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Piano to Build a Nouveau Acropolis
Niarchos Foundation donates $803 million library-opera house to Greece.
Piano's opera house-library commands the site from its highest point.
Courtesy Renzo Piano Building Workshop

Battered down by economic woes, Greece is far from beaten when it comes to ambitious cultural plans. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation is spending $803 million to build a national library, opera house, and 42-acre park just south of Athens on a site used for parking during the 2004 Olympics. Once built, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center will be turned over to the state for operation and control in a public-private development first for the country.

The large complex is broadly reminiscent of the Acropolis with wide stone pathways that lead up a sloping hill (in part a green roof) to a 9,700 square foot glass room with a 100-meter square shade roof covered in photovoltaic panels. The glass room is just an outcropping of an over 539,000 square foot building sliding under the north end of the park that Renzo Piano has designed with a sort of Parthenon-meets-Mies-National-Gallery directness. The glass façade of the dual-program structure bifurcates within into a library indicated by a three-story tower stacked with books and an opera house with a contrasting smooth concrete shell. Tiers of red balconies stretch across both in a unifying gesture that extends to the exterior of the west façade.

Clockwise from top: Piano's new building sits within a lush park; the building site is to the southwest of Athens; the site slopes up to the new building; a plan showing Deborah Nevins' landscape.

The landscape by New York sustainable landscape firm Deborah Nevins & Associates incorporates native species and a reflecting-pool canal that doubles as overflow water-catcher in the unlikely event of flooding.

The world-famous Niarchos Foundation is a philanthropic organization dedicated to bringing culture—and reminders of Greece’s great legacy—to the underserved and was founded by Stavros Niarchos, a shipping tycoon known as the Golden Greek who died in 1996; the foundation has donated over a billion dollars globally. A first-time experiment in public-private social infrastructure development for Greece, the cultural center is expected to create jobs and attract $210 million in economic activity for the depressed area that had hoped, but failed, to get a big boost from the over-budget, underperforming 2004 Olympics.

Julie V. Iovine


A reflecting pool canal moves through the site (above) and a reading area in the library (below).