Inspiring confidence in the future
The new arts centre in Athens named after shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos (SNFCC), housing the national library and the state opera, is due to open its doors in the autumn. But an enthusiastic public did not want to wait: On popular demand, a pre-opening event was held last year as the first in a staggered process, with each section of the complex inaugurated with a performance as it is completed. This impressive project by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop is a symbol of hope in Greece, funded by a corporation putting some of its profits back into society.
The Stavros Niarchos Foundatuion Cultural Center, or SNFCC for short, was built by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop. After the Centre Pompidou in Paris, it is another momentous, epoch-making cultural centre by the architectural firm. Not yet officially open but already in use, the Greek national opera and the national library are currently moving in. Before construction began in 2008, the site in Kallithea near Piraeus was extensively redeveloped by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop to create a hill to set the building into, and surround it with a landscaped park.
Visitors enter the opera foyer on the left of the U-shaped enclosure, opening on to a water basin. On the right, there is the entrance to the library, whose high shelves are now gradually being filled with the stocks from the old library in Athens’ city centre. The 50 metre-high glass facades create the impression of transparency in this part of the building. “The public is supposed to see what it’s got here,” explains George Agouridis. And yet everything remains hidden under the park. From above, as we notice on our return flight, all that can be seen is the park and the solar panels of the roof. Thanks to these, the complex can be run on 80 percent alternative, self-generated energy, making it electrically autonomous.
An opera and an alternative stage
Inside, the open-plan opera foyer stretches up over six floors. The building is multi-functional, and is already being used for performances. In autumn 2017, when the national opera’s relocation has been completed, the building will be officially opened with a full programme of opera productions, musicals, concerts, ballets and multi-media art events.
Despite seating 1400, with bright galleries and boxes lining the semi-circular, horseshoe space, the auditorium of the opera house creates an intimate atmosphere. The orchestra pit, equipped with three mobile podia, is extremely variable, according to requirements of size and usage. The main stage is flanked by three equally large side-stages and a backstage – for stage sets, repertoires, stores and space for manoeuvring during performances. The stage wagon system allows more dual usage of the space in a kind of puzzle system, developed by international companies, including the German firms BBH-Systeme, who supplied the stage technology and the software, and Gerriets, who created the curtain system.
As well as the opera, the building also houses an adaptable “alternative stage” seating 400, with its own artistic director, for experimental and contemporary performances. The seating rows can be pulled out of the wall like drawers, as required. The dance and ballet school will also find new premises in the SNFCC. And although the relocation of the many different disciplines has not yet been completed, performances are already being held on the various stages.
The Stavros Niarchos Foundation will cover the lion’s share of the running costs for the first five years. With this project, then, it is not only giving something back to Greek society at a time of crisis but also sending important signals for the future. It is a forward-looking investment – a magnet and a motor – for a future in which culture might have made a difference after all.
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