With its ultra-thin roof the recently completed Stavros Niarchos Foundation Culture Centre in Athens is an impressive structure but its future is unclear
Designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, the Stavros Niarchos Cultural Centre is located in Kallithea, 4 km south of central Athens in Greece. The new cultural centre, which has been inspired by the architect’s love of sailing, has taken a decade to build at a time when Greece has been struggling with huge amounts of national debt. A landmark cultural and educational project, the site includes the National Library of Greece and the Greek National Opera in a 170,000 sq m landscaped park.
The Centre was officially launched in June against a spectacular backdrop of concerts and fireworks, but it hasn’t actually opened to the public for everyday use and no fixed date has been confirmed. Both the national library and opera house have been gifted a further €5m to relocate here, but the library’s shelves stand empty and future funding for the project remains unclear.
Commenting on the completed project Renzo Piano says, “In difficult moments like this, you need hope. Making a good building is an important civic gesture. It makes you believe in a better world.”
The ultra-thin roof is arguably the most impressive feature of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Culture Centre, using ferro-cement and seismic technology it is only 2cm thick. Subtly curved like the wing of a plane, it is formed from a shell of concrete, reinforced with a cage of fine steel mesh, which envelopes a 3D steel truss. It is supported by a clever sprung suspension system that allows it to flex in the event of one of the earthquakes that occur in the region.
As one of Athens’ earliest seaports on Faliro Bay, Kallithea has always had a strong relationship with the water. At present, however, despite its proximity, there is no view of the sea from the site. To restore this, an artificial hill is being created at the south (seaward) end of the site. The sloping park culminate in the cultural centre building, giving it spectacular views towards the sea.
Both opera and library are combined in one building, with a public space, known as the Agora, providing access and connections between the two main facilities. The opera wing is composed of two auditoria, one (450 seats) dedicated to traditional operas and ballets, the other (1.400 seats) for more experimental performances. The library is intended as not only a place for learning and preserving culture, but also as a public resource, a space where culture is truly accessible to share and enjoy.
The entirely glass-walled library reading room sits on top of the building just underneath the canopy roof. A square horizontal transparent box, it enjoys 360-degree views of Athens and the sea. The site’s visual and physical connection with water continues in the park with a new canal that runs along a north–south, main pedestrian axis, the Esplanade. The canopy roof provides essential shade and has been topped with 10.000 sq m of photovoltaic cells, enough to generate 1.5 megawatt of power for the library and opera house. This field of cells should allow the building to be self-sufficient in energy terms during normal opening hours. Wherever possible, natural ventilation has been used.
The visual connection with the water continues to the park, where it focus on a channel to the side of the Esplanade, the main pedestrian axis of the site, in the north-south direction.
The complex is aiming for a LEED platinum rating.