THE ARCHITECTURAL METHOD OF RENZO PIANO
In the world of music, piano means ‘softly’. But in the case of architect Renzo Piano, this lies on the contrary to his bold and immersive works. From the New York Times Headquarters to The Shard itself, it is needless to say that Piano has reinvented the wheel with regards to what architecture can be, and certainly has the resumé to prove it. He is today considered one of the trailblazers of contemporary architecture, turning the most subtle elements of our lives into masterpieces reaching unbelievable scale. His buildings may present a gorgeous façade, but each has far more beneath the surface than you’d expect. Piano’s architecture works like a symphony: though pretty on the surface, the layers of depth beneath are where it truly shines.
Much of the inspiration that drives this factor of subtlety stems from Piano’s upbringing. Piano grew up in a family of builders in the Italian city of Genoa, made up only of stone and water. He grew up engulfed by the sea, with his eyes flocking to notice the smallest trickles of foam gracing the head of every rising wave. Each lapping against the solid land so too deepened his yearning for architecture, and within him created a disparity between the hard structure of the land, and the abstract ebbs and flows of the waters. This formed a clashing of textures, colours, and emotions. The water held a quality of lightness – “it’s about lightness, mobility, moving around”, Piano states, alongside the “durable, safe, long-lasting” elements that form the land. For the iridescent freedom of the waters could not exist without the enclosed land to oppose it; without an opposition, ‘lightness’ would simply mean nothing. It is this yin-yang approach that inspires Piano’s architecture, using lightness and mobility alongside a rigid structure to form his works.
Figure SEQ Figure \* ARABIC 1: One of Piano's most famous works born from rebellion: the Centre Pompidou in Paris
Piano first began to put this philosophy to practice in the early 1970s, then developing his persona as the self-proclaimed ‘Bad Boy’ of architecture. He felt something had to be done about the state of public buildings, seeing the overwhelming majority of them as dull and mundane – this sparked a rebellion within him, and as Piano himself states, “the best way to find yourself is rebellion”. Public buildings lacked the subtlety and identity he dreamed a building could have, and instead acted only as a shelter – there was no art form. Piano wished for each building to have an identity just like the people within it; a building can be far more than a soulless mound of air and stone, but can instead be ameliorated to emulate the people within. Especially in the case of a public building, the presence of a soul is crucial, far outweighing surface-level beauty in significance. Whether a hospice (Children’s Hospice, Bologna, Italy), a school (Whittle School, Shenzen, China), or even a harbour (One Sydney Harbour, Sydney, Australia), Piano’s core values of understanding, solidarity and human curiosity were central to him developing his own beauty in his craft. It is this that lies at the core of what architecture truly is to Piano: observing and understanding the world changing, then grappling and expressing that change in a built version.
Figure SEQ Figure \* ARABIC 2: Piano's 'imaginary island', containing 102 models of his own projects
Piano’s empathy and understanding of a subject matter leads to truly fascinating results. But the work of an architect runs far deeper than a good idea, and Piano’s process exemplifies this. Piano famously refutes the use of computer models, instead insisting upon physical models when planning a building. To achieve this, Piano has formed the RPBW, an acronym for Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Piano’s models have been showcased across the world, most notably at the Royal Academy of Arts, and used 3D-Printing technology to form them – cutting-edge when the business came to be. His models are built to a 1:1000 scale, using photographs, detailed sketches, and meticulous attention to detail; it is this process which has allowed for some of his most ambitious works to become reality.
Figure SEQ Figure \* ARABIC 3: The Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center
Piano defines architecture to be “the art of making shelter for human beings”. This definition is strikingly simple, containing only the essentials of Piano’s perspective – thus, his view of it being an art form rather than simply shelter is the crux of his spirit. But Piano views not just the building, but so too his process, as art. Going to a Renzo Piano show leaves this evident, with the walls laden with complex sketches, and an assortment of tables, like in the image above, covered with models. His work is difficult to analyse, as Piano does not prioritise his own stylistic signature, but instead moulds his work to the people communities surrounding the building – as a result, his works share very few commonalities. Take the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center in New Caledonia, a piece of art he designed for the ethnic Kanaky people; it is incomparable to, say, the Jérome Seydoux Pathe Foundation, a cutting-edge science museum in the centre of Paris.
Figure SEQ Figure \* ARABIC 4: The piazza-inspired Parco della Musica
To build upon Piano’s love of community, much of his portfolio is centred around cultural buildings. The concept of a piazza , literally meaning ‘square’ in Italian, refers to an open space for people to meet. It is an urban melting pot in which innumerable cultures and experiences can mesh, to weave a tapestry of human experiences that underpins the human identity itself. The piazza, according to Piano, forms “the essence of a city”. The philosophy of the piazza has led to some of his greatest works, like Parco della Musica in Rome, an open concert hall, designed with the piazza philosophy in mind: an open space, for the people.
Figure SEQ Figure \* ARABIC 5: People at the California Academy of Sciences
And in San Francisco, Piano designed the California Academy of Sciences, densely populated by thousands of plants on both the ground and roof; the plants use the humidity of the air to survive, rather than needing water tanks, and the building itself was made with Platinum LEED, a material chosen for sustainability. These features are miscellaneous and may seem to have little greater purpose individually but combine once again to form a long-lasting place for people. Piano designed the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, which he calls a “flying vessel”; it captures the lightness of the waters, with sweeping staircases and striking rectangular glass frames, centred at the heart of the densely populated meatpacking industry. The examples are endless; in Athens, Piano designed the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre, which acts as an open house, concert hall, library and park, made also with Platinum LEED and capable of utilising solar energy.
Figure SEQ Figure \* ARABIC 6: The glass ceiling of the Harvard Art Museum
Piano’s work is steeped in humility and reverence for humanity: human experiences, human communities, and fundamentally, the human identity. Architecture, to Piano, does not answer solely to need and necessity, but also to dreams and aspirations. Even the most modest hut on Earth tells a story of the identity of the people living within. As a result, Piano re-defines architecture: “the art of telling stories”. Piano equates ‘making shelter’ in his earlier definition with ‘telling stories’, a sentiment also reflected in many of his works. For example, the Harvard Art Museum’s most significant feature is a gorgeous and elaborate glass-paned roof, designed to elucidate the works below and provide a sense of transparency to the building.
Figure SEQ Figure \* ARABIC 7: London skies reflected from The Shard
Another example of storytelling would be The Shard, the tallest building in Western Europe. Its facets inclined, putting each side at a slope, allowing the glass to reflect the sky of London – one which is never the same. The building flirts with light in a way reflecting the core identity of the city’s people. Piano describes light as one of the most essential materials within architecture and uses it frequently to create open spaces and form the “soul” of a building.
It is evident that buildings of Renzo Piano each have a distinct voice. His works focus upon more than just the physical form – from his emphasis upon community and identity, to incredible use of abstract mediums such as light and wind, Piano builds the soul of his buildings just as much as the buildings themselves. For it is this principle that defines real beauty, as Piano defines it to be: when the invisible joins the visible. In other words, when the soul of a building can come to join its material form. It is this beauty – a universal beauty – that can change cities, making them better places to live. Better cities make for better citizens. As a result, Piano’s architectural method has not limited itself to creating nice buildings – it has changed the world.