Athens is feeling feisty. It may be battling prolonged economic hardship and an unprecedented refugee crisis, but in terms of creativity, the Greek capital is busy bouncing back. Artists and curators are arriving thick and fast in anticipation of Documenta, a 100-day art show that’s been held every five years in the German city of Kassel, but which is co-hosted by Athens for the first time this year. For it, the city is becoming a canvas for more than 100 artists to create works in archaeological sites, university campuses and a former military prison. Even the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) has opened in its new permanent home after 15 years of false starts.
Set in a converted brewery, the museum occupies a block on Syngrou Avenue, which connects the city centre to the seafront. Once notorious for hookers and strip clubs, it’s now emerging as Athens’ Museum Mile. Halfway down Syngrou, the Onassis Cultural Centre – financed by the foundation of the late shipping magnate – has shaken up the art scene with a game-changing line-up of music, theatre, dance and design. ‘Everybody said it was a crazy idea to set it up during an economic crisis,’ says Afroditi Panagiotakou, deputy general manager of the centre. ‘But if there’s a light that never goes out here, it’s culture.’
Aristotle Onassis’ old rival, Stavros Niarchos, is determined to outdo him, even from beyond the grave. At the coastal end of Syngrou, the €630-million Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre houses the National Library of Greece, the Greek National Opera and a 42-acre park. Designed by Renzo Piano (The Shard, Whitney Museum of American Art), it’s a stunning symbol of hope. Taking inspiration from the name of the suburb of Kallithea, which means ‘beautiful view’, Piano slotted the glass buildings into a man-made hill that doubles as a green roof. At the summit is The Lighthouse, an observatory with a floating solar canopy powering the buildings below. The vistas are electrifying.
Meanwhile Dimitris Daskalopoulos, another wealthy benefactor who supports Greek artists through his NEON Foundation, has just bankrolled a new venture in the Athens Conservatoire, a Bauhaus-inspired beauty that had languished, empty and unfinished, since 1976. Elsewhere, all over the capital dead spaces are being reclaimed: magnificent but empty arcades once lined with bookshops, printers and key-cutters are transformed into exhibition spaces; guerrilla gardeners are taking over car parks, and graffiti artists are creating giant murals across whole blocks. continue to reading here