5 December 2016
When the foundation of the Greek shipping tycoon Stavros Niarchos entrusted the design of its cultural center to Renzo Piano, the economic and financial crisis that would throw Greece and the whole of Europe into chaos was only just starting. In 2008, the fine idea of redeveloping a semi-abandoned space in the Kallithea district, a few km from the center of Athens, and then donating it to the Greek State, met with no obstacles or criticism. In addition to the National Library and the Opera House, a park was to be created on the 23 hectares of the site, a precious green lung in a densely built-up area. Now that eight years have passed and Tsipras’s Greece is still trying to find its way out of the crisis, the opening of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC), which took place last June after 40 months of work, has been greeted with mixed feelings. With all the necessary and plausible caveats, this operation follows in the footsteps of numerous projects that have tried to make a contribution to economic recovery through the promotion of culture: the hope is that it will produce a Hellenic “Bilbao effect.” The SNFCC, set up with the idea of making up for a public shortcoming, is a gift worth 596 million euros, invested to create a 24,000-square-meter library able to house 750,000 volumes, a 1,400-seat theater to be used to stage ballets and more traditional opera productions, flanked by an experimental one with 450 seats, and a 170,000-square-meter public park. The visual and environmental relationship with the water, which the site had lost, has been reestablished by the creation of an artificial hill in the southern part of the area: a grassy sward dotted with olive trees and with lavender, rosemary, thyme and other indigenous herbs whose fragrance accompanies visitors all the way to the top of the building, on the ninth floor, from where they can enjoy a 360° view of the open sea and the acropolis. Here there is a reading room with glass walls in which, according to Renzo Piano, reading becomes “a spiritual experience.” This showcase is set underneath an important technological invention: a slender ferrocement roof of 10,000 square meters and weighing 3,500 metric tons that seems to be suspended on thirty steel columns with a diameter of just 30 centimeters. Its surface is covered with 5,560 photovoltaic panels that make the center independent from the viewpoint of energy. Another connection with the water is provided by a canal running in a north-south direction along the Esplanade, the main pedestrian axis of the site. It is from here that you come to the Agora, an open space defined by large walls that support the inclined plane of the park. With the grand festival of presentation to the public now part of history, work is progressing on the transfer of operational control and management to the Greek state for the commencement of the center’s activities, which has been announced for 2017.