Financially troubled Athens may not seem like the obvious place for the next big public building opening. Even so, the Greek capital has just seen a grand new cultural complex open its doors for the first time, courtesy of the non-profit Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) and architect Renzo Piano.

The project has been a long time in the making. Located in the southern Athenian district of Kallithea, it includes the National Library of Greece, the Greek National Opera and a 210,000 sq m landscaped park. It was kick-started in the 1990s by the library and opera authorities and the SNF – the philanthropic organisation set up by the eponymous Greek shipping magnate – and commissioned to the Renzo Piano Building Workshop in 2008.

The area is one of the capital’s most densely populated municipalities and this injection of green space is a much-needed addition. Piano’s design also aims to restore the long-lost connection between Kallithea and the sea, through its carefully picked orientation and raised vistas.

The architect's proposal includes an artificial hill on the site’s southernmost tip, under the highest point of which are nestled the two buildings, and on which the large public park unfolds. The two-auditorium opera house and the library are topped by a glass-enclosed multifunctional space called the Lighthouse. A public piazza, called the Agora, links the two main functions together.

Offering great views of the sea (enhanced by the presence of a 30m-wide esplanade running along the site’s main north-south pedestrian axis) the park, designed by Deborah Nevins & Associates, is also packed with eco-friendly elements. These include solar panels, water recycling and flood defence mechanisms; sustainability and a green element for the neighbourhood were both key to the team’s overall approach.

The complex was built using foundation funds, but upon completion it will be donated to the Greek state. The coming weekend will be marked by a series of events, artworks and performances, called 'Metamorphosis: The SNFCC to the World', to celebrate the new Cultural Centre’s first viewing.