One of the most important architects of our time, Renzo Piano was co-designer with Richard Rogers of the Pompidou Centre when both were very young. Since then, he has pursued a career guided by technical innovation and his social sensitivity.
Son of a small builder whose works he visited throughout his childhood, Renzo Piano grew up fascinated by the magical way in which buildings were erected and ships in the port alike. Having been schooled in life by building sites and docks, he decided to study architecture first in Florence and then in Milan where, during the students’ unrest, he worked in Franco Albini’s firm. There he distilled practical knowledge that both his father and older brother, also a builder, had conveyed to him.
Marco Zanuso’s mentoring, together with Albini’s and Piano’s admiration from a far of Buckminster Fuller, Frei Otto and Jean Prouvé, all inspired his first designs threaded by the common strand of levity. The desire to broaden his horizons led Piano to London where he taught at the Architectural Association and met Richard Rogers, also a professor there, who became a friend and fraternal partner. Renzo Piano’s firm had built highly experimental initial works between 1964 and 1970 (including the Italian industry’s pavilion for Expo 1970 in Osaka) when it became Piano & Rogers in 1971 when the two young architects won an extraordinary victory in the great Pompidou Centre competition.
At the behest of the Arup construction firm, Piano and Rogers decided to present their bid for the competition with a highly unusual design, a building —in the spirit of the 1968 counterculture unrest —purporting to redefine the museum as a playful, changing space. It was enabled by technology and inspired by the utopic graphics done by Archigram and the Fun Palace by Cedric Price, both teachers of theirs at London’s AA. Against all the odds, the jury, presided over by Prouvé and including the likes of Oscar Niemeyer and Philip Johnson chose their design. In 1978, in Paris’ Marais district, the iconic Pompidou Centre, a canonical work of modernity was opened. After the opening, Rogers returned to London, but Piano decided to establish himself in Paris in association with engineer Peter Rice, who had been essential in the Centre’s design. In 1981 he went on to found his definitive firm, the Renzo Piano Building Workshop. In 1982, from the refined Dominique de Menil he received the commission to build his museum in Houston, conceived as a sanctuary of silence, light and beauty where Piano was able to use common materials to monumentally yet understatedly interpret the spirituality his client had requested. It crystallised in one of the most moving, precise works of his career. Rice was to intervene there as well, as he did in the subsequently built portable IBM pavilion, a veritable manifesto of both of their ideas on technology and levity.
The Menil Collection museum was completed 1987, the same year that the colossal Bari stadium was designed. The stadium in that southern Italian city was conceived as a great concrete flower dividing the crowd of spectators into sections or petals separated to better control its movement and prevent tragedies such as the one that had occurred relatively recently in Brussels’ Heysel stadium where a panic-stricken human avalanche triggered deaths in a stampede. RPBW’s take-off was marked the following year by winning the competition for the Kansai airport, built on an artificial island on the Osaka Bay, where Piano interpreted the great scale through the levity of a kite using craftsmanship from Europe and America to provide pieces that were assembled in Japan. This technological prowess and aesthetical achievement transformed the firm, even in physical terms. Its exquisite main headquarters, Punta Nave, near Geneva, were built at that time by Renzo Piano’s brother’s firm. These new headquarters and the headquarters in Paris both shared responsibility for designs. Kansai was to be the last work benefitting from the participation of Peter Rice, who died prematurely in 1992. Shunning folklore and lending a magisterial shape to the vernacular and climatic conditions on a remote French protectorate in the Pacific, the next major project, the cultural centre in New Caledonia, was to be achieved without the help of the extraordinary Irish engineer.
Renzo Piano, who had formidable clients for his Pompidou and Menil museums, found another charismatic figure in Hans Beyeler, whose knowledge of art and passion for excellence enabled him to erect a new, light, harmonious and exceptionally elegant fair grounds admirably integrated into their natural surroundings in greater Basil. The Beyeler Foundation was completed in 1997, and the following year Piano received Pritzker Award, thus increasing his media coverage in the United States where he would go on to build countless cultural works, all characterised by inventive building details, intelligent brief interpretations, and masterful harnessing of light. A salient example is Maison Hermès in the Ginza neighbourhood of Tokyo, where he expressed his fascination for Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre by erecting a great lantern built of glass blocks manufactured in Italy and assembled in Switzerland. Again, his clients were exceptional: Jean-Louis and Rena Dumas. This was also the case in the first museum he designed in the United States after earning the Pritzker award. It was there in the design for the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas where amidst cluttered urban surroundings he carried forward the lessons from the recent Beyeler Foundation and the pioneering Menil projects to build a bright, precise ensemble for Ray Nasher.
In the 21st century, Piano’s work was to become increasingly urban. While he had tackled the challenge of large-scale buildings in projects like his giant Kansai airport, his work in the new century began with skyscrapers in New York and London that considerably broadened the register of his firm, often associated with cultural projects. The New York Times building, designed for the Sulzberger family under the devastating impact of 9-11 stands as a refined, transparent tower with an outer structure and elegant latticework, ceramic bars and free access to the street level at a time when the shock of the attacks seemed to give rise exclusively to inaccessible, protected bunker-like structures. In London, the titanic Shard, reflecting the ambition of it’s developer, Irvine Sellar, and the determination of mayor Ken Livingstone to revitalize neighbourhoods lying south of the Thames without generating more traffic, inscribed the characteristic shape that gave it its nickname in the city’s unfortunate skyline. Yet Cultural works would continue to be the mainstay for his firm. Right in New York where Columbia University stands and the Morgan Library was expanded, in 2015, Piano opened the Whitney Museum at a new location along the Hudson River near the popular Highline, an exemplary work inspired by the area’s industrial past. Its exhibit area is completed with platforms and metal stairs overlooking the both the city and the river.
Bathed in unanimous admiration, Piano has driven his own foundation at Punta Nave, has been appointed a life Senator and devoted that remuneration to the study by young architects of urban outlying areas, and has even lent his name to an asteroid. Able to shape up with the best, on the Ronchamp grounds Piano has built a small monastery to Clarist monks, tucked into the hillside so as not to alter the view of Le Corbusier’s masterwork there, and has extended the Kimbell Museum with a new free-standing building that improves access to Louis Kahn’s great work without purporting to evoke his language. His completed works include those as unique as the ecological San Francisco Academy of Science, and as the stone-fortified new port in Valleta and the spectacular Niarchos Foundation in Athens—a symbol of the Greek recovery after the devastating recession. After building a provisional foundation in Valencia for the Luna Rossa competing in the America’s Cup in 2007, Renzo Piano opened his first permanent work in Spain in Santander, once again for an outstanding client, the late banker Emilio Botín. Made up of two iridescent ceramic-clad lobes lifting themselves up off the ground and leaving a light scaffolding-like structure of platforms and stairs overlooking the bay, the Centro Botín stands as a splendid nautical work that does honour to the child that admired the ships in the port of Genoa and the adult who continues to navigate the Mediterranean.