Greek gift: Athens’ new cultural centre | Travel

With apartment blocks wedged between busy roads, the Athenian suburb of Kallithea doesn’t really live up to its name, which means “beautiful view”. But thanks to a €596m gift from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, and a visionary design by architect Renzo Piano, the neighbourhood has recently benefitted from an enthralling cultural landmark: the Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center. The views from it are definitely of the spectacular variety.

The centre’s rooftop space. Photograph: Michel Denancé

Piano used rubble to create a slope that doubles as a green roof for the new Greek National Library and Opera. At the top is a glass observatory with a vast solar canopy that powers the buildings below. Sustainability is at the heart of the design, the first European public building on this scale to achieve LEED Platinum certification. Footpaths lined with Mediterranean herbs lead to a 42-acre park, with playgrounds, water jets and vegetable gardens. Concerts, screenings, and festivals are staged on the Great Lawn.

A 400-metre sea-water canal, where people can learn to sail or kayak, creates a cooling microclimate; after dark, it’s a backdrop for live jazz or tango classes. All this is free, as are tours and activities including crafts, petanque, chess and gardening lessons. The only thing visitors pay for are rental bikes and opera tickets.

Interior view of the library at the Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center in Athens, Greece.

The library at the Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Currently managed and funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the centre will be handed over to the Greek state by the end of 2017, a controversial decision at a time of strained public finances. “Income generated by the cafes, restaurants and performances will go towards the maintenance of the buildings, park and programme of events,” says manager Elly Andriopoulou. “This is a long-term investment in the regeneration of Athens that will generate around €140m a year for the Greek economy.”

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