Once the dust from the Olympics and Paralympics has settled, the Athletes Village will be transformed into East Village. Hosting over17,000 athletes and team officials during the Olympic Games, the Village will be converted into 2,818 residential units including 1,379 affordable homes. The athletes currently sleep in the homes of future owners, fulfilling the site’s own mantra of ‘Beds for athletes, homes for Londoners’. And what homes they are, with beautifully differentiated envelopes and the Lea Valley Park on their doorstep. Meanwhile, with athletes from all 205 competing countries in the village, a worldwide community is sure to identify these individual blocks as home for the next month.
One piece of this differentiation caught my eye in particular. Down at the Building Centre on Store Street, there was a slick exhibition of what the Village will be like after the games. New London Architecture, in association with Delancey, put on the exhibition ‘East Village – a lasting legacy for London’ from the 13th to the 31st March to showcase the architectural and design excellence of the village set within the broader context of the transformation of East London (1). Here models of the entire proposal sat alongside descriptions of the area, drawings from the architects and materials for the buildings themselves. Right in the middle of them all was this:
It is a section of the Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, that has been reproduced in concrete by Niall McLaughlin Architects. The sculpted Marbles originally graced the walls of the Parthenon in Athens. Built nearly 2,500 years ago as a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, it was for a thousand years the church of the Virgin Mary of the Athenians, then a mosque, and finally an archaeological ruin (2). These recreated panels, meanwhile, have been wrapped round the façade of a base building by Glenn Howells Architects to clothe one of the blocks in the Athletes Village.
The Marbles are a site of extreme architectural controversy. Sculpted by Greeks, blown up by Venetians, given away by Ottomans and shipped to England by Lord Elgin, they have been the subject of heated debate ever since (3). The position of the Greek culture ministry is understandably nationalistic, and is replicated in the UK every time a ‘British masterpiece’ might be sold off to a private buyer. They request the return of the marbles to Greek ownership and display.
This international wrangling has even found architectural form in the Acropolis Museum by Bernard Tschumi Architects. The top floor of this building is angled to sit in the same orientation as the Parthenon and has a frame inside to hold the surviving pieces of the Marbles in the same relationship as they would have been on the original building. Those pieces of the Marbles that are currently held by the British Museum, Louvre and other international museums are represented with plaster replicas, awaiting their return.
The arguments that the British have used for not returning the Marbles are many and varied. Originally it was stated that they had been legitimately transferred into British ownership from the rulers of the country. While Greece went through turbulent political periods it was argued that that the sculptures were being safeguarded from potential damage. In more recent times the argument has become more obtuse. The British Museum now states that the Marbles are of such global significance that they should be shown in a free, internationally visited museum and seen in context with a worldwide selection of anthropological items.
This is a much more interesting argument, which the use of the casts on the Olympic Village wholeheartedly supports. It really states that the marbles now exist in the public realm. As Niall Mclaughlin explains “The Parthenon stones were made in a particular place at a particular time. Their deracination and constant re-idealisation has made them into something else – something iconic that people recognise, like a picture of Elvis.”
That the argument the British Museum has for retaining the Marbles hinges on the worldwide distribution of their image, seems somewhat oxymoronic. How can they possibly be owned by the world, when they are very obviously retained in London? Even traditionally insular, nationalistic treasures, such as China’s Teracotta Army, have found themselves on world tours to allow as many people as possible to appreciate them. Maybe the Marbles should go on a world tour of their own. Perhaps they should be exhibited in a newly created international museum between Greece and the UK.
In any case, the British Museum might learn something from the games, that even though the Olympics originated in Greece, they are now worldwide because of a sense of personal ownership each time they move. The British have not owned the marbles for very long, and they should see themselves as just part of a long line of their guardians. Just part of a global tradition. The athletes might well appreciate the concrete replicas of the Marbles while they occupy East Village, but they know they are only one of a whole timeline of incumbents of the Olympic Park.
About the author
Hugh McEwen is an architectural critic, writer and designer.
His work examines the methods by which architecture can express and condition political positions. He has been published in international peer reviewed journals and national magazines, most recently in the Architectural Review. His work has been exhibited widely, last appearing in The Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition 2012, London. As well as working in practice, he has taught at UCL and acts a guest critic at Kingston, Greenwich and the AA.
Originally published in the architecture section of Notes from the Underground Notes from the Underground is a London based literary and cultural magazine (www.nftu.co.uk)