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Reflections on Images of Heritage

A few months ago I revisited my 5th year dissertation: “The Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles; their essence and their absence”, as the possibility of writing a joint article with my MSc supervisor arose. Reading it again after so long felt like meeting an old friend; familiar and at once curiously foreign.

The much-contested issue of the Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles is well known. Since 1965 it is the subject of international political debate while by the mid ‘80s, when the first official request to the British government for their reinstitution was made, it became a national issue. The British arguments for the non-repatriation are also well documented and until now neither the British Museum nor the British Government seem particularly keen to return them.

This however had not been the burning question in mind when writing the dissertation. Having assumed that they would not be returned (and not really questioning it as right or wrong) what intrigued me was how the building, having been proclaimed a catalyst for their return, would be designed to deal with their probable absence.

Until and including 2008 the widespread rhetoric was that the spaces must remain empty in anticipation of their return so as to remind the viewer that the museum will “remain incomplete as long as the Elgin Marbles sit in the Duveen Room of the British Museum”[1]. Upon the museum’s completion however the adopted solution was to exhibit casts of the missing pieces instead, “in order to suggest to the viewer how the monument might look like when complete”[2]

Having traced the history of the display of the Parthenon Marbles in Britain and at the British Museum (ranging from the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ approach through to a more modern curatorial attitude) and the influence they had had in its architecture, I approached the subject through a ‘semiology’ lens and considered the philosophy and meaning of ‘void’ while examining architectural examples of how empty spaces, when displayed correctly, can have a powerful meaning. The resulting conclusion was that even if the Parthenon Marbles were never exhibited within the new museums’ walls, their absent presence could still be felt through a careful portrayal of their void so as not to resort to a seemingly trite and rather defeatist attitude of using a plaque or indeed casts. Evidently, the message of the void would need to be conveyed in a way as to allow an ‘open’ reading while not being so ‘open’ that it prevents us from recognising in the message a formalizable structure.[3] An empty space would then not appear as “a deficiency, a failure to fill up a cavity or gap… but a bringing – forth.”[4]

Looking back now, the discourse was interesting if slightly self-righteous. Inadvertently, the conclusion reached could read as a glorified absence that would become a pressure vehicle for their return, because it is where they belong. But do we own heritage? Heritage is thought of as underpinning our roots and the importance we bestow on the material culture “plays a vital representational role in defining national identity”[5]; as such any discourse is incredibly complex and inherently political, so much so that it becomes personal.

When I first saw an image of the façade for the athlete’s residential building within the Stratford regeneration I thought it superficial, an ornament of post colonisation, almost hubristic. Reading Niall’s ‘Peplos: The dissimulating façade’ got me thinking about this more. When the Marbles were removed from the temple they began a different journey, their identity was altered “from deep walling elements to thin relief panels” while “their dissolution, replication and dispersal”[6] made them idealistically present but always lost [7]; they don’t ‘belong’ anywhere. Maybe this facade should not be offending me but helping me to recognise the expression of appreciation for the ‘lost’ pieces of a timeless masterpiece that could almost read as a celebrated protest.

[1] Sands, H. (2008) “Henry Sands says Athens’ new museum is missing its Marbles” Acropolis Now [online] http://www.elginism.com/new-acropolis-museum/the-new-acropolis-museum-needs-its-marbles-to-complete-it/20080827/1289/ (Accessed 3rd March 2013)
[2] Plantzos, D. (2011) “Acropolismus”, Antiquity, no.85, p.623, [Online] http://antiquity.ac.uk/ant/085/ant0850613.htm (Accessed 9th October 2012)
[3] Caesar M. (1999) Umberto Eco: Philosophy, Semiotics and the Work of Fiction, Polity Press, Cambridge, p.65.
[4] Leach N. (1997) Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, Routledge, Taylor & Francis group, London, p.123.
[5] Smith, L. (2006) Uses of Heritage, New York, Routledge, p.48
[6] McLaughlin, N., (2012) “Peplos: The Dissimulating Façade”in Archithese.
[7] Ibid.

Pinelopi Antoniou studied at the University of Cambridge and the Edinburgh College of Art. She holds a BArch (Hons) and a Diploma in Architecture. She  was nominated for the RIBA President’s Medal in 2005. She joined Niall McLaughlin Architects in 2013 and has worked on a private house in London, a private house in the Cotswolds and is currently on the Outpatients building in Oxford.



The use of physical models by architects is well established, and can be seen throughout history as the natural partner to drawings for exhibiting a proposal of the building prior to construction. Within our practice, models are rarely produced as mere presentation pieces, but rather as tools for exploration. This role makes them less precious and complete, with the ability to change and adapt the design following the feedback that the model has initiated.

The type of models that I enjoy most are those of a larger scale, of 1:20 and above where you are able to get your head inside and truly appreciate the space. In addition to the final form of such models, much is learnt through the process of construction. Structure, surfaces and junctions are some of the issues that require resolution during the making of the model. Within our studio space, we have a large area dedicated to model making, which allows for building and display of sizeable pieces.

Large Scael Model

During our work on a new build private residence in Hampshire, we carried out much of the design work on the external envelope through the use of physical models. They were worked up in increasing scales including a 1:10 piece of the facade. In particular, we were considering the form of the heavy external piers, fascias and cornices against the lighter timber elements that sat within them. We made the model using a similar sequence to the proposed building construction. We put the more solid facade elements in place so that we could begin considering a number of different forms for the timber window framing that sat within. The glazing was again produced in a similar method to the full-scale building, with a timber-framed bay built separately prior to installation in to the existing facade. We fixed these delicately so that removal would be possible.

We worked on a number of iterations of the window form, adapting the frames and constructing new versions when modification was not possible. Each time, the model was left on display within the studio so that everyone in the practice could consider the alternative versions and provide feedback. Once we had a favoured form, we used the same model to illustrate the proposal to the clients for approval.

I believe that such iterative assessments and amendments would only have been possible through the use of a large-scale physical model. Building models is about constructing space, and many of the activities are similar in technique and execution as the construction of a real building. By carrying out these actions in miniature we may appreciate the building as a physical form and understand the three dimensional mass. Building of models is our primary opportunity to test and refine our building form, whilst experiencing and discovering an approximation of the processes that will be required to make it.

Alastair Crockett studied at the University of Bath, University College London and London Metropolitan University. Since joining Niall McLaughlin Architects in 2012 he has worked on the T1 building in King’s Cross; a private residence in Hampshire and the Nazrin Shah Building for Worcester College in Oxford.