Sunset boulevard: we’re ready for our close-up at an Athens promenading ground

Sunset boulevard: we’re ready for our close-up at an Athens promenading ground

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.’

View from the park. Photography: Yiorgis Yerolymbos. Courtesy of SNFCC

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.

View from the city. Photography: Michel Denancé

‘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.

As originally featured in the September 2017 issue of Wallpaper* (W*222)

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