The Architecture of Renzo Piano—A Triumph of Continuing Creativity
By Colin Amery
Author and Architectural Critic, The Financial Times
Special Advisor to the World Monuments Fund
It was modern architecture itself that was honored at the White House in Washington, D.C. on June 17, 1998. The twentieth anniversary of the Pritzker Prize and the presentation of the prestigious award to Renzo Piano made for an extraordinary event. Piano’s quiet character and almost solemn, bearded appearance brought an atmosphere of serious, contemporary creativity to the glamorous event. The great gardens and the classical salons of the White House were filled with the flower of the world’s architectural talent including the majority of the laureates of the previous twenty years. But perhaps the most significant aspect of the splendid event was the opportunity it gave for an overview of the recent past of architecture at the very heart of the capital of the world’s most powerful country. It was rather as though King Louis XIV had invited all the greatest creative architects of the day to a grand dinner at Versailles. In Imperial Washington the entire globe gathered to pay tribute to the very art of architecture itself.
Renzo Piano was not overwhelmed by the brilliance of the occasion, on the contrary he seized his opportunity to tell the world about the nature of his work. In his own words, he firmly explained that architecture is a serious business being both art and a service. Those are perhaps two of the best words to describe Renzo Piano’s work. He was honored by the Pritzker jury because his work has achieved a balance between art and function. It has also always succeeded in being humane, intelligent and resourceful.
Building is in Piano’s blood. He is the true scion of a male line of builders his grandfather, father and brother were all involved in construction as were his four uncles. He is also Italian—a member of that nation that brought Western architecture to utter maturity. As Piano said at the White House any architect born in Italy is literally, “swimming in tradition.” But there was never any question of Piano drowning—(he is after all a good and practical Genoese sailor) but he is as interested in invention as in observing architectural convention.
Piano’s Italian roots are very key in understanding his work. In Italy it is easier than in many countries for architects and engineers to be closely involved in the construction process and to become developers. His family in Genoa were constructors and his decision to become an architect and to train professionally in Milan could have separated him from the daily realities of construction. In fact there was no chance of that because the joy of building had been bred into him from childhood. Piano still talks warmly of his youthful visits to his father’s building sites where he saw the entire process of building as something of a miraculous event. He was born in 1937 and so his formative years were spent seeing a country reconstruct itself after the war. It was not just the buildings that were being replaced or renewed it was, what Renzo Piano calls “the re-establishment of a normal life.”
I think that this idea of the normal is a very important one in relation to Piano’s career. He has been original but not revolutionary. His design solutions are the result of analysis and research and are the best, practical answers to specific problems. There is a sense in all his works of a problem solved—sometimes in a way that is aesthetically thrilling or even strange- but always you know that he just wants to make the building work as well as it possibly can. He may try an experiment to solve the problem but he will not build anything that is not an intelligent solution.
Renzo Piano became famous at a relatively young age for an architect. He was only 35 when he won, with Richard Rogers, the competition in 1971 to build the Pompidou centre in Paris. One of his original ideas for the Centre had been to build a giant inverted pyramid but his clear belief in functionality and logic led him and Rogers to opt for the clarity of the giant rectangle of a city block. The Pompidou has been very controversial but it has become during its lifetime exactly what Piano and Rogers wanted it to be—“a joyful urban machine.” Interestingly Piano gets very annoyed if the Pompidou Centre is described as High Tech. Instead he sees it as a parody of the technological obsessions of our times. One of the most important results of the winning of the competition was the meeting between Renzo Piano and the engineer Peter Rice of Ove Arup and Partners. There was instant rapport between this brilliantly inventive British engineer and the young Italian architect, and Peter Rice was to be Piano’s engineer until his premature death in 1992.
There was to be a curious time after the Pompidou Centre opened in 1977. Piano felt a sense of exhaustion and fatigue. It had been an enormous lesson in both architecture and life and a triumph for teamwork and constructional innovation. It must have seemed to the young architect that this would never be repeated. In some ways he would have been right. He was never to build with Richard Rogers again and he was to abandon the kind of colourful anarchy of the sixties that infused the Pompidou ...