Beginning in 2016, the new Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre will be added to the list of “must see” attractions in Athens. The brand new $800-million-mega project sponsored by the foundation bearing the late Greek shipping magnate’s name is proceeding on schedule.
The cultural centre has three main elements — a state-of-the-art home for the Greek National Opera; a new National Library of Greece, with a two-million-book capacity; and Stavros Niarchos Park, a 170,000-square-meter oasis of green that will cover 85 per cent of the site.
The centre was designed by Italian Renzo Piano, one of the world’s most acclaimed architects, who first achieved fame in the 1970s with the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris.
The opera house will include a 1,400-seat auditorium for opera and ballet performances, and a 400-seat “black-box” theatre for experimental works. Its massive photovoltaic canopy will meet much of the complex’s energy needs.
The library will have a green roof, rising gently from an artificial hill in the surrounding park, part of the cultural centre’s agora. Its summit will offer a large glass-walled reading room and spectacular views of the city and sea.
The park will feature a Great Lawn for outdoor performances, a playground, running and cycling tracks and a vegetable garden.
The cultural centre is being built to exacting environmental standards, with the aim of securing Platinum LEED certification — the first such designation in Greece and the first in Europe for a project of such magnitude.
The Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the legacy of a Greek shipping multibillionaire who died in 1996, is picking up the cost of building and equipping the cultural centre on the former site of a race track.
When the project is complete, the foundation will donate it to the state — one of the largest donations in Greek history. Greek taxpayers will be responsible for funding the operations of the opera and library.
Construction started in 2012 and remains on schedule and on budget, with the centre expected to open to the public by the end of 2016.
The project is a massive boost to the stagnant Greek economy, with a total economic stimulus estimated at $1.4 billion and annual employment ranging from 1,500 to 2,400 jobs during the construction phase. Once operational, it’s expected to generate about $227 million in annual economic activity.
The cultural centre’s ambitions extend far beyond its impact as an economic driver. Elly Andriopoulou, the centre’s chief operating officer, aims to make it the top cultural destination in Athens for both residents and visitors, according to an interview she gave Don Butler of The Ottawa Citizen.
To win over Athenians who may see an opera house as elitist, the foundation has opened a visitors’ centre, given public tours of the site and taken to the streets and metro stations with free opera performances.
“I want this to be a place that will be loved,” Andriopoulou says.
It seems to be working. The foundation opened the park to cyclists this past summer and hundreds showed up. “We already feel that it’s ours,” says one cyclist in a video.
It may never dislodge the Parthenon as a symbol of Athens, but the new cultural centre seems poised to become a must-see attraction for visitors.