When Sigmund Freud visited the Parthenon as a young man, he found it disturbed his sense of reality. Something about its sunlit columns and precise geometry seemed unreal. Despite its grand scale, perched above Athens, it was a site of intimacy and play. The good doctor could sense its many ghosts, from the bodies felled by Ottoman conquerors to the Greeks of antiquity who gathered to sing, kiss and pray.
Far from Athens itself, the Parthenon is being rebuilt in Melbourne, Australia as part of the National Gallery of Victoria’s annual architecture commission. Temple of Boom is designed by Adam Newman and Kelvin Tsang, who conceived of the project during lockdown. The structure is made of glass-reinforced concrete and rises from the NGV gardens like a piece of sumptuous Meccano. It invites the public to reflect not only on the Parthenon’s beauty, but its complicated history.
“It’s this thing that’s been in existence for 2,500 years,” Newman says. “It’s lived this extraordinary life in a multitude of different guises, from a temple to treasury through to church, mosque, home for single women and munitions depot. It’s a complete rabbit hole in terms of research and interest. The background of the scheme was utilizing this very potent symbol that means so many different things to so many people.
In the early 19th century, Thomas Bruce, known as Lord Elgin, facilitated the removal of marble sculptures from the Parthenon’s statuary and pediments. He had them transported over rough seas to the British Museum, where they still reside today. Almost immediately after their arrival on English shores, a campaign began to have the Parthenon marbles returned to Athens. A bitter argument set in, one that still rages: was this vandalism or were the sculptures legally acquired?
Last year, the then-UK prime minister Boris Johnson issued a point-blank rejection of the sculptures ever being returned to Greece, while the British Museum has unequivocally stated that it would only ever loan them out and would expect them to be returned.
When conceiving Temple of Boom, how much was this debate at the front of Newman and Tsang’s minds? “It was certainly part of the thinking, but not at the forefront in terms of being didactic about it,” Newman says. “One of the critical aspects of this building is that any manner in which you consider it or discuss it becomes incredibly loaded. It’s probably just a matter of time before the British Museum and the British government consent to return. There is very limited argument on the retain side. Our project is part of the discussion.
With the intention of expanding how we might see the Parthenon, Temple of Boom features local Melbourne artists who have painted the structure in layers. Walking among the columns, your eyes constantly flit between plants and silhouettes. Some of the color blocks have the effect of an eight-bit video game, a nod to the site as a replica; Skateboarders whiz by, shouting something about Snoop Dogg. The space feels dizzying, festive and a little camp.
Speaking with artist Manda Lane, whose work adorns much of the structure, she tells me about her fondness for the Greek myth where the goddess Athena plants an olive tree next to the Parthenon. “I was really struck by how the olive tree has a deep-seated root system that can withstand fire or conflict. I really like the idea of nature’s strength. If it’s not suppressed, it comes up in surprising ways,” she says. “My work is posing a question: how do we facilitate public space and architecture in a way that enables the free-flowing organic growth behavior of plants?”
On the outskirts of Temple of Boom, a group of children are pulling up weeds from cracks in the pavement. One by one they hold the weeds up to the sun, before hurling them at one another. A game is on. One boy runs towards the Parthenon structure, before stopping dead. “It’s pretty good,” he declares, scanning each of the columns as his friends catch up. They nod silently, waiting for something to happen; for the light to change, for time to pass, for the building to speak.