Taking its name from its Mediterranean vistas, the Athenian district of Kallithea (‘beautiful view’) is strategically situated at the southern edge of the Greek capital, looking out towards Faliro Bay and Piraeus. Great sea views might once have been one of its key assets, but for the better part of the last half-century, they have been obstructed by a wave of urbanisation, with polykatoikies (the typical local apartment blocks) taking up much of the free space. Having sacrificed green and open areas, as well as those coveted sea views, Kallithea is now one of the most densely populated municipalities in Greece.

Renzo Piano’s ambitious scheme for the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre is set to change this. Comprising the National Library of Greece and the Greek National Opera in a 170,000 sq m landscaped park, this new complex is located some 4km south of the city centre and aims to restore the long lost connection between Kallithea, and consequently Athens, and the sea.

The project was born in the late 1990s, when first the National Library and then the Greek National Opera approached the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), the philanthropic organisation set up by Greek shipping magnate Stavros Spyros Niarchos (1909-1996), for financial help in order to upgrade their facilities. The foundation decided to combine the two requests, add a public park and launch an international competition for the project – the largest and most complex of its kind for them. The chosen site was an area of 211,000 sq m in southern Kallithea that served as a parking lot during the 2004 Athens Olympics. The Renzo Piano Building Workshop won the commission in 2008.

Piano’s clever proposal revolves around an artificial hill looking out towards the sea. It reaches a height of 32m and partly becomes the cultural complex’s accessible green roof. The centre sits at the site’s southernmost point and includes the project’s two main functions, placed within two wings. It marks the culmination of the park’s gentle slope and offers great views of the sea. The connection to the sea is further underlined by the presence of the esplanade, a brand new, 30m-wide canal that will run along the site’s main north-south pedestrian axis.

The opera comprises two auditoriums of 400 and 1,400 seats, while the library will be a valuable public resource. A striking, glass-enclosed, multifunctional space, called the Lighthouse, will offer 360-degree views of Athens and the sea. The two wings are united by a central open-air public space, the Agora, as well as several shared exhibition and conference rooms, a café and a bookstore.

The complex was built using the foundation’s funds, but upon completion, it will be donated to the Greek state. Not only will it add an important cultural and educational dimension to the area, but the design is also packed with eco-friendly elements, from solar panels and water recycling, to the canal, which can be used as an anti-fooding measure for the whole site. ‘We would like the project to become a beacon of sustainability,’ explains SNF’s chief technical officer Theodore Maravelias. ‘We wanted that right from the start and we chose the architects with that in mind. And this decision is not about winning awards – it was an integral part that defined the project from its very birth.’

The centre promises a new, important green hub for Athens – one of its largest – and the densely built city desperately needs it. A striking 85 per cent of the site is devoted to the park, designed by landscape firm Deborah Nevins & Associates. ‘It is important to not think of the park as simply the main building’s outside space,’ says Maravelias. ‘It is more like a park that accommodates a complex of buildings in one of its corners.’

The complex may not be ready for delivery until spring 2016 (with the official opening planned for the following year), but its positive ripple effect is already being felt in the wider area. Extra care has been taken for the construction to be respectful of the residential areas around it, and a programme of events on site draws in the locals. ‘It is such a big and complex project, but we had no complaints whatsoever,’ says Maravelias. ‘The state and local municipalities embraced it and saw it as a central landmark to the wider development of this part of Athens.’ Indeed, a few years after Piano’s appointment, his office was commissioned for a masterplan study that involves the future redevelopment of the nearby Faliro Bay seafront – possibly the next stage in the area’s transformation.

As originally featured in the October 2015 issue of Wallpaper* (W*199)