A beacon of hope amid Greece’s economic crisis and political upheaval.

How Renzo Piano’s $800 Million Cultural Center Survived the Crisis and a Decade of Delays


Despite the odds, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC), by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, became a beacon of hope amid Greece’s economic crisis and political upheaval.


The park and the other two major additions to the city of Athens were made possible by the foundation established according to the terms of Stavros Niarchos’s will. That donation is part of a long tradition in modern Greece of private support for public institutions. Niarchos began earning a living as an impecunious apprentice in the flour-milling business of his maternal uncles, and then persuaded them to expand the business by buying ships. After World War II, he founded his own shipping company and by 1956 had built it into the largest international private fleet in the world.  His foundation came into being in 1996 — the year of his death — and has worked actively ever since. However, because the SNFCC was by far its most ambitious project (and its first important architecture project), the directors seriously questioned the advisability of their extravagance in December 2008, when cities throughout Greece were wracked for more than a month by violent protests. Though triggered by the killing of a 15-year-old student by the police in Athens, the demonstrations were fueled by widespread outrage and frustration, especially among young people, over the country’s growing economic difficulties.

So extreme were the problems by late 2009 that the phrase “becoming another Greece” entered the vernacular as a reference to drastic financial instability.  Greece’s problems with the European Community were only just beginning their dramatic escalation in June 2011 when Piano participated in the SNFCC’s inaugural press conference. A brief disruption of the event, orchestrated by environmentalists, subsided when it became apparent that the building would introduce a new level of environmental sensitivity to Greek architecture. The only exception to generally favorable press coverage has been from the far left-wing media, which opposed allowing the SNF to use the land, criticized what it saw as tax exemptions for the foundation, and denounced what it labels private interference with government-run institutions.

Be that as it may, every mainstream newspaper in Athens carried a laudatory front-page story about the June 25, 2014, “Dance of the Cranes” that took place at the construction site in anticipation of the completion of the SNFCC’s superstructure. Fifteen hundred people, including myself, watched the sun set in the cloudless Mediterranean sky as ten giant cranes gracefully interacted in a fifteen-minute performance choreographed to the music of Gustav Holst’s suite The Planets, played by the GNO orchestra. The event replicated a similar “Dance” staged by Piano — ever the consummate showman — in Berlin in 1996, during the erection of his Daimler-Benz complex at Potsdamer Platz.

Dracopoulos, the SNF’s director, concluded the performance with a short assertion of his optimism, calling the SNFCC “an inspired project, imparting a sense of magic and a dreamlike quality to each and every one of the citizens of this country.” Piano took over the microphone to repeat his belief in the “therapeutic power of beauty.”

Dracopoulos and Piano are not the first to entertain such ideas in the face of adversity. The Empire State Building (1931) and Rockefeller Center (1930–1939) in New York City, both remarkable architectural achievements, were constructed during the height of the Great Depression that ravaged the U.S. economy for ten years. More than half a century earlier, in Paris, the Palais Garnier opera house (1875) rose during and immediately after the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), in an era of turbulence even more extreme than the Greek crisis. These projects overcame the troubles of their times to become enduring masterpieces. It remains to be seen whether the Athens project will be equally lasting.