Niarchos Foundation Shows Off $700M Athens Cultural Center

ATHENS – Bringing some hope to a darkened country, the Niarchos Foundation on June 25 unveiled a sprawling 700 million euros ($680 million) park and cultural center.

The facility will also be the 1400-seat home of the national opera and national library along the capital’s southern coast with a rolling and centerpiece designed by famed Italian architect Renzo Piano.

It took nearly eight years to construct and is designed to fully open in mid-2017 as the new cultural showpiece of the city and country, already drawing rave reviews for its design and integration into the land and gulf near it.

“We thought it was very important to give hope,” Andreas Dracopoulos, Co-president of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation that funded the project, told a news conference, Agence France Presse reported.

Piano, an honorary Italian Senator who co-designed the modernist Pompidou Centre in Paris in the 1970s, said he wanted to evoke “the poetry of the Mediterranean” in the project with both buildings open to abundant sunshine and a sea canal close by.

“Cities need these institutions…beauty is something everybody needs, especially in difficult moments,” the 78-year-old award-winning architect said.

The new Stavros Niarchos Cultural Cente occupies 20 hectares (50 acres) overall near the coast of Faliro, much of which is blocked off to the public by unlawful tavernas and other facilities or those critics said got licenses under dubious circumstances.

The center opened late June 25 for a brief four-day series of events but will close again for a process to transfer ownership and operations to the state.

“It should be governed by the state for the people…we know nothing about libraries or opera,” Dracopoulos said.

The new national library has even more room than the 700,000 volumes that currently make up Greece’s state depository, with eventual space for up to two million books, organizers said.

The opera has an adjoining 450-seat stage, numerous rehearsal facilities and a recording studio.

Despite the fanfare, there is worry already that the Greek state, crushed by an economic crisis and overrun by refugees while facing a volatile political landscape, will not be able to maintain the facility or run the project.

There was no word on whether jobs there would go to backers of the ruling Radical Left SYRIZA and its partner, the pro-austerity, tiny, far-right, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) who have only nine seats in Parliament but power thanks to backing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

Greece has shown itself unable to maintain even gems, taking 16 years to open a contemporary art museum and letting most of the 2004 Olympic venues become abandoned eyesores.

There is also rampant theft and vandalism of public property, including giant statues and busts being ripped off their moorings in public parks.

“The state should fulfill its obligation and run it properly. And the people should show that they respect it,” Dracopoulos said, according to AFP.

“If you can’t run those things as a state, as a country, let’s lock up everything and jump in the Mediterranean,” he added.

Founded in 1996 by one of Greece’s leading ship owning families, the Niarchos foundation has also donated some 300 million ($333.54 million) euros to Greek non-government organizations fighting poverty during the country’s six-year economic crisis.