Renzo Piano: “my buildings are explorations”

Published 10 September 2018

He gave us the Shard in London, and in Paris the Centre Pompidou. On the eve of his first exhibition in the capital for 30 years, Renzo Piano meets Jonathan Glancey and reflects on a life of making buildings.

  • From the autumn 2018 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    “When something seems inevitable, you know it’s right.” Renzo Piano Hon RA is ruminating over lunch in the “winter garden” of his Paris studio, a few minutes’ walk from the Centre Pompidou, which he designed with Richard Rogers RA, Gianfranco Franchini and the Irish engineer Peter Rice 40 years ago. But while Piano is referring to his current project, the back-to-first-principles children’s surgery that Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) is building in rammed-earth-and-steel beams on the shores of Uganda’s Lake Victoria, his comment makes me think of one of the architect’s very first commissions, a light industrial enclosure for a sulphur extraction plant, near Pomezia, a 1930s new town built at the click of the Italian government’s fingers on what had been malaria-infested Roman marshland.

    • I happen to be writing a chapter of a book set in Italy in 1966 in which Piano’s sulphur extraction plant plays its part. There was something seemingly inevitable about this ingenious, lightweight fibreglass structure. It was designed so that it could be advanced easily to new sources of sulphur extraction. Instead of moving the material to a building using expensive ground transport, Piano ingeniously moved the building to the material. As taut and as light as a fast sail boat or glider, here was a structure exhibiting invention, economy of means and the richly satisfying aesthetic of a design that catches the eye and imagination because, more than clever, it worked and it was right. Piano says the plant was designed in his “prehistoric” era, yet, although long gone, this modest work remains today, in spirit, a pitch-perfect design.

      The best Renzo Piano buildings are those where structure has been as taut, as purposeful and as elegant as the sails of racing yachts at full stretch or of sailplanes’ wings turned into rising thermals. For Piano, design should be an adventure, at best into uncharted architectural currents. Yet, after 50 years of shaping imposing museums, airports, cultural centres, skyscrapers and entire sections of cities, the clear, elemental qualities of that “prehistoric” fibreglass vault at Pomezia and those of the African children’s surgery have the power to enchant far beyond those of even the most technically sophisticated and ambitious commercial buildings.

      Assembling the vault of the sulphur mining plant, Pomezia, 1966

      Assembling the vault of the sulphur mining plant, Pomezia, 1966

      © RPBW – Fondazione Renzo Piano

  • From September, highlights of Piano’s work to date will be on show in the RA’s new Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries. The exhibition’s title, Renzo Piano: The Art of Making Buildings, is very much to the point. Piano is neither, he says, an academic architect nor a self-professed intellectual. He simply likes to build. “It’s funny in some ways to make a big exhibition in the Royal Academy of Arts. I’m not a theoretician and if I teach, it’s through making things. Aside from the notion of integrity, I don’t have a fixed view of architecture. I don’t have a pattern or a style to work with. Our buildings are explorations.”

    The two top-lit RA galleries focus on 16 key Piano buildings explained in models, photographs and drawings – including those in Piano’s trademark green ink – displayed on worktables and around the walls. In between, a smaller room presents The Island, a timber model island for visitors to walk around that features 3D-printed models of nearly 100 of Piano’s buildings, all to a scale of 1:1000. A specially commissioned film by Thomas Riedelsheimer and photographs by the renowned Italian photographer Gianni Berengo Gardin encircle the island and complete the installation.

    • Italian architect Renzo Piano poses at his workshop in Paris, 2015

      Italian architect Renzo Piano poses at his workshop in Paris, 2015

      Photo © Francois Mori/AP/REX/Shutterstock. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in collaboration with Renzo Piano Building Workshop and the Fondazione Renzo Piano

      I wonder, given that Piano is now 80, if this is in any way an exercise in nostalgia, a way of connecting this half-century design odyssey to the architect’s love of the sea and his roots in the age-old shipbuilding port of Genoa where his father and grandfather were building contractors. “There is a difference between nostalgia and memory,” he says. “I can look back on my prehistoric projects, on later buildings too, and if they have been right in some way, perhaps they still have something to teach. But, although, for example, I’ve become the guardian angel, or Quasimodo, of the Centre Pompidou with my Paris studio almost next door, I’m not a nostalgic. I’d be happy for that building to change in some way with the times every 25 years.”

      When I first met Renzo Piano in one of his early studios in Genoa in 1982 he was on his hands and knees, helping to make a piece of furniture, his long black beard flecked with sawdust. He carried a saw and a tape measure. “I’m always measuring,” he says. “It’s what architects and masons and boat builders have done for thousands of years. Of course, we have computers to help us, but I like to have a real measure of design and building.”

  • “It’s funny,” he continues, “but when I started out in Italy I was thought of as more of a plumber or washing machine mechanic than an architect. Or perhaps this is what I imagined other people thought. But when I went to London, to the AA (Architectural Association) in the late Sixties, to my surprise I was taken seriously. It was exciting to have students make innovative structures with me in the gardens of Bedford Square and to share ideas with like-minded colleagues.”

    What Piano encountered in London in the 1960s is something he knew from Genoese boatyards and building sites – a pragmatic yet inventive approach to structure that led to both Pomezia and the Centre Pompidou. He met architects, including Richard Rogers, for whom engineering was not the hidden skeleton of a building but its very essence, as it had been for medieval Gothic cathedrals and as it was to be for architecture labelled “hi-tech” – not a term Piano chooses – from the 1970s. He also met questioning and imaginative engineers and, especially, Peter Rice. Both young men believed not just in invention but also in the humanising of technology.

    It would be hard to think of a more humanistic building than RPBW’s own Italian studio, Punta Nave, set above the sea to the west of Genoa. The laminated timber building, reached by a glass funicular, is like a conservatory, its stepped sun-lit interiors open to one another so that everyone working there is in touch with one another. Adventurous and modest, this is one of Piano’s best buildings, a fine advertisement for the talents of a practice with studios in New York and Paris too. Very much involved in every RPBW project, Piano works between them.

  • While he is not an “academic” architect, neither is Piano an outsider. He has been awarded every major professional prize going. He has won commissions worldwide for buildings as richly cultural and intelligent as the Menil Collection (1982-86, above) – a homage to controlled daylight in Houston, Texas, with Peter Rice – and the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre (1998, above), an imaginative evocation of indigenous Kanak culture in New Caledonia. He has also designed commercial towers – notably, the New York Times Building (2007) and the Shard (2012) – that have made him popular with global business. He has courted controversy, too, if unwittingly so, with new buildings in the hallowed precincts of Le Corbusier’s pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp (2011) and in Louis Kahn’s peerless Kimbell Art Museum at Forth Worth, Texas.

    He is also the Genoese builder who designs, builds and sails his own boats, the gregarious architect at work in his collegiate studios, the Senator for Life in his native Italy, the family man who escapes to the Swiss mountains to think. Renzo Piano is not an academic architect. What he has proved to be, however, is an architect of imagination and skill for all seasons and all tides.

    Jonathan Glancey is an architecture critic. His books include What’s So Great About the Eiffel Tower? (Laurence King) and Architecture: a Visual History (Dorling Kindersley)