On a chilly, overcast morning we set out to visit the new jewel in the crown of Athens: the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Park and Cultural Centre. Athens, having grown exponentially and without proper planning in the last decades (a plan was made, but was ignored by successive governments for reasons I shall not go into here) is a city with the lowest per capita green space in Europe. The only relief is the easy access to the sea on all sides – otherwise it is drowning in urban concrete.
When the racecourse was moved from the bay of Phaliron to the town of Markopoulo on the occasion of the Athens Olympics, a large area was liberated. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation stepped in with a project, designed by the architectural firm Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW), that includes the new facilities of the National Library of Greece, and of the Greek National Opera, as well as the Stavros Niarchos Park.
The Stavros Niarchos Foundation (www.SNF.org) is one of the world’s leading private international philanthropic organizations, making grants in the areas of arts and culture, education, health and sports, and social welfare.The SNF Cultural Center is the Foundation’s largest single gift, for a total budget of $867mil (€630mil). This huge investment is a testament and a commitment to the country’s future, and also hopes to be an engine of economic stimulus in the short and middle term.
Although this is not the best season to visit gardens, it was immediately apparent that the whole park has been beautifully planted in a way that celebrates Greece’s horticultural tradition: the open, sunlit Mediterranean Garden.
Each month is meant to bring a new color, and each season to introduce a different combination of flowers or foliage. Each visit should be a sensual pleasure, with the proliferation of evergreen and other endemic plants such as boxwood, coronilla, cistus, and lentisc, salvia, oregano, thyme, lavender, rosemary, roses and euphorbias.
From the Mediterranean Garden, curving landscaped pathways wend their way up a gentle grade to the 32 m high summit of an artificial hill. Beneath the earth is the building that houses the Library and Opera House, making the hill the green roof for the structure. One of the largest in Europe, the green roof significantly reduces air-conditioning requirements.
Architect Renzo Piano envisaged the SNFCC rising out of the ground like a dislodged piece of the earth’s crust. Soaring 14 m above the summit, a 100m x 100m photovoltaic canopy extends outward from its perimeter. A marvel of engineering and construction, supported by 40 sinewy metal pillars, it will meet the buildings’ energetic needs, as well as making a fascinating addition to the city skyline.
The summit offers spectacular 360-degree views of the sea to the west, the Acropolis to the east, and the cultural and educational park below. It certainly is breathtaking, although it did strike me how loud the traffic noise was, even up here!
Berneath the green roof is the enormous Library, built on several levels around an open atrium.
The shelves are still empty of books, but imagine when they are full! I loved the mobile suspended from the vertiginous ceiling.
Cosy reading corners abound, and there are stands stacked with daily papers and magazines in different languages.
Enormous windows flood the library with light.
Walking out of the library, one comes out into the Agora, with its impressive water feature.
This is a huge space, where a multitude of events can be staged.
We did not visit the National Opera, because you can only go in if you join the guided tour, and they were fully booked. It is not totally operational, and has only staged a few experimental performances so far.
This is a huge undertaking and it is not entirely completed yet. One can only imagine how impressive it will be when it is functioning on all levels – mature gardens, well-stocked library shelves, a program of performances of all types. The only thing that worries me is that there is a plan for the complex to be donated to the Greek state in 2017 – in the present climate of disintegration, i wonder if it will be upkept and used to its full potential?
It remains to be seen. Meanwhile, for any of you planning a trip to Athens, be sure to add it to your list, together with the Acropolis Museum. Well worth a visit.