The healing power of great buildings comes at a price

Leading architects can help to revive a city’s image but cultural institutions need long-term support to shine brightly

By Victoria Newhouse

This month, the art world looks to Athens, where Documenta 14 (8 April-16 July) is taking place. Later in the year, the Greek government will inaugurate another attraction: a magnificent 1,400-seat opera house and an elegant national library designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, set within a 42-acre park landscaped by Deborah Nevins & Associates.

The £673m cultural centre, financed entirely by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, is unusual among new cultural institutions worldwide in its on-time, on-budget completion. Last June, four days of boisterous celebrations marked the end of its construction, drawing more than 115,000 people: tourists keen to see the latest work by the great architect and locals eager for a diversion from their country’s problems.

The aesthetic success of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center is undeniable; it remains to be seen if, once inaugurated this autumn, it can fulfil what Piano calls “the therapeutic power of beauty”. Piano and many others see beauty—artistic beauty, for example—as a means of escaping or even overcoming the trials of daily life. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation’s commitment to build, made in full awareness of the looming global financial crisis, hinged on the board of directors’ conviction that the gift could signal a turnaround of Greece’s fortunes; that beauty would indeed have a therapeutic power.

Such was the case for the legendary La Scala opera house in Milan, which by popular demand was one of the first major reconstructions undertaken after the Second World War. And the idea endures. Today, a number of countries whose troubles surpass even those of Greece are building cultural institutions with the same belief in the redemptive power of culture and beauty.

The Palestinian Museum of art, history, and culture opened in May 2016 in war-torn Birzeit, on the West Bank, in a £19m building designed by Dublin-based Heneghan Peng Architects. Omar Al-Qattan, the museum’s chairman, inaugurated the museum even though it had no exhibits—because, he said, “Palestinians were so in need of positive energy”.

In the midst of Lebanon’s financial and political instability, at least five new museums are planned or under construction in Beirut. One of these, the David Adjaye-designed Aïshti Foundation for contemporary art, is already operational.

In Paris, François Pinault, the French luxury-goods billionaire, will open his own museum of contemporary art in the centre of the capital in a former commodities exchange being renovated by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando. Referring to the recent terrorist attacks in the city, the art collector says: “In the face of this barbarism, the only possible reaction is to move forward.”

Last month, Pinault’s fellow luxury-goods billionaire Bernard Arnault announced that Frank Gehry would transform the former Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires, which closed in 2005, into the Maison LVMH, a cultural centre to complement the Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton nearby.

Building as spiritual support in the face of adversity is not always completely successful. Piano missed the mark in his response to the devastating earthquake in the central Italian town of L’Aquila in 2009. His temporary, 240-seat concert hall fabricated in timber may have helped to revive the town’s centre, but it failed as a prototype for inexpensive new construction. Local people opposed building in wood instead of the area’s traditional stone.

Additionally, Rem Koolhaas cautions that “as beautiful as the idea is, with other urgencies, [spending on culture] can appear to be an indulgence”. Such is the case with Paris’s project for the Seine Musicale, a classical concert hall designed by Shigeru Ban for an island in the city’s river. Coming in the wake of the tremendously successful Jean Nouvel-designed Paris Philharmonie, the £143m, 1,150-seat building seems excessive: it would be Paris’s sixth classical music or opera venue.

The same issue haunts Tate Modern’s new £260m, ten-storey Switch House by Herzog & de Meuron, which opened last June. With a collection that barely fills the original, six-storey Boiler House building, the value of the addition, at a cost to the British taxpayer of £50m, is questionable.

Furthermore, the status of the £19bn of cultural facilities built from scratch or expanded in the US between 1994 and 2008 offers a sobering alert about the pitfalls of such enterprises. Embarked upon without adequate resources for maintenance and programming, these buildings now constitute what Joanna Woronkowicz, the co-author of Building Better Arts Facilities: Lessons From a US National Study, calls “a landscape awash with arts organisations struggling to stay afloat”. These include expansions of the Milwaukee Art Museum by Santiago Calatrava (2002), the Denver Art Museum by Daniel Libeskind (2006) and even Renzo Piano’s Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago (2009).

Financial support for cultural institutions is subject in the US to the vagaries of private donors, and in Europe to those of politicians. In Athens, a newly appointed minister of culture has already summarily replaced the Greek National Opera’s artistic director of five years, Myron Michailidis. In Dallas, the failure of the trustees of the AT&T Performing Arts Center to complete on-time funding of the new, Foster + Partners-designed Winspear Opera House’s construction and operations has forced major compromises in programming.

The Greek government’s deplorable record in managing cultural institutions does not bode well for the future of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center. It has recently combined two existing art museums in Thessaloniki, and left unopened for more than two years a newly renovated contemporary art museum in Athens. Aware of the uncertainties of government support, the foundation’s directors pledged €50m for the facility’s first five years of operation.

In these divided times, the healing powers of art are more important than ever. Leading British artists and cultural institutions, for example, are reported to have Brexit on the brain. The conductor Simon Rattle, who wants a new concert hall for the London Symphony Orchestra in the City of London, has said: “We need the arts to help make sense of where we are, which is historically a very, very strange time.”

The Stavros Niarchos Foundation shares similar reasoning: the directors are convinced that its cultural centre can “offer the crack of light where the soul can find civility”.

• Victoria Newhouse is a writer and architectural historian. Her latest book, Chaos & Culture: Renzo Piano Building Workshop and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens, is forthcoming from the Monacelli Press