See the Opening of the Long-Awaited Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center

There's a four-night festival, free and open to the public.

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Courtesy of Sarah Cascone.

It’s official: Athens guidebooks are out of date. This weekend, the city is celebrating the completion of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, a Renzo Piano-designed complex that will soon be home to Greece’s National Library and National Opera House.

With construction finished after five years of work, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) will soon turn over the facilities to the government. In honor of the occasion, SNF is throwing “Metamorphosis,” a four-night festival (June 23-26) of cultural, educational, and sporting events, all free and open to the public.

The project was built on the site of a former hippodrome that served as a parking lot during the 2004 Olympic Games, and was subsequently abandoned following the international competition. In fact, it was the Games that first inspired SNF co-president Andreas Dracopoulos to begin the project. “Greece was flying high,” he told journalists in a conversation with Piano during a media preview on June 24.

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Courtesy of Sarah Cascone.

Of course, as the project got underway, Greece entered an economic crisis, causing some to question whether the center was the best possible use for the nearly €600 million in funding from the foundation. “We thought it was very important to give hope to the people, that Greece could still deliver,” Dracopoulos explained, adding that the foundation has only increased its activity in the country during the current crisis.

Piano’s ambitious plan for the site would reveal sweeping views of the Mediterranean Sea, if it wasn’t obscured by a multi-lane highway. (The neighborhood, Kallithea, Greek for “beautiful view,” is currently so off the beaten track that the current edition of Lonely Planet’s Greece travel guide doesn’t even mention it.) But at the top of the hill, the opera house’s top floors directly faces the Acropolis, and the entire city is revealed in breathtaking detail below.

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Courtesy of Sarah Cascone.

From the beginning, SNF always envisioned the site as having three parts: The opera, the library, and a public park. Piano made room for all three by creatively building the two facilities into the hill, allowing the park, with Grecian landscaping by Deborah Nevins, to serve as a green roof. A profusion of olive trees grow on the slope leading up to the library, and the scent of fragrant herbs and flowers hang heavy in the Athenian winds. You would never know of the cultural center hidden below.

The library lobby, which can be seen through floor-to-ceiling glass walls is a welcoming invitation to the facilities which will house the national research library, as well as a new circulating collection. Playful, block foam chairs in bright colors dot the facility, and a massive mobile sculpture by Susumu Shingu hangs from the lobby ceiling.

For now, however, most of the events of “Metamorphosis” take place scattered about the park. From a six-K run and 14 jazz orchestras spread throughout the park to an outdoor to a chess match pitting grand master Garry Kasparov against a number of merciless child competitors, there’s something for everyone to enjoy.

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Courtesy of Sarah Cascone.

The visual arts are well-represented here, with the video art survey “Fireflies in the Night Take Wing” running from midnight to 4:00 a.m. on 11 projection screens located throughout the park. Now in its second year, “Fireflies” features over 50 artists selected by artistic director Robert Storr with the help of curators Barbara London, Kalliopi Minioudaki, and Francesca Pietropaolo.

Storr told artnet News that he wants “people to follow flickering ‘fireflies’ though the central zones of the campus and all the way to the darker periphery,” admitting that Piano’s design was a major part of the project’s inspiration. “It’s art in dialogue with architecture but not with an eye to permanence but rather with a mind to temporary interactions which could be the basis for future variations and iterations.”

On Saturday, the Greek National Opera will inaugurate its alternative stage with a performance of Jani Christou’s The Pianist and The Strychnine Lady, set to a backdrop of Alexandros Pyschoulis’s sculptural art installation, a series of hanging fabric sculptures of genitals, some growing out of a large black whale.

Across the park on the Great Lawn, artist Laurie Anderson is embracing what she called “perennial questioning” in a new performance. At midnight, the artist will screen her documentary Heart of a Dog, which appeared earlier this year in New York’s Times Square’s Midnight Moment series.

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Courtesy of Sarah Cascone.

Also on view is an exhibition of work by contemporary Greek painter Panayiotis Tetsis, known for beautifully capturing the inimitable light and vibrant color of his native land. Organized by the SNFCC in conjunction with the National Gallery of Greece, the show is on view through July 31. It features 35 works donated to the gallery by the artist, who died on April 3, including his epic Street Market, a massive, supremely colorful frieze depicting the weekly gathering outside the artist’s studio.

Dracopoulos sees the “Metamorphosis” programming as a pilot program for the future of Greek cultural activities. “We’re trying to share with you what could be done,” he noted during the preview, hopeful that the government will take up the torch following the transfer. “The real owners are the community.”


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