Athens - From Bust to Bounty


With three new cultural centres in its capital, Greece is leaving behind recent financial catastrophe and reasserting itself as a vibrant cultural beacon. Stephen Hitchins reports


When you have done Skiathos and Skopelos, Skyros and Samos, Santorini, Syros, Sifnos, Schinoussa, Symi, and Sérifos, sunk your toes deep into the sand, listened to the Aegean lapping their shores, soaked up the majestic beauty, escaped the crowds, wandered Byzantine footpaths, visited castaway coves and picture-perfect harbours, hiked volcanoes, cycled the forests, and watched the sea turtles, indulged in the nightlife, the tavernas, the stark mystique and laid-back glamour of it all, once your imagination has been ignited with history laced with mythical tales and you have checked out the sun-bleached ruins, head for Athens.

In Coningsby, the first of Disraeli’s ‘silver fork novels’, he wrote ‘A great city, whose image dwells in the memory of man, is the type of some great idea. Rome represents conquest; Faith hovers over the towers of Jerusalem; and Athens embodies the pre-eminent quality of the antique world, Art.’ It still does.

If you listened to all those EU finance ministers over the past decade you would consider Athens a city of wealth by stealth. That is anything but the truth. Greece is gradually coming out of the deepest depression suffered by any rich country since the Second World War. The economy is growing, unemployment is falling, and in August, eight years after it first sought help, the country emerged from its final bail-out programme with official creditors. ‘No one buys furniture in a crisis,’ said the furniture dealer, but the situation is at last beginning to improve.

The Acropolis Museum sits on columns to reveal the archaeological finds beneathThe Acropolis Museum sits on columns to reveal the archaeological finds beneath

Having endured crisis and chaos, economic collapse, downgrading of its credit rating and austerity measures that crippled the economy over the past decade, last year Athens welcomed five million visitors, double the number in 2012. This year the whole country is expecting 32 million visitors, three times its population. Arrivals from China have doubled since direct flights between Athens and Beijing were launched in September 2017.

It is as if the whole world has gone to Greece on vacation. From the wreckage of economic chaos, Europe’s most vibrant and significant cultural capital is rising again. It has been a halting recovery but now the Greek economy is poised to expand between two and four per cent this year compared to the UK’s 1.3 per cent.

The museum is a glass and concrete mirror homage to the Parthenon. Image Credit: Christian RichtersThe museum is a glass and concrete mirror homage to the Parthenon. Image Credit: Christian Richters

At the start of August Athens reached 48C, the same temperature that it reached in 1977, the western European record. But it is hot in more ways than one. Cheap souvlaki joints, outdated tavernas with retsina and ritual ouzo drinking, have given way to stylish bars, cafes, and restaurants.

The image show the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre, designed by Renzo Piano and opened in 2016. Image Credit: SNFCC / Yiorgis YerolymbosThe Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre, designed by Renzo Piano and opened in 2016. Image Credit: SNFCC / Yiorgis Yerolymbos

In many ways, Athens feels more alive, more culturally prolific than ever, and it’s hard to understand how this could have happened in the midst of the worst economic catastrophe in the history of the European Union. There are major public arts institutions, which were either donated to the state by private philanthropic organisations or funded before the crisis, in part with foreign money: the spectacular, largely EU-funded Acropolis Museum opened in 2009 right next to the Acropolis like a glass-and-concrete mirror image; the Onassis Cultural Centre that opened in 2010 encompasses two state-of-the-art performance halls, an open-air theatre and an exhibition space; and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre, a Renzo Piano designed cultural complex, completed in 2016, just down from the Onassis Centre on the Bay of Faliro. It includes facilities for the National Library of Greece, the Greek National Opera and a 17 ha park, all of which the Foundation has donated to the State.

The image show the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre, designed by Renzo Piano and opened in 2016. Image Credit: SNFCC / Yiorgis YerolymbosThe Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre, designed by Renzo Piano and opened in 2016. Image Credit: SNFCC / Yiorgis Yerolymbos

The most famous rivalry in modern Greek history, between Stavros Niarchos and Aristotle Onassis, shadowy shipping magnates who spent their lives feuding over business and romantic interests, now faces off along Siggrou Avenue and through the prolific cultural programming, grants, residencies and public works of their respective legacy foundations. Last year, among many other events, the Onassis Centre staged its Fast Forward Festival focusing on techno-futurism and new media, a science-fiction festival and an Afrofuturism series, which included a concert by the Sun Ra Arkestra with tickets as low as €5.

At the same time, the Niarchos Centre made numerous high-profile performances entirely free to the public, including a Yo La Tengo concert and a presentation by the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe. The two sites are only 2km apart.

The image shows the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre, designed by Renzo Piano and opened in 2016. Image Credit: SNFCC / Nikos KaranikolasThe image shows the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre, designed by Renzo Piano and opened in 2016. Image Credit: SNFCC / Nikos Karanikolas

Since winning the competition to design the Parc de la Villette on the northeast of Paris in 1983 (there were 472 entries) the French- Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi has designed grand cultural buildings across the world, been fêted with decorations and honours, his work exhibited seemingly everywhere, written 10 books, and was dean of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University in New York for 15 years. All that experience had to be channelled into perhaps the greatest of all commissions, one that was as political as it was architectural, the Acropolis Museum.

Thirty-three years after former president Constantinos Karamanlis decided to build a new museum on the site just south-east of the ‘sacred rock’ in Athens, there had been three unresolved competitions, one of which elicited 438 entries, before the Tschumi design was chosen from 11 schemes in a fourth competition. Thirty-three years: twice as long as it took the ancient Greeks to build the Parthenon in the first place. At the height of Greek power, Pericles commissioned Iktinus, Kallikrates and Pheidias to design it, an ark of wisdom now lost in the depths of time.

The Greek National Opera House at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre. Image Credit: GNO / Vassilis MakrisThe Greek National Opera House at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre. Image Credit: GNO / Vassilis Makris 

The single most important building in Western civilisation, it has cast a shadow over every designer. Classicists bowed before it, even Le Corbusier spent 12 days straight studying it. No one could ignore it. It was a daunting precedent to follow, enough to make anyone tremble. A sacred symbol to Greece after it gained its independence, it had been used as a church, a mosque, a military garrison and a gunpowder store, but since 1821 its political significance has never been in doubt.

Unlike any other museum this one was designed to house something it did not own, the marbles hacked from the Parthenon by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at a time when it included Greece and, to cover his debts, sold in 1816 to the British government, which then gave them to the British Museum. That Greece could look after the marbles properly is no longer in doubt, thanks to Tschumi who has created something that far outshines London’s imposing Neo-Classical Parthenon gallery, designed by John Russell Pope and completed in 1938.

The 900 sq m glass Lighthouse space (and below at night). Image Credit: Dimitris ParthimosThe 900 sq m glass Lighthouse space (and below at night). Image Credit: Dimitris Parthimos

The Greek minister of culture has said the sculptures ‘are meant to be seen in sequence and in total’ and ‘are the most cherished symbols of our cultural heritage, the height of our achievement as a people’, and thus this building awaits its conclusion. Originally due to be open in time for the Olympics in 2004, unsurprisingly there were difficulties that led to never-ending delays. Some 300m from the Acropolis the museum site was riddled with archaeological remains. The Greek Police Academy building is protected and occupies part of the site: it had to stay. Some apartment buildings had to be pulled down. There were recurring arguments about complying with the building codes; they had not been revised since 1916. Line 2 of the Athens underground runs close by. There was always the threat of earthquakes. At various stages during the project 104 court cases in total were brought against the scheme.

The 900 sq m glass Lighthouse space at night.Image Credit: James FlorioThe 900 sq m glass Lighthouse space at night. Image Credit: James Florio

Orchestrated simplicity was the goal, humility the order of the day – not something the average star architect can manage. But here, the design meets the challenge. It is all about context and content and done with the utmost restraint and clarity. An essay in concrete, glass, stainless steel, and marble, the building is a stack of three distinct sections in subtle homage to its landmark neighbour. It is entirely free of decoration, the contents are dramatic enough, there are few signs, no clutter, 21,000 sq m of grandeur achieved through the manipulation of light and space.

The structure hovers above excavations on 43 Herculean columns, glass pavers revealing the remarkably well-preserved archaeological finds beneath, multiple layers of Athenian history from the fifth century BC onwards. The first two levels conform to the street pattern, the third, a 7m-high huge glass rectangle is rotated 23 degrees to align with the Parthenon. Everything is located and orientated as it was in the original, ghostly copies of the plundered items filling the gaps, and there are uninterrupted, 360-degree views of the ancient temple and the surrounding city. It is a suitably theatrical idea that makes for a dramatic building and, as Tschumi stated, ‘a journey into the world of cultural politics, propaganda, and great art’. To get to the top gallery with the frieze, metopes, and pediment of the ancient temple is a processional path through time. Working with glass consultant Hugh Dutton, the architect devised a way of keeping the top floor temperate in the scorching sun.

A very close neighbour to the Parthenon, the Acropolis Museum offers full views of the ancient building. Image Credit: Christian RichtersA very close neighbour to the Parthenon, the Acropolis Museum offers full views of the ancient building. Image Credit: Christian Richters

Warm air is evacuated through the ceiling, and a cooling system combined with double-layered glass recycles the air through the gallery.

A far cry from Iktinus and Kallikrates, the strength and drama, space and majesty of its monolithic minimalism works, and the galleries create a stunning home for some of the most precious fragments of civilisation. At €130m it was a snip.

Less than 2km away is the Onassis Cultural Centre, known locally as the stégi, or roof. The bus from the Acropolis takes 20 minutes, it’s quicker to walk. Aimed at encouraging the development of modern Greek culture and its promotion outside the country, and providing artists with a fully equipped cultural centre in which to present their work, the Onassis building is a landmark on the road to Piraeus.

The museum was built to house all archaeological finds from the Acropolis hill. Image Credit: Peter MaussThe museum was built to house all archaeological finds from the Acropolis hill. Image Credit: Peter Mauss

The Centre comprises two theatres, an openair amphitheatre, library, restaurant and exhibition hall, and covers an entire city block. In a twist on a Greek classic, it is an unadulterated diaphanous volume built of Thassos marble, elevated above a glass base. It was designed by AS Architecture Studio, a firm of 200 planners, architects and designers based in Paris, Shanghai, and Venice.

Having won a competition in 2000 to design the Olympic Village located at the foot of Mount Parnassus, a mini international city with accommodation for 16,000 athletes, plus a press centre, medical centre, cultural centre, restaurants and cafes, places of worship, and training facilities, AS entered its second Greek competition in 2002 and won again. There were 66 entries. The Centre has seven floors plus nine underground levels. An inside-out building, the facade serves as a stage set adding an air of mystery to the place as reflections and light shows play across the surface night and day.

A specialist in architectural lighting wellknown for its work on the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2004 Olympics, Eleftheria Deko was responsible for the drama outside the building, James Morse for the theatre lighting. Burrell Foley Fischer was responsible for the interiors, an 880-seat theatre for orchestral concerts, theatre performances, opera, dance, cinema, lectures, and conferences; a rather more intimate 220-seat theatre for smaller musical, theatre or dance performances, lectures, and multimedia and virtual reality presentations.

Between the Acropolis and the Onassis Centre you pass the Fix Building, a brewery built in the 1860s by Johann Fuchs, and since 2016, permanent home to the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), an institution that was in limbo for the previous 19 years. It has had a chequered history with disagreements over administration, regulations, government funding, substantial donations made and withdrawn, and disputes between its directors. Severe budget cuts due to the financial crisis did not help. The fact that it did not open once the building was completed in 2014 was symbolic of the problems facing Greek culture.

The museum was built to house all archaeological finds from the Acropolis hill. Image Credit: Peter MaussThe museum was built to house all archaeological finds from the Acropolis hill. Image Credit: Peter Mauss

It was the unprecedented and controversial move to establish part of the quinquennial art exhibition Documenta – the ‘museum of 100 days’ – away from the German city of Kassel for the first time since its inception in 1955, that gave the impetus to finally cut through the bureaucratic wrangling that beset the project as the government grasped the fact that culture could be a lever for economic development and put entire districts to work. Cool, faceless, restrained, with two of the facades listed, the complicated transformation and refurbishment involved three architecture practices, 3SK Stylianidis, Kalliope Kontozoglou working with Tim Ronalds, and Mouzakis & Associates, such was the complexity of the renovation and change of use.

Capital of Greece, birthplace of the modern world, Athens is hardly a case of ‘less is more’. Hence the deliberate moderation of these three muted buildings. However, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre is slightly further out of the centre, added to which it faces the sea. Yet another international competition, this time in 2008, led to the Renzo Piano Building Workshop being appointed in 2008.

When Piano first talked with the local authorities about the project, he had one burning question: ‘The municipality where the designated building spot was is called “Kallithea”, which means “nice view”, in this case a seaview. Where is it?’ It then took a great deal of effort and money to turn a huge, dirty, deserted area into the city’s grandest project. But the view is back, and it is spectacular, towards both the sea and the Acropolis. The marriage between the buildings and their surroundings creates a unique sensation. The Centre sits on an artificial hill at the sea end of the site, while a park slopes gently down towards Kallithea, one of the most densely populated areas of Athens.

The buildings include a 28,000 sq m opera house, a 22,000 sq m library, world-class facilities for the Greek National Opera and the National Library of Greece. In addition, the library has a public lending facility, a library for young people and children, a business centre, exhibition space, and facilities for the storage and the preservation of rare books and manuscripts. The reading room is at the top of the building, right under the canopy roof that has 10,000 sq m of photovoltaic cells installed, making the building self-sufficient in energy. A square transparent glass box, the room has 360-degree views of Athens and the sea.

The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre sits on an artificial hill at the sea end of the site. Image Credit: SNFCC / Yiorgis YerolymbosThe Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre sits on an artificial hill at the sea end of the site. Image Credit: SNFCC / Yiorgis Yerolymbos

The park is used for outdoor performances; the opera wing has two auditoriums, one of 450 seats for traditional opera and ballet, a second one of 1,400 seats for more experimental performances, and there is a dance school. Arup was responsible for the civil engineering, building services, acoustics, sound and lighting, communications, and security services throughout. It proved to be one of the largest, most functionally diverse and technically intricate cultural building projects on which the firm has ever worked.

Of all these projects this one has been the largest private investment in the country’s future and offers a beacon of hope and optimism in otherwise uncertain times. It cost €566m. A seawater canal system runs the entire length of the site. You can follow the Esplanade to the waterfront and then keep going east. Once again, 2km away is Flisvos Marina, with cafes, restaurants and the Naval War Museum where the historic First World War battleship Averof is permanently anchored, and close by sits Olympias, the only full-size and fully functional trireme in the world, an exact replica of the war galleys of Ancient Greece.

If you climb the Mouseion hill among the olive trees, the ‘Hill of the Muses’, and look out across the celestial view of the Parthenon from its summit you can swing through a few degrees and see all these new cultural centres. It is difficult not to treat Athens with a show of familiarity, pretending as we might sometimes do with a celebrated acquaintance, to know it better than we really do. The historic sites may have died and been resurrected into an illustrious afterlife with their own vitality, engulfed in their own continuity, the city’s capacity for adaptation never ending.

All of these buildings signal Athens’ return to cultural glory. Yet despite talk of it being ‘the new Berlin’, the city still struggles with poverty, riots and drug crime, not to mention continued reverberations of the refugee crisis, something most visible in Exarchia, once again, just a couple of kilometres from the centre of the city.





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