Stavros Niar­chos Foun­da­tion Cul­tural Cen­tre, Athens

Wallpaper - - Architecture - Har­riet Thorpe

Just one year on from its open­ing, the Stavros Niar­chos Foun­da­tion Cul­tural Cen­tre (SNFCC, pre­viewed in W*199) in Athens has seen 1.3 mil­lion vis­i­tors ex­plor­ing its site, trac­ing routes, un­rolling yoga mats and dis­cov­er­ing the best spot to watch the sun set. De­signed by Renzo Piano Build­ing Work­shop (RPBW), the SNFCC rises out of Athens’ sub­ur­ban coastal land­scape at Kal­lithea like a long­stand­ing land­mark. It erases mem­o­ries of the va­cant car park left over from the 2004 Sum­mer Olympics, now a 32m-high ar­ti­fi­cial hill that might be as old as the Acrop­o­lis. It opens up the ‘beau­ti­ful view’, which the an­cient port of Kal­lithea was orig­i­nally named af­ter, mak­ing you for­get that it had once been ob­structed by a busy high­way. It is here, in this for­mer void, that ac­tiv­ity has since or­gan­i­cally thrived at the core of a com­mu­nity in need of nor­mal­ity, space and na­ture.

‘They didn’t have any­thing be­fore,’ says Gior­gio Bianchi, part­ner at RPBW and lead ar­chi­tect on the SNFCC project. He knows Athens well and is fa­mil­iar with the city’s dense ar­chi­tec­ture and nar­row streets. ‘There is an­other big park in Athens, but it is very claus­tro­pho­bic. This one gen­er­ates ac­tiv­i­ties and the de­sire to go there. You see the Aegean Sea, then turn 180 de­grees and you see the Acrop­o­lis and the city. You can spend your day there.’

A year on, ex­pe­ri­ences such as rid­ing a bike along the long, smooth path­ways, catch­ing the sea breeze and the notes of the Na­tional Orches­tra per­form­ing out­doors are start­ing to feel like part of the fab­ric of daily life for lo­cal Athe­ni­ans, who re­turn and re­turn again. Bianchi, too, has re­turned fre­quently to the SNFCC: ‘We never aban­don our projects,’ he says (RPBW is even still in­volved with the man­age­ment of pub­lic space at the Pom­pi­dou). ‘What is very im­pres­sive is that, even though the park re­ceives a lot of peo­ple, they are re­spect­ful be­cause they see the space is well de­signed.’

The de­sign arose from the need to com­bine new fa­cil­i­ties for the Greek Na­tional Opera, Na­tional Li­brary of Greece and the new Stavros Niar­chos Park on the site. ‘We thought that, if we raise the land up in a very sim­plis­tic way, just like you would take a piece of pa­per from one side and lift it up, the park be­comes the build­ing, and the build­ing is un­der the park,’ says Bianchi. To­tally unique to its ge­o­graph­i­cal con­text, the in­ge­nious de­sign al­lowed for 90,000 sq m of fa­cil­i­ties and 175,000 sq m for the Stavros Niar­chos Park to be com­bined with­out com­pro­mise.

Re­spond­ing to the brief for a park that would host events and per­for­mances and be fully ac­ces­si­ble to the dis­abled, RPBW worked closely with New York-based land­scape de­signer Deb­o­rah Nevins and lo­cal prac­tice H Pan­ga­lou & As­so­ci­ates, plan­ning grid­ded gar­dens of lo­cal fauna and long con­nec­tive path­ways.

‘The park is ar­ti­fi­cially made but it is slowly cre­at­ing an ecosys­tem of its own,’ says Miyon Yoo, park and land­scap­ing man­ager at the SNFCC. She wit­nesses chil­dren par­tic­i­pat­ing daily in sail­ing classes on the 400m-long sea­wa­ter canal, gar­den­ing work­shops, or sim­ply just spend­ing time there watch­ing and be­ing with oth­ers. ‘By it­self, it is an ed­u­ca­tional tool for the lo­cals – chil­dren will grow and evolve as the park ma­tures and evolves over time,’ she says.

The SNFCC pub­lic ed­u­ca­tional pro­gramme has been de­signed to cater to all ages, races and phys­i­cal dif­fer­ences; in­side the lobby area of the Na­tional Li­brary, com­puter classes for the over-65s have been a big hit – and dou­bled in fre­quency to meet de­mand, see­ing loyal at­ten­dees re­turn­ing each week to fol­low the course.

Re­flect­ing the daily rit­u­als of the park, the ar­chi­tec­ture of the cen­tre al­lows the com­mu­nity to find the space they need, even dur­ing the un­for­giv­ing af­ter­noon heat of the sum­mer. The cen­tral ‘Agora’ space con­nects the three main build­ings, with the long, cool canal com­plet­ing the square. A wide pav­il­ion at the sum­mit of the park pro­vides shade, and col­lects so­lar en­ergy through its roof lined with 10,000 sq m of pho­to­voltaic cells.

So will the SNFCC stand the test of time? While its re­mark­able ar­chi­tec­ture might at­tract cu­ri­ous new vis­i­tors, it also pro­vides a space for the com­mu­nity to re­turn to each day, from early morn­ing dog walks to evening strolls as the sun sets over the Aegean. These reg­u­lars should be the judge of that.∂ snfcc.org ; rpbw.com

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