Dressed in a hard hat, rain boots and a fluorescent yellow vest for a group tour of the under-construction Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC), including the new homes of the National Opera and Library, as well as a 170,000-square meter park on the shore of Faliro Bay in southern Athens, I spotted a small detail that made me smile: In the building site’s staff cloakroom, where SNFCC supervisors and architects have lockers with their names on them, I was standing next to the one belonging to Renzo Piano. The celebrated Italian architect, in charge of designing the buildings, other structures and surrounding green spaces of the new complex, is closely following each stage of the colossal project’s development during his regular visits to Athens.
Two young foundation executives acted as our guides: 40-year-old chief operating officer John Zervakis and 30-year-old assistant chief operating officer Lenia Vlavianou, both of whom have been overseeing the project since its start. They represent a new generation of Athenians set to witness a dream come true during the crisis years.
Inside the former horse racing track’s vast space things are beginning to take shape. At a first glance the site’s green areas – essentially a beautiful Mediterranean garden – look almost ready with only a few final touches missing. Meanwhile, the construction site resembles a beehive, with its hundreds of workers and cranes in motion. This is where Piano’s genius lies: the sense that you’re in a place where heaven and earth meet, a gigantic sheltered spot where the city meets the water.
To tour the grounds in the short space of an hour, a car picked us up at the site’s main entrance on Peisistratou Street. First we passed in front of the 1,000-vehicle parking area before moving on to Poseidonos Avenue, then toward Syngrou Avenue and the new National Opera’s facade. An open space called the Agora – to serve as a visitors’ reception area – will also make an appearance here, while the new buildings of the National Library extend along Syngrou Avenue. This is where a 400x30-meter canal that will also serve as a flood control will be constructed. The ride continued toward the area where the park begins.
“This is where all the panels comprising the photovoltaic shelter are being made by hand right now, an innovative project thanks to the material used, ferrocement, but also because of the construction methods involved. This area will also host the main entrance and the canal building, an information point on the entire complex as well as the archaeological findings that were discovered during the project’s foundation work,” noted Zervakis.
We left the car behind and started walking through the park area. “The architect’s basic idea was that via a mild inclination – which does not prevent access to visitors with reduced mobility – one may walk from the entrance to the photovoltaic shelter by crossing the park. That’s where they will come across a glass structure, the Lighthouse/Reading Room, and above all enjoy the view, night and day, throughout the year,” said Vlavianou, who along with Zervakis described a particularly elegant and welcoming venue. “The complex covers an area of 17 hectares where people will be able to walk and cycle on specially designed cycling routes, while special events will also be organized on the premises. The aim here is for the outdoor areas to operate as a large-scale platform for various activities, a space where people of all ages will feel comfortable and welcome. A four-day welcoming event comprising artistic and sporting activities for the general public will take place this summer,” Zervakis said.
Will the upcoming event be the public’s first encounter with the park before the library and the opera house are inaugurated by 2017? Not exactly. “Since the early days of the project, through the Visitors Center and events including the ‘Dance of the Cranes,’ as well as presentations in cities around Greece, known as ‘The Journey to the SNFCC,’ audiences have become familiar with the complex. Besides, the ultimate goal is for people to feel it is their own even before it is completed,” Vlavianou commented.
“While funds for the project come from a donation, the recipient is not solely the state, but the whole of society, and that’s who we are addressing. This is where our children will grow up and run around, where we will enjoy performances and concerts and enjoy our city. At the Niarchos Foundation we are certain of one thing: If you treat Greeks with respect, care and dignity, they will show you their best side. We are certain they will love and take care of the park and the buildings, as if they were an extension of their own homes. And the entire venture will operate in an educational and creative way in a country which is being put to the test.”