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Athens rises from the ashes

Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre

Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre

A slew of new projects takes shape in the Greek capital, which is slowly shrugging off a seven year recession.

A new "institution of hope and beauty" in Athens is the latest sign of renewal in a city slowly shrugging off the effects of seven years of recession. The first stage of the spectacular $878 million (€596 million) Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre was viewed by more than 120,000 people during a four-day public preview and a month of free events this northern summer.

Funded by the estate of late Greek shipping tycoon Stavros Niarchos, it will house the Greek National Opera and National Library of Greece when it opens to the public mid-next year after five years of construction. "In a difficult moment you need hope like fresh air," says Italian architect Renzo Piano, who designed the landmark. Set in a 17-hectare park about 4.5 kilometres south of central Athens, where the city meets the sea, the centre occupies a former horseracing track near disused Olympics venues.

Meanwhile, revised plans have been announced to turn the 620-hectare site of the old Athens airport, used recently to house thousands of refugees, into a luxury resort town. And the long-awaited National Museum of Contemporary Art is nearing completion, though no opening date has been announced. The opera house and library, linked by an agora and topped by a glass "lighthouse", are surrounded by the city's biggest green space, including a 400-metre-long lake, playgrounds, and running and cycling paths. The park extends across the roof of the library, while a photovoltaic canopy over the opera house will generate energy for the complex. Interiors feature mobile sculptures by Japanese artist Susumu Shingu, a towering "book castle" and light-filled reading rooms, and public spaces dotted with brightly coloured foam seats. The upgraded National Library is built to house two million books and journals, including rare manuscripts and engravings dating back to the 9th century. And the National Opera has a stunning 1,400-seat auditorium and a 450-seat venue for theatre, music and dance.

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