My Great Greek Adventure: Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center and Faliro Bay

The area we know as Faliro Bay is the seafront adjacent to some of the oldest Athens neighborhoods. Today, it is separated from the areas Kallithea and Moschato by a six-lane highway. This area is mentioned all the way back into antiquity along with its neighbor Piraeus. In ancient Greece before the port of Piraeus was developed into its militarily superior form, Faliro Bay was the main port of Athens. it had served as a valuable port due its closer proximity to the center of the city, and saw soldiers off to great battles like those in Troy.

From Faliro Bay stretching all the way to the city center and the Acropolis, ancient settlers had built a massive wall. Discoveries of remnants of this wall and the town at its base, are still being made today. It is believed through records that Faliro Bay was once the sight of many temples and places of worship. Due to the significance of this area in ancient Athens and still today, archeological discoveries are common and affect the building process.

One of the biggest recent real estate developments along Faliro Bay is the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC). The overall project cost a total of $861 million and covers a surface area of 170,000 square meters. Completed in 2016, the Stavros Niarchos Center was built over a plot that was used as a parking lot during the 2004 summer Olympic Games in Athens.

This project was a major step forward for Greece and its progress after the financial crisis. The Niarchos Center is now the home of the National Library of Greece, originally located in a neoclassical building in the center of the city. The Greek National Opera is now also housed there, making it an all-encompassing cultural treasure. These relocations were pursued because of the need for more technological advancements and adequate space.

Along with space, design and sustainability were top priorities when constructing the Stavros Niarchos Center. The design of the Center immediately received recognition from the U.S. Green Building Council, and was awarded the Platinum level LEED certification from that organization. This certification is awarded when a building meets certain standards relating to energy efficiency, ethically using resources, and CO2 emissions among other factors. The Stavros Niarchos Center is the first project of its size and complexity to be awarded this certification in Europe. This new standard for construction and architecture continues to be implemented to various community improvement projects throughout Athens.

To understand its thoughtful design helps you appreciate the stunning interiors and exteriors that much more. The front entrance to the SNFCC is floor to ceiling windows across the front of the long building. There in front of the entrance is a café and coffee shop with plenty of outdoor seating, because sitting with a friend or loved one for coffee is a necessity in Greece. The scene is calmed by the long rectangular man-made lake called the Canal, built right in front of the building. Visitors can enjoy row boat rides across the water. There is also a fountain show every hour, at the end of the lake in front of the main doors.

As you stand at the front doors, the Greek National Opera will be in the building to your left and the National Library of Greece is the all-window building to your right. Above you, you will see the Lighthouse, a fully glass-walled room hanging over the National Opera. From inside the Lighthouse you have panoramic views of Athens with clear sight of the Parthenon on top of the Acropolis and Mount Lykabettos. You can access the Lighthouse from the lobby elevators of the building, or I suggest walking up the green roof of the whole complex. The green roof is a main factor in why the SNFCC won the Platinum level LEED certification.

The roof is comprised of an open-air park with a rich variety of plant life. Up on the roof of this massive complex of buildings, you don’t realize the structures beneath your feet, but actually feel as if you are walking up the slope of a hill of Earth. Olive and cypress trees, and flowers native to Greece fill up the twenty-one hectares of space. As you walk through the peaceful labyrinth of this space, you can find beautiful elements like a vegetable garden, and information sessions for kids on the practice of gardening. All of these designs were strategically laid out to achieve one main goal, to bridge the divide between urban space and nature.

The architect and mastermind behind this construction is Renzo Piano. His goal to close the gap dividing us from nature manifested also in the design of a bridge – the Esplanade – that connects the SNFCC to the sea. The Esplanade begins at the area in front of the main entrance and courtyard, and stretches up over and across the six-lane highway that separates the center from the sea. It eventually evens out, reaching ground level at Faliro Bay, bringing you right up to the water’s edge.

Each element of the construction of the SNFCC was carefully thought out in order to enhance not only energy savings and demands, but to enrich the lives of the citizens of Athens and all who come to visit. The green spaces and views, the activities and playgrounds for kids, and the celebration of culture and knowledge, all make this one of the most valuable spaces in Athens today. The future of what the Stavros Niarchos Center will provide to the community is bright. The past however, is more somber and told through the ruins found in the land it was built on.

During its construction excavators were sure to discover ancient ruins and artifacts, as is common in an ancient city like Athens. What they found was more shocking than could be imagined. Underneath the land that the SNFCC was to be built on, builders found the site of an ancient graveyard. What they found was more than 1500 human skeletons, many of which were children, from around the eighth to fifth centuries BC. Various signs point to these people being of a working-class population. Even so, there are preserved urns and other funeral offerings that were found with the remains, and tell of how these people were devoted to a higher power. Currently a section of the grounds across from the main buildings and the Canal is still fenced in, in order to continue the collection and preservation of these findings.

The area of Faliro Bay had once been a major meeting place for culture and international relations, and today it is swiftly drawing back towards this role. Many popular structures have graced the land here, that are no longer standing or known today. They either fell due to conflict and war, or the aftermath of such, including economic decline. The SNFCC feels different. If you are visiting Athens, the Center should be on your “to see” list. It is a spotlight on what advancements are in store for Athens as a major city and cultural power.

Everything here is connected to the sea somehow. The SNFCC is connected through its design to maximize the view and proximity. Not far from the bridge leading from the Center to Faliro Bay, is Flisvos Marina. Following in the footsteps of its neighbor, the Flisvos Marina is also the recipient of a prestigious award, which is the 5 Gold Anchors Platinum. This is in recognition of the marina’s design and its ability to dock large scale yachts. A walk along the marina takes you past venues for dining and drinks, along with views of mega yachts and a gorgeous sunset if you arrive at the perfect time. Flisvos Marina can be reached by car but parking is limited and, in some areas, costs a fee. Or you can take the tram to Tronkantero station. At the northern end of the marina, more inland, important naval ships are docked, and serve as floating museums. This is the Hellenic Maritime Museum that includes the naval ship Averof. The ship was acquired in 1909 and is a relic of engineering no longer shown today making this battleship one of a kind.

Flisvos Marina and its neighbor the SNFCC are both examples of the continued improvements being planned for the Faliro Bay area. Today, there are large plots of land on the sea front that have gone unused for decades. During the 2004 summer Olympic games in Athens, a beach volleyball stadium and smaller facilities were built here, being the last time that the area was truly used by the people. A new project is underway that will see the area completely transformed into a coastal park surrounded by new property developments, expected to be completed in 2022.

Faliro Bay was the first piece of land to be used as the port of the city of Athens. Within its soil are the pieces of our past that have inevitably led us to our current projects. The Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center and the Flisvos Marina will soon be surrounded by fresh and inviting public space. A change that has been discussed but had not been acted upon for years. Now, there seems to be a momentum, a desire for a new city plan. A plan that connects Athens again to nature and the sea, and a city that is people and not just industry friendly.


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