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  • Writer's pictureAlex King

A Brief History of Onassis Stegi in Athens

What is Onassis Stegi?

Cultural foundation opened in 2010 that’s named after 20th-century shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.

Onassis Stegi

Onassis Stegi History

There’s a standoff underway on the mighty Syngrou Avenue. The egos of two titans of industry are still locked in fierce competition; even though both men died before the end of the 20th century. In life, the rivalry between Greek shipowners Aristotle Onassis and Stavros Niarchos played out across the world’s oceans, among some of the biggest shipping fleets in history. In death, the pair’s memorial foundations and cultural centres now vie for prestige and influence from opposite ends of Syngrou; the eight-lane behemoth that runs from the coast in Palaio Faliro to the city centre.

The opulent Onassis Stegi opened in 2010, envisioned as a place to bring together contemporary culture and science – a bridge between Athens and cutting-edge thinkers and creators from around the world. French architectural practice Architecture Studio won the Onassis Foundation’s international design competition and created a striking glass cube, encased in white marble bands which allow Attic sunlight to flow through, painting the interior in a constantly changing canvas of colour and shadow. At night, the artificial light flows out from the interior, through the glass and marble, to create a glowing beacon of culture on Syngrou. The state-of-the-art complex hosts theatrical and musical productions, film screenings, art and digital shows, lectures and discussions, and more.

Aristotle Onassis was born in 1906 in Smyrna, which is now Izmir, Turkey but was then part of the Ottoman Empire and home to a significant Greek population. After the Great Fire of 1922, he moved to Argentina and amassed a fortune in the tobacco trade which he used to establish himself as one of the world’s most powerful shipowners. Besides ships, Onassis founded Olympic Airlines and acquired an international property portfolio, including his own private island, Skorpios.

Stavros Niarchos was born three years after Onassis, in Athens in 1909, and built his shipping empire off the back of his family’s grain business. As innovative and disruptive shipowners with huge fleets at their command, Niarchos and Onassis soon found themselves in competition with one another – but things all got very personal when they both chose to marry daughters of another shipping tycoon, Stavros Livanos.

There are rumours that Niarchos took a fancy to Athina (known as Tina), Livanos’ youngest daughter. But it was Onassis who married Tina in 1946 and the couple had two children, Alexander and Christina. Niarchos then married Livanos’ oldest daughter Eugenia a year later, in 1947 and they had three sons and one daughter.

After Onassis’ affair with legendary opera singer Maria Callas became public, Tina divorced him in 1960. A decade later, Niarchos’ wife Eugenia died from an overdose of barbiturates. Prosecutors probed if Niarchos had played a role but he was eventually cleared. He went on to marry Tina just a year and a half later, which might suggest there was truth to those earlier rumours, after all.

By this point, the relationship between Onassis and Niarchos was toxic. In 1973, Onassis’ son Alexander died following a plane crash. Devastated by his son’s death, Onassis wrote a will which apportioned 45% of his vast estate to a charitable foundation in memory of his son, the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation – the same foundation that built and runs Onassis Stegi today. Onassis, a broken man, died only two years after his son, in 1975.

Before his death, Onassis amassed the world's largest privately-owned shipping fleet – an achievement never matched by Niarchos. Perhaps that explains why, after Niarchos’ death in 1996, his own charitable foundation felt it had to go one better: the enormous Renzo Piano-designed Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre which opened in 2016 was the biggest ever donation to the Greek state.

Yet, while the events at the Niarchos foundation are designed to have mass appeal, being more careful, conservative and family-friendly, Onassis Stegi’s shows and events always aim to rock the boat. The programme is more challenging, controversial and, at times, provocative, such as art exhibitions exploring the forefront of artificial intelligence technology, funding the Queer Archive Festival or spearheading the I’m Positive campaign, which aims to distil the prejudice and ignorance around people with HIV. Onassis’ cultural legacy is not just confined within the striking marble walls of Stegi: look out for posters on windows and walls across the city, advertising cultural events and initiatives that take up temporary homes in buildings, parks and other public spaces across the city.

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