marathon, Salamis and Thermopilas.
There are a great number of other museums of interest, in Athens itself as well as in the rest of Greece, but the visitor will notice a common feature in all of them: the bad way to exhibit the works of art they contain. As a general rule these are exhibited without any kind of explanation. In the very few cases when there is one, it is written in Greek and is very scarce, so that if the visitor is not a student of ancient Greek art, or has no previous knowledge of the exhibited pieces nor knowldege of the Greek language, he will see much beauty but he will not know nor be able to locate what he has seen in any historic period or cultural context. This lack of information is frustrating for one who, apart from seeing, would like to know what he is seeing. It is incredible, for example, that the National Museum of Archaeology has no exhaustive catalogue of the exhibited works of art. On the other hand, another common feature of these museums is that the illumination and the materials which serve as a background to the exhibited works, has neither been conceived nor adapted to the needs for their best viewing. This state of affairs is common in the State-owned museums as well as in those which are privately funded of which there are a surprising number.
One of these, inaugurated in 1986, is the Nicholas P. Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art. A visit there reveals the serious defects of the rest of the Greek museums, precisely because in this case the way the pieces are exhibited, are iluminated and the information about each piece, written in Greek and English, is modelic. The visit, furthermore, is gratifying because of its architecture. It is located in the center of Athens, a few minutes walk from the Syntagme square, in the Odos Neofitou Douka, in the quiet neighbourhood of Kolonaki.
The pieces exhibited on a surface of 1300m2 constitute probably the best collection of ancient Cycladic and Greek art in the world. The quality of the objects and the astounding number of masterpieces are evidence of an exquisite selection criteria (and of unusual economic resources). The existence of such a collection, created by a private citizen, is understood by its founder as a civic-patriotic act to restitute to his country the works of art of antiquity, “exiled” abroad, as Melina Mercouri, the ex-minister of culture, would call it.
Greece, due to its geographic location and its antique greatness, has been assaulted all along its extraordinary history. Even today, the hostility with its Eastern neighbour is a permenent reminder that the Occident, Europe, ends here, in Greece. It was, and still is a frontier country. Occupied and subjected, it has been expoliated of the cultural rests of its past. None of the great occupying nations of Europe can be saved from the accusation of cultural vandalism. The British Museum, the Louvre and other museums is where the loot of the plunderers of the Greek cultural heritage can be found; here you will find the trophys uprooted by the conquerors from their place of origin. They are mummies enclosed in the sarcophagus of culture, they lack what originally gave them their sense and meaning: the countryside of Greece, the light of Greece, their context. But the vandalism does not desist of its affronts; even today old tumbs are being raped, old settlements illegally excavated and the findings sold to art dealers, these ending up in the great international auctions.
It is with this background in mind of the permanent danger for the vestiges of the ancient Greek culture, that this act of salvation is based, and which culminates, first, in the creation of the collection and, later, in the construction of its permanent seat: the Nicholas P. Goulandris Foundation. This man was an important shipowner, industrialist and philanthropist, though he never achieved the notoriety of some of his colleagues. During twenty-five years he and his wife used their fortune to buy and repatriate many of the oeuvres which had been taken out of Greece. The fruit of this passion is the astounding collection of Cycladic and ancient Greek art exhibited at the Foundation.
The ensemble of the collection comprehends more than 500 pieces which represent the principal Greek cultural epochs; from the earliest sculptures of cycladic art of 3.200 B.C., to the ceramics, the bronzes, the golden jewels, the funerary tombstones of the hellenistic period and the Roman glassworks of the VI century a.C. All of the pieces are in an excellent state of conservation. The wealth and variety of the cycladic pieces throws a new light upon an art principally known for their characteristic sculptures of femenine figures, generally of small dimensions, initially in the form of a guitar, later on with human features extremly synthesized, or “essentialised”. The most recent acquisition of a femenine figure of marble is, in comparison, enormous since it is 1,4 meter high. The collection contains furthermore a great variety of tools and instruments in bronze, small figures, like talismans, jars, bowls of different dimensions, all carved in marbre, with walls not more than 3 or 4 millimetres thick. In a round bowl of 40 cms diametre and a wall of about 5 cms height, there are disposed a succesion of doves all in one line and very stylised, which cross over from one side to the other the base of the bowl, and all this carved in one piece of marble! Astounding.
The director of the British Museum has said, “Apart from the National Museum of Archaeology of Athens there is no museum which has a collection of cycladic antiquities comparable in rank and quality to the Goulandris collection”. After having been exhibited in London, Paris, Tokio, Kyoto, Houston and Brussels, the Nicholas P. Goulandris collection found its permanent abode in the building of the Neofitou Douka street, designed by Yannis Vikelas, a prominent Athenian architect. The Goulandris matrimony entrusted the design of the building directly to Vikelas due to the great quality of his architecture. And, in effect, when one dedicates some time to walk across the Greek capital searching for good architecture, one will discover in the architectural caos of this city, that numerous buildings of real quality are designed by him.
The Goulandris museum is a masterpiece of coherence. Nothing in it escapes a rigorous criteria. Throughout the visit one perceives the manifestation of an evident rigour in the architectural environment which understands the building as an integral whole, from the facade down to the entrance ticket. The graphic and written information on the ground floor, which puts the visitor into the cultural and historic context of the cycladic and ancient Greek art, is excellent in its formal aspect as well as in its realization. The explanations, in Greek and English, are extensive and typographically well resolved. This ground floor enjoys natural light from an adjacent patio court and the glass door which opens towards it, gives access to a space full of plants and flowers; a young vine hangs up towards a metallic grid which, in the future, will make a vegetal roof in this garden, an ideal place to drink a coffee. At the left of this door there is a shop which sells excellent publications about Cycladic and ancient Greek art. The pieces of the Goulandris collection are very well photographed and reproduced on different kinds of supports. The graphic corporate image present on different communicational supports constitute a coherent discourse with that of the architecture.
From the ground floor, one reaches the upper floors by lift or by a white marble staircase. The signange on each floor is designed with the same criterion of clarity and discretion as the information panels. On the first floor is the collection of Cycladic art. The exhibition room is dark. The entire visual climate is one of great visual stillness. This darkness is understood when one sees the works: one has to rest the sight, “de-excite” it; purify it before being able to apprehend these works in their virginal splendour, a seeing with no interference of any kind of that which comes to us from the beginning of time and which – at the same time – are strangely contemporary.
The room is designed for a U-shaped route. All the works are arranged behind protective showcases and the only lights are directed onto the works. These thus emerge in a dark, virgin space which, in turn, highlights their purity. They play a leading role thanks to surroundings voluntarily relegated to darkness, of a uniform colour, and to an interior architecture which does not compete with the uniqueness of the works of art. Both combine to shape the visual silence which reigns supreme in this room. Floor, ceilings, walls and backgrounds are, with rare exceptions, the same blue-dark grey tone. The showcases and elements of support are of refined carpentry work. Each case has a number indicating the chronologial order of the route, and each piece has a number referring to an explanation in Greek and English.
Most of the works are in honey-coloured marble. The dim light tends to be yellow and harmonises with them. Each period of the evolution of this art is represented by one or several works, all of stunning beauty. Many are genuine masterpieces. The marble heads are brought to such a degree of expressive purity that one would say that the very spirit of what they represent has become materialised.
The vist to the second floor is a different visual experience. Here is the collection of Anciet Greek art. The works span a historical era from 2000 BC to the 6th century AD. The different periods of Ancient Greek art – Minoan, Mycenaean, Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic – are represented, like the Cycladic art, by dazzling, well-preserved works. The second floor also houses the Lambros Evtaxias Collection of bronze objects.
The route around this room is also U-shaped. And the interior architecture likewise follows identical criteria of discretion. The design of the installation, lighting and colouring of both floors is the work of the North Americans Gordon Anson and Elroy Quenroe. They were chosen on the strength of their work on the design of the exhibition of the National Washington Art Gallery Collection. The chromatic range of the pottery, bronzes, sculptures, gold jewellry, funeral stele covers all the shades of earth: grey-yellow-brown-beige. The surroundings are also in these tones: the background to the works, the showcases, supprts, walls, floor and ceiling. On this floor all is light, there is no darkness. And here, too, the architecture dissolves, but this time into light; there is no visual break between work and support: the are intimately integrated.
The third floor is a large space, broad and generous, which is not subdivided like the previous ones; it enjoys natural light. It houses temporary exhibitions. On its four walls are devices for hanging pictures and a mobile system for lighting the works on display.
The Goulandris Foundation is a living place, offering permanent programmes of lectures and symposiums which take place on the top floor of the building. This is equipped with a modern infrastructure enabling approximately fifty spectators to view any type of audiovisual system. In the basement is a small cafeteria; the rest of the space is devoted to a permanent educational exhibition for children.
When one leaves the building and emerges into the street, to the city with its noise and visual clutter, one feels within oneself the stillness of the place one has just left, a stillness which envelops the works and keeps them pure within the memory. One also feels gratitude and admiration for the authors of this magnificent building, because they have known how to shape an architecture “at the service of” the works and the visitor. Unlike what occurs in much of contemporary architecture, where “overdesigning” prevails, the authors have here known how to repress any urge to create a monument to their ego.
The Foundation’s interior architecture has been conceived in order to “disappear”, so to speak, from the visitor’s perception, employing for this purpose darkness in one case, luminosity in another. Which would confirm that the best designed object is the one which does not appear to have been designed.
Two constants seem to characterise the work of Vikelas, spanning the period from 1969 to 1985. With regard to materials, the frequent use of glass-black mirror, alone or in combination with white marble, with the consequent presence of the relationship black/white, light and non-light. In formal terms, a refined rationalism which powerfully stands out from the architectural mediocrity of Athen’s “modern” buildings. Some of his works are incorporated in the urban surroundings only because they are mirror-buildings, which reflect everything around them. They are screen-buildings of pure, sensual, sensitive lines.
In the works after 1985 an evolution can be discerned: classical references appear. In an important white marble office building in Vassilis Sofias Street, this visual structure of the facade displays a symmetrical, classical conception, and – above and beside the wiondows – appears as a marble relief the symbol-figure of Post-Modern architecture: the triangular gable. In another project, still under study, the presence of classical elements in a building clearly an heir of Rationalism is still more evident: in the front of a black glass L-shaped building arise porticos formed by fragments of gables upon columns. The idea it suggests, is that of the building of ruins. In a recent project, not yet realised, these classical elements are directly incorporated in the building, also of mirror-glass. However, it has to be admitted that a modern building bearing classical references in Athens is a different propostion to such a building in New York or Paris, for the meaning and justification are given by the context: columns and the remains of Classical Athens are to be found all over the city.
When Vikelas began to think about the Foundation building, it was very tempting to to turn to the “neoclassical” style, he says, because – in addition – it implied no risk. It would have been a “coherent” and “logical” solution considering its contents. However he felt it necessary to search and create something which might be more than a commonly acceptable form because, in the field of architecture, the relationship with the past – through repetition and imitation – “tends to be a morbid nostalgia”. Vikelas himself says, “We believe that the essence (soul) of a nation and of its peoples endures in the values of art and not in its changing forms, through what is in the background of the creative imagination of its peoples, nourished by their history”.
“The austere style and geometry of the formes of the internationally famous collection of Cycladic art (…) decided the aesthetic line of the building. (…) We hope that this work has been conceived in accordance withe the ideas of our country; the harmonious proportions of form and surface, the contrast of chiaroscuro, the connection between the whole and the detail and, finally, in accordance with the dialectical relationship of the daring and the discreet, the old and the new”. Propositions which, as any visitor may ascertain, have been materialised outstandingly in this exquisite work.