Renzo Goes to Athens

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A few weeks ago I stopped by the New York outpost of Renzo Piano — his main office is in Genoa — to talk with him about the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, another one of his multitude of commissions. When it’s finished — the scheduled completion date is 2015 — the Center will provide a home for both the National Library of Greece and the Greek National Opera on a site near the water’s edge in Athens.

Anybody who’s been paying attention knows about the Classical strain in Renzo’s work, which was evident as far back as the Menil Collection in Houston in the 1980s. So it was probably inevitable he would find himself attracted to a commission in Greece. Right now Piano’s design for the Center is at the concept stage, but sufficiently developed to talk about and also to make it obvious that this could get interesting. The basic design idiom for the building is what I’ve come to think of as Piano’s Techno-Classicism, spare geometries, carefully interlocked planes and volumes with an emphasis where possible on transparency, slender walls and a lot of green design elements. At his California Academy of Science, which opened last fall in San Francisco, Piano embedded his Classical impulses into a Romantic framework by putting an undulating green roof on top of his building — a park above a temple. I thought of it as Capability Brown meets Robert Adam.

Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, east elevation, Renzo Piano/Images: Renzo Piano Building Workshop

Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, east elevation, Renzo Piano/Images: Renzo Piano Building Workshop

With the Niarchos Foundation he seems to be aiming for an even more intricate immersion of the building into its 42-acre site. The plan is to use landfill to create a long, landscaped slope that will function as a park. The slope will join up with the building not at its main plaza level but at its diagonal lower roof line. From some angles the glass-walled cultural center will appear to be embedded within its own sloping greenery. Above that lower roof, an upper level canopy roof made of photo-voltaic cells will generate energy, which Piano hopes will make possible a building with zero carbon emissions.

At its uppermost reaches the slope will offer views of the Acropolis in one direction and the Aegean in the other. “The name of this neighborhood is ‘Kallithea’,” Piano explained. “It means ‘beautiful view’. But unfortunately they lost their view of the sea a long time ago.” One key intention behind his upward sloping design is to restore that view.

I don’t know whether it played any role in Piano’s thinking, but this idea of a building embedded in its site put me in mind of those parts of the Acropolis that seem to emerge from the stone, especially the Propylaea. (And for that matter, it also made me think of Anasazi Indian cliff dwellings in New Mexico and a house that the late Jan Kaplicky did on the coast of Wales.) But where else was it I had seen a diagonal roof interacting with its sloping site? Then I remembered.

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