Athenians and visitors to Athens are delighted with the wide-ranging facilities of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC), which, all in all, covers over twenty football fields. The superb complex and its array of cultural activities are improving not only the district, but the whole city of Athens.
It’s Friday evening and five hundred people are watching Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds under the first full moon of the summer. Equipped with straw mats, cushions and beverages, they’re engrossed in the suspense projected on the big screen. The weather is rather cool for this time of year, at least by Greek standards, and the seats on the Panoramic Steps of the Cultural Center aren’t terribly comfortable, but no-one seems to mind. And no-one gets up to leave before the end of the closing credits.
The SNFCC attracts people of all ages from all over the world | © Nikos Karanikolas
Until four years ago, this sort of thing could seldom be enjoyed in Athens – and free of charge at that. There are precious few public spaces in the city and many Athenians don’t take good care of the few public spaces that are available. The SNFCC is devoted to education, culture and sustainability and aims to improve the way public space is used and treated in Athens. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center invites visitors to stay and explore the whole complex, and it already seems to be helping the city gradually restore its self-confidence damaged by years of unremitting crisis.
AN UNEXPECTED GIFT IN A NEGLECTED PART OF THE CITY
“For months I watched the construction work from outside,” says 40-year-old Eleni from the Athens district of Kallithea, where the SNFCC is situated. “Then, when the gates opened, I could hardly believe my eyes.” The approach on foot makes for an exciting outing: across the expansive grounds and through the architectural complex, which will soon house the National Library of Greece and the National Opera, then past the Esplanade and the artificial canal and across the vast Educational and Cultural Park.
The SNFCC Park is designed to grow a wide range of Mediterranean vegetation | © Giorgis Gerolipos
“I live right next door, but on the grounds I feel as though I were abroad,” adds Eleni. “I walk past here every day with my little daughter in her pram. Taking a stroll with the pram around my neighbourhood, outside the SNFCC, is usually quite arduous and a real challenge. But it’s very pleasant here. I’m also interested in the cultural activities and I just like hanging out in this beautiful complex.”
In the northwest section of the SNFCC, moreover, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation has finished building a 30,000 sq m sports facility. The municipality of Kallithea began running the facility back in September 2013. The well-equipped municipal Sports and Leisure Park has great appeal with the locals. The donation of the Sports Park to the municipality is seen by many Athenians as the first step towards handing over the whole SNFCC to the Greek state. But that worries many of them too: given the lack of confidence in the Greek state, people wonder what will become of the SNFCC under state management.
Nevertheless, Kallithea, a part of the city that had never made the most of its favourable location by the sea, is relishing this unexpected gift, which has also sparked a property boom. “Everyone one wants to move close to Niarchos now,” says one realtor. Long-time residents are amazed at the transformation of their neighbourhood. The site of architect Renzo Piano’s impressive complex was still an old racing track until 2003.
”Our behaviour in a given space is very often determined by the space itself,” says Maria Vidali, a historian and philosopher of architecture. She recalls past apprehensions after the opening of the Athens metro, for example. “But passengers showed respect for the metro stations from the outset, and will presumably do the same with the SNFCC.”
Many say the main building is shaped like a ship | © Giorgis Gerolipos
Vidali adds that the unusual atmosphere and aesthetic of the place will induce visitors to treat it with respect. The SNFCC management has developed a special strategy to raise public awareness and help Athenians accept and appreciate the center.
The SNFCC introduced itself to the Athenian public with a four-day series of events in June 2015, which was repeated a year later, before being transferred to the state and before the official inauguration of the Greek National Library and the National Opera. In addition to the big inaugural celebrations, guided tours of the facilities are given on a regular basis. “People who spontaneously turned out last summer received an information booklet from SNFCC representatives as well as a chance to become members,” says Vidali, remembering her first visit to the center.
A SPACE FOR PEOPLE WITH VARIOUS NEEDS AND INTERESTS
Visitors’ enthusiasm for this splendid work of architecture also has to be seen in the wider contemporary context of a crisis-ridden country. Still in the throes of a never-ending economic recession, Athenians have witnessed the ongoing decline of their city – including what it has to offer in the way of arts and recreation. With its wide range of cultural and leisure activities, the SNFCC has helped fill this void, offering everything from jazz, opera and Byzantine music to public readings of crime novels, sailing and cycle tours and organized walks to the seafront.
In a few weeks, the National Opera will have completed its move from the Odos Akademias in central Athens to the SNFCC. In its present experimental phase, it has staged some interesting, even subversive, new productions of 20th-century works and featured some new opera composers.
A wide range of musical and emotional experiences awaits opera lovers at the new opera house | © Giorgis Gerolipos
The artistic direction under Giorgos Koumentakis has set out to show that opera isn’t an imported art form, but contains many Greek elements. For the big premiere in October, Koumentakis chose Richard Strauss’s famous opera Elektra
, with internationally-famous mezzosoprano Agnes Baltsa playing the part of Clytemnestra. The National Opera’s impressive new venue at the SNFCC really gained world renown in November 2016, however, when Barack Obama gave his speech right there during his visit to Athens.
And the SNFCC’s renown will continue to grow starting this autumn when the National Library of Greece has completely settled into its new home under the same roof. Visitors will be able to leaf through the first book printed in Greek, a Greek grammar by Constantine Laskaris published in 1476, as well as the earliest surviving version of the Homeric epics.
The rooms are designed to make the most of the proverbial Mediterranean sunlight | © Giorgis Gerolipos
A MAGNET FOR LOVERS OF GREEK LITERARY HISTORY
Dr Filippos Tsimpoglou, director of the National Library of Greece, explains: “The National Library of Greece now has the appropriate prerequisites and structures to establish lasting worldwide contacts with interested partners." “Whoever comes here,” he adds, “will find both well-known and unknown treasures of Greek written culture, a unique experience which, most importantly, might well turn them into lovers of Greek literary and cultural history.”