The famous Italian architect Renzo Piano has finished a major new park, library, and theater complex in Athens. The project was done by following one of the largest donations for a cultural building project in history.

Located in the Kallithea district in the south of the Greek capital, the huge Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre SNFCC creates new homes for the National Library of Greece and the Greek National Opera, tucked beneath a new 170,000-square-metre sloping park and beside a 400-meter-long rectangular lake.

A €596 million donation from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation was spent for the project. The charity set up after the death of Stavros Niarchos, a billionaire Greek shipping tycoon.

After the complex was complete, the foundation handed it as a gift to the Greek state even if it will continue to contribute to its upkeep.

The plans for such a big scale donation by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation started back in 1998. Initially, the foundation planned to make separate contributions to the National Library and the National Opera. Later on, by the year 2006, it was decided to build one complex for both organizations. After discussions with the Greek state, the area of the former horse racing track was chosen for the project. In 2008 the foundation chose Italian architect Renzo Piano to design the complex and in 2012 construction works started.

In 2008, after a competition, Renzo Piano Building Workshop was selected for the project. The brief was to transform a former parking lot left over from the 2004 Olympic Games, the abandoned stadia of which still dot the bay beyond the complex.

The first move was to a create a vast artificial hill that rises towards the south end of the site while creating a view of the sea that once lapped the bay of Kallithea and has long been pushed out of sight by the development and a major highway.

From our first observations there emerged the idea that by raising the ground – with a slight slope and a progressive course – we could restore the ‘beautiful view’ of Kallithea, wrote Renzo Piano in an essay about the project. In that way, without realizing it, visitors strolling through the park would find themselves at a height of thirty metres.

New York landscape designer Deborah Nevins designed the new sloping park which was planted with indigenous Greek plants. The park as it elevates to the south as an artificial hill, it forms the roof of the opera house and library. It’s top rises to 32 meters and is capped by a paper-thin roof held aloft by slender columns.

The 100 x 100 roof, dubbed the “flying carpet” by Renzo Piano, is topped by photovoltaic panels that generate 2.5 megawatts to power the building. Beneath its shade-giving expansion is yet more sloping public space plus a large glass-walled reading room called the Lighthouse.

At ground level, the opera and the library are organized around a public plaza known as the agora – a reference to the central gathering spaces in Ancient Greek cities.

Inside the library, massive walls of shelving offer storage for its collection, which includes over 5,000 manuscripts, documents, records, and engravings, dating back to the ninth century. Other facilities in this part of the building are a business incubator dedicated to entrepreneurship, a music recording studio, and areas for children and teenagers – all of which can be found on the ground and first floors.

On the opposite side of the building, you can find the opera house which features two auditoriums. The first, containing 450 seats, will host traditional operas and ballets, while the grander 1,400-seat hall will be used for “experimental performances.” There is also an assortment of dressing rooms, rehearsal spaces and production areas for costumes and props.

The park contains thousands of new trees, bushes, and shrubs. It includes sports facilities that range from running tracks to a playground.

The Stavros Niarchos Cultural Centre becomes the first public building in Greece to achieve a Platinum LEED certification, in recognition of its sustainability.

All photos by Wikimedia Commons