A wafer-thin canopy floats at the top of a hill in Athens, hovering like a sheet of paper caught in the coastal breeze. Held in place by a gossamer grid of columns and wires, and crowned with a central mast, the structure has more in common with the world of sails and rigging in the nearby harbour than the weighty domain of buildings on land – a feeling that might be explained by the preoccupation of its designer, Renzo Piano.
“What I really do in life is sailing,” says the 78-year-old Genoese architect, standing on the roof of his latest €600m cultural complex, which combines a new national library and opera house in one gargantuan artificial hillside, topped with the thinnest concrete roof the world has ever seen. “The ingredients are the same in architecture: light and air and breeze.”
As ever, Piano makes the decade-long process of raising this cultural acropolis sound as effortless as taking a dinghy out for a paddle. Yet the challenges the building now faces are rather more weighty. As Greece descends ever deeper into crushing levels of national debt, with the culture ministry’s budget slashed by half since 2010, it is a fraught time to be unveiling one of the biggest cultural projects of the century – especially one that will require 900 staff.
“We had the idea for the project when Greece was flying high,” says Andreas Dracopoulos, co-president of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the private charitable fund formed from the fortune of the late shipping magnate, which bankrolled the entire project. First planned in 2007, the complex is now being gifted to the state at a time when many other museums and cultural institutions are closing their doors. The new National Museum of Contemporary Art, just down the road, has been completed but remains unopened.
Backed by the might of private philanthropy, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre was launched at the weekend to a grand fanfare of concerts and fireworks. Except it hasn’t actually opened, nor has an opening date been announced. Both the national library and opera house have been gifted a further €5m to relocate here, but funding beyond that remains up in the air. The library’s shelves, sized for two million books, stand empty. The park’s gates remain locked. “In difficult moments like this, you need hope,” says Piano. “Making a good building is an important civic gesture. It makes you believe in a better world.”
So what kind of post-crisis world has the architect imagined? Judging by the scale of the building, it will be one inhabited by giants. Arriving at the 20-hectare site, visitors are greeted by a 400-metre long reflecting pool, along which they must process in the blinding sun, flanked by a blank concrete wall, to a new “agora” or square. The 30-metre high glass facades of the opera house and library face each other across this new stone square, while two monumental staircases rise up to the rooftop on either side. It feels like arriving at a national parliament, built on a scale to rival the Acropolis – in fact, the white temple at the summit of it all dwarfs the Parthenon four and a half times over.
This shaded belvedere awaits at the top of a vast new park, which rambles up the roof of the library and opera house on a gentle slope, bringing people up from the street through groves of olive and almond trees, carob and pomegranate, fig and lemon. During the evenings of the opening weekend, once the 40C heat had subsided, this tilted landscape was thronging with children playing in its handsomely equipped playgrounds, pensioners licking ice creams to a backdrop of live jazz, andyoung couples scampering through the bushes, stirring up scents of rosemary and lavender.
“We might have had the agora, but we lost our tradition of public space in Greece long ago,” says one visitor. “This will be a fantastic new place for the city, if we can afford to maintain it.”
The crowning glory of this new park is the spectacular terrace at the summit, imagined as an open-air reading room, which feels like being on the deck of a yacht, floating above the city. The Mediterranean sparkles to the south, while rooftops roll out to the Acropolis in the distance, the whole thing covered by a glossy white umbrella.
Engineered by London firm Expedition, the roof is a tour de force of ferro-cement and clever seismic technology. Subtly curved like the wing of a plane, it is formed from a shell of concrete just 2cm thick, reinforced with a dense cage of fine steel mesh, which encloses a 3D steel truss, all held up on a sprung suspension system that allows it to move in the event of an earthquake. It is the largest ferro-cement span in the world, a material Piano first used in 1971 – to build the hull of his first yacht.
More nautical details emerge within the cavernous volumes of the library and opera house below, where access decks and staircases are hung from tensile wiry rigging and edged with glass balustrades, while the auditorium balconies are made from curved wood echoing little boat hulls. The whole place is exquisitely crafted, a testament to both the Greek builders and Piano’s team (his practice isn’t called “building workshop” for nothing).
Maybe it’s the lack of books and all the expanses of marble, steel and glass, but in places it feels a little sterile – more lab than library. From the outside, it also lacks some of the warmth you might expect from a house of culture. Encountering the thing from the sea, it looks more like a maximum security prison. A blunt cliff-face of concrete greets the harbour, in a defensive response to the eight-lane highway that roars along the seafront, from where the rooftop piazza looks more like an elite corporate events space than an accessible agora. With a yawning funding gap, one can only hope that won’t end up being its primary function.
Across the highway, reached by a land bridge, lie the poignant relics of a time when the regenerative power of architecture didn’t quite live up to its promises. The swooping Pringle-shaped roof of a taekwondo arena faces off against the rusty steel frame of a beach volleyball stadium, separated by the derelict walkway of the media centre – the forlorn ruins of the 2004 Olympic Games, an event that left the country on the brink of bankruptcy.
Dracopoulos is adamant this will not be the legacy of his foundation’s gift. “Look at the buildings built during the Great Depression in the US,” he says, referring to the Empire State and Chrysler buildings among, others. “We have built the cultural centre, but now it is the obligation of the state to run it. If a country can’t run a national library and an opera – the basic pillars of a nation’s culture – then we might as well lock everything up and jump into the Mediterranean.”