By Vasiliki Mitrakos
[Excerpts from the original article, which appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of Portes Magazine]
By the end of 2015, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) expects to complete a decade-long project to build an innovative and first-of-its-kind cultural center in Athens, which will house both the National Library of Greece and the Greek National Opera on the grounds of a new 170,000 square meter Stavros Niarchos Park. SNF Public Affairs Officer Elenia Saloutsi shares details with Portes Magazine about the forthcoming SNFCC and several recent Foundation sponsored initiatives responding to the economic crisis.
A project of pioneering design and international acclaim will soon bloom into a multifunctioning cultural center and green space in the Kallithea neighborhood of Athens. Expected to open to the public in 2016, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC) is nearing completion after what will have been a decade of planning from beginning to end.
“The SNFCC exemplifies the areas that the Foundation believes are necessary for progress and development for the city and for the country in general,” SNF Public Affairs Officer Elenia Saloutsi said. “These are culture, education, and sustainability,” she adds.
The Foundation’s initial idea, which sprouted in 1998, was to provide new facilities for the National Library of Greece, in an effort to consolidate the library’s holdings and significantly upgrade its services and accessibility. Simultaneously and independently of this initiative, the Foundation was also considering a proposal to support the Greek National Opera. The initial proposals soon evolved into a single plan to incorporate both institutions on the same grounds, with extensive green space surrounding the facilities. Eight years later, in 2006, the SNF announced plans to completely oversee the funding, design, construction, and outfitting of the grandiose multi-purpose cultural center being built today.
For a project of this stature, the SNF selected world-renown Italian architect Renzo Piano in 2008 to oversee the new cultural center’s design from all angles. Piano’s best known projects include the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Beyeler Foundation Museum in Riehen, the Parco della Musica Auditorium in Rome, and the New York Times offices in New York. Celebrated for working with elements of a building’s natural environment, many of Piano’s works incorporate features that take advantage of natural light and spaces, making significant use of materials like glass, wood, and metal. His forward thinking architectural plans also implement many eco-friendly features, and in the case of the SFNCC, Piano’s designs synthesize the Foundation’s sustainability-oriented goals with the overall construction of the new cultural center, and its location.
With a total estimated cost of 566 million euros, which covers everything from initial planning to the final outfitting, the SNFCC is a significant gift to the Greek people. Additionally, it is the first public-private partnership of this scale taking place in Greece, and the Foundation’s largest single grant to date.
“[The SNFCC] is particularly important for the Foundation because apart from its grant-making activities, we really believe that public-private partnerships are the way to go to promote development and progress,” Saloutsi said.
As Andreas Dracopoulos, co-president of the SNF’s Board of Directors, said the SNF cannot replace the state and the services the state is obligated to supply for its citizens, however, it can complement and assist where there is a need.
“Any state on its own, any private enterprise on its own, any philanthropic effort on its own, they all have proven…inadequate to deal effectively and equitably with most of today’s problems,” Dracopoulos stated during the Foundation’s Second Annual International Conference on Philanthropy. “We need to work together, not in a philosophical sense, but in everyday life. We also need all of the healthy powers of the state, the private sector, and of philanthropy to collaborate in the most effective way possible, especially in the midst of the current global socioeconomic crisis, which affects the real lives of ordinary people.”
Once complete, the operation and ownership of the SNFCC will be entirely handed over to the Greek State as part of the agreement. Incorporated in the memorandum of the SNFCC’s plans, which was ratified by the Greek Parliament, are strict guidelines regarding the future operation and maintenance of the institutions housed in the cultural center, which will follow global standards of operation, Saloutsi said.
In September the Foundation celebrated the one-year anniversary of groundbreaking at the construction site. Reflective of the Foundation’s interest in promoting sustainability wherever possible, environmentally conscious elements were incorporated in nearly every aspect of construction and final design.
“The magnitude and complexity of the project can have a great impact economically, socially, and environmentally for Greece, and just the actual details of the construction process alone are fascinating,” Saloutsi said. “In terms of the construction, our standards are extremely high, regarding both the quality of materials and the efforts to ensure that the environmental disruption is kept at minimum.”
Located on the edge of Faliro Bay, nearly five kilometers south of the city center, the innovative design of the SFNCC site will create a brand new landscape that will reshape the face of Athens. The Greek National Opera and the National Library of Greece will be housed in a structure built into an artificial hill in the Stavros Niarchos Park. Essentially, the park will eclipse most of the building formations and serve as massive green roof. This hill, which will have a height of 32 meters, will cover 85% of the SFNCC site and will significantly reduce air conditioning needs for the buildings underneath. Once complete, visitors will be able to walk throughout the Stavros Niarchos Park, which will be forested by roughly 1,200 different tree and plant species native to the Mediterranean region, Panos Papoulias, SNFCC management advisor, said.
Alongside the artificial hill, the park will also feature a canal, which will function as an anti-flooding system for the site. It also symbolically pays tribute to the ancient river that ran through the grounds upon which the SFNCC is being built.
Aside from significantly improving green space with the creation of the Stavros Niarchos Park, one of the project’s most visibly apparent sustainable features is incorporated in the canopy that will cover the building housing the National Greek Opera and National Library of Greece. The 100m x 100m roof will be outfitted with photovoltaic panels expected to cover a large part of the building’s energy needs. The panels are being constructed as one piece on-site and placed as a single canopy over the roof of the two institutions. The execution of this plan will be an engineering challenge and a global first, according to Papoulias, but is one of the defining elements demonstrating the Foundation and Piano’s dedication to structural and environmental innovation.
Furthermore, the SNFCC will feature an on-site recycling system and a self-sustainable water repossession mechanism for the entire park. Among other measures being taken to reduce environmental disruption throughout the construction process, engineers filter and repurpose excess soil on-site, implement dust and erosion control mechanisms, and stress waste prevention and management.
In part, the SNFCC hopes the detailed and extensive measures taken to reduce environmental impact and ensure long-term sustainability will earn the project a Platinum Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Certification. Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, this certificate acknowledges and verifies projects that are designed with a conscious effort to save energy, reduce waste and CO2 emissions, improve water use, and reflect a sensitivity to the natural environment in the architectural design.
For a project of this scale, it comes as no surprise that even the archeological finds located on the grounds of the construction site will be incorporated and displayed in the cultural center. Since construction began in 2012, over 900 artifacts have been unearthed, studied, and stored in a designated archeological area at the location.
Adjacent to the SNFCC is a community sports and leisure park also constructed by the Foundation as a gift to the Municipality of Kallithea. The park, which features a soccer field, Olympic-sized swimming pool, and a playground area, opened to the public in late 2013 and serves as another extension to the green space in the neighborhood. Per the government’s request, in addition to the SNFCC, the Foundation funded the study and master plan for the development of the Faliro Bay waterfront, also designed by Piano. The Council of the State approved both the study and the master plan, and the Greek State is now responsible for executing the strategy.
Although very complex and difficult, the construction of the SNFCC has been proceeding according to plan without any major obstructions, and the economic crisis that has rattled the Greek State has not affected its schedule of completion.
The much-anticipated completion of the SNFCC will bring a threefold impact to the area and the city of Athens in terms of creating an economic boost, promoting social engagement, and raising environmental standards across the board.
According to a commissioned study by the Boston Consulting Group, construction of the SNFCC alone will contribute one billion dollars to the Greek economy by the time the entire site is complete. To date, there have been close to 800 people working on building the cultural center, and by the summer of 2014 the number is expected to reach 1,400. In the first year of operations, the study projects the SNFCC will generate 160 million euros.
In terms of social impact, one of the most important goals of the foundation was to improve general accessibility to the SNFCC to ensure people with physical disabilities or those with limited mobility can enjoy full access to all services that will be provided. Combining a centralized and public location for the National Library of Greece and the Greek National Opera will also improve access to institutions formerly reserved for academics or a limited segment of society, and enrich the everyday lives of Greeks, Saloutsi said.
With the opening of the SNFCC, barriers to green spaces and institutions of culture and higher learning will be significantly reduced while at the same time attract millions of visitors from Greece and around the world. Furthermore, the innovative design features and the extensive measures taken to improve sustainability have set a new paradigm for development in Greece.
Vasiliki Mitrakos and her sister, TNH Correspondent Anthe Mitrakos, are co-Editors of Portes Magazine.