A tension runs through the work of Renzo Piano. Born in 1937 into a prominent family of Genoese builders, he has long stressed his commitment to craft, to the particularities of material and making, and, though his firm has multiple offices with international projects, it is still called Building Workshop. Yet Piano burst into public view with the Centre Pompidou (1971-77), which, designed with Richard Rogers, is the most celebrated of the high-tech megastructures of the period, and today he is also associated with large urban schemes, including the redevelopment of the old harbour in Genoa (1985-92) and Potsdamer Platz in Berlin (1992-2000), as well as massive infrastructural projects such as Kansai International Airport (1988-94), for which an entire island was engineered into being in the Bay of Osaka.
Another version of this tension is that, despite the persona of the humble craftsman, Piano is the favoured architect of many high-class institutions, cultural, academic and corporate. Among his buildings in the first category are the Menil Collection in Houston (1982-86), a beautiful museum that distinguished the more classical Piano from the more Pop Rogers; two more elegant temples devoted to private art collections, the Beyeler Museum in Basle (1992-97) and the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas (1999-2003); the Niccolò Paganini Auditorium in Parma (1997-2001) and the Parco della Musica in Rome (1994-2002), the former a converted factory, the latter a new complex of three zinc-clad auditoria; the newly opened Paul Klee Museum in Berne (1999-2007) and the Morgan Library extension in New York (2000-06). Current clients in this vein include the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Chicago Art Institute, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Whitney Museum of American Art. In the other categories, Piano has schemes underway for Columbia, Harvard, Michigan and the California Academy of Sciences, and his 52-storey tower for the New York Times on 40th Street and Eighth Avenue is nearly complete (this is just one of several corporate jobs). That Piano has four major projects in Manhattan alone – a new campus for Columbia uptown, the Times tower and the Morgan complex in midtown, and a possible annexe for the Whitney in Chelsea – is extraordinary: when was the last time one office had so many important pieces on the Monopoly board? Even his London Bridge Tower – if built, this 306-metre glass spire will be the tallest office building in Europe – looks like a World Trade Center scheme which, fed up with the debacle in Lower Manhattan, relocated from the Hudson to the Thames.
Clearly, Renzo Piano Building Workshop delivers a design profile that speaks to different elites; in this respect its success, if not its size, recalls that of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in the postwar heyday of late modern architecture as a dominant establishment style. What is it that makes Piano so attractive? Perhaps his allure lies precisely in his ability to mediate the tension between the local craft of building and the global enterprise of big business. Piano does so, on the one hand, through a refined use of materials (sometimes as traditional as wood and stone), which helps to ground his buildings in particular sites, and, on the other, through a suave display of engineering (often in light metals and ceramics), which associates his designs with the contemporary world of advanced technology. This skill is exhibited in every project documented in the books under review – and more projects will follow as a result.
These poles of the practice were already present in its beginnings: in the mid-to-late 1960s Piano worked briefly in Philadelphia for the great American architect Louis Kahn, celebrated for his tactile and tectonic expression of materials, as well as in London with the innovative Polish engineer Z.S. Makowski, who was expert in structures and skins supported by their own tension. Another key mentor was the elegant French designer Jean Prouvé, with whom the peripatetic Piano studied in Paris. From his sculptural collaborations with Constantin Brancusi, through his furniture designs, to his modular schemes for colonial housing, Prouvé was adept at smooth combinations of the traditional and the technological – he possessed the kind of finesse now associated with Piano – and, as a member of the jury that awarded the Pompidou commission, he was helpful to Piano in other ways, too. Finally, it was on the Pompidou project that Piano first worked closely with another influential figure, the brilliant Irish engineer Peter Rice of Ove Arup. In fact, after Piano and Rogers separated in 1978, Piano teamed with Rice, and, though they parted in 1981, Rice consulted for the office until his death in 1992.
With such influences and interests Piano was in the thick of progressive architecture in the 1960s and 1970s, during which time he experimented with temporary structures, exhibition spaces and free-plan housing. In his embrace of clean design and smart engineering, he was associated not only with Rogers but also with Norman Foster (Rogers partnered Foster before he teamed up with Piano). All three young architects sought a way beyond modern architecture that would both retain its economic efficiencies and extend its technical advances; to this end they were inspired by the visionary engineering of Buckminster Fuller as well as by the more practical Californian modernism of Richard Neutra, Charles and Ray Eames, and other designers of the Case Study Houses in Los Angeles. However, by the late 1970s Piano, Rogers and Foster had diverged. Piano was never so Pop as Rogers nor so high-tech as Foster, and his signature device came to differ as well: whereas Rogers continues to experiment with circulation systems pushed to the exterior (as at the Pompidou), and Foster with great spans of open space (as at the Stansted Airport terminal), Piano is still guided by his distinctive notion of ‘the piece’.
‘The piece’ is a repeated component of a building, often a structural element like a joint or a truss, which Piano exposes to view in a way that offers a sense of the construction of the whole; to this extent it seems to conform to the Modernist principle of ‘transparency’. However, even when the piece is more about appearance than about structure, it still lends a specific character to the building. The textbook instances in Piano’s oeuvre are the modular trusses and ‘leaves’ (in ductile iron and ferro-cement) that comprise the roof of the Menil Collection. Key to the special quality of this museum, these elements do several things at once: they allow us to see into its structural support and to sense its spatial ordering; they filter the strong light of Houston into its galleries; and they cover the colonnade of its exterior, which in turn connects the building to its setting – to both the large verandas typical of Southern homes and the Greek Revival style favoured in civic structures in the US. For Peter Buchanan this use of the piece is characteristic of Piano in general, whose ‘art’ he sees as one of ‘fitting in’ and ‘fitting together’. However, other examples of the piece, from the massive cast steel braces on the façades of the Pompidou to the light ceramic scrims on the sides of the Times tower, might not seem so fitting: the Pompidou ties are so big as to be brutal, it might be argued, while the Times tubes are so fine as to be precious (especially in the setting of 42nd Street). Nevertheless, in these instances, too, the pieces lend the buildings either a tectonic clarity or a tactile quality that they would not otherwise possess. And sometimes the piece has a metaphoric significance as well: for example, the 83metre-long arches that support the curved roof of the Kansai terminal underscore the experience of winged flight.
Like any device, the piece also has its weaknesses. Because Piano insists on these exposed components, the ‘complexity’ of his buildings tends to ‘come from the skin’, as Philip Jodidio quotes Piano as saying, and they are ‘usually far more distinctive in section than in plan’, Buchanan adds; that is, articulation of interior spaces and/or development of programmatic functions can seem secondary for Piano. If this is a liability, it also enables him to reconcile two preoccupations that are often at odds in architecture: a concern with structure (pronounced in modern design) and a concern with surface (paramount in postmodern design). For better or worse, Piano suggests a third way: an evocation of structure on the surface, even as the surface, of his buildings – in effect, an evocation of structure as skin or decoration. But it is not clear how tectonic, or even functional, such ‘structure’ is; as Buchanan suggests, Piano sometimes treats ‘technology’ as a ‘leitmotif’. One thinks immediately of the famous I-beams that Mies van der Rohe applied to the façades of his Seagram Building in New York, I-beams that are not structural at all. Sometimes Piano is inclined to this kind of Miesian finesse, in which architectural transparency seems to be affirmed, only to be made a little faux.
Here the device of the piece appears in a new light. For Buchanan these components are often possessed of a ‘sense of aliveness’ that ‘elicits empathetic identification’; they are ‘almost . . . beings in themselves’. This response is quite different from the rational understanding associated with architectural transparency; in fact it is closer to fetishisation (as in the investment of an inanimate thing with an animate presence or power). As is often the case with fetishisation, a rhetoric of the natural, especially of the natural charged with the technological, follows: Buchanan describes Piano as having created an ‘organic architecture’, an argument he supports with the leaf motif in the work of the Menil Collection, the toroidal shape of the Kansai terminal (‘the torus is the most common geometric figure found in nature’), the sail forms that recur in his work (an avid sailor, Piano has designed two cruise ships and five sailing boats), and so on. Of course, architectural discourse is steeped in natural analogies (such as the old notion that the first building was a proto-classical ‘primitive hut’ with columns derived from tree trunks), and they have always served not only to naturalise architectural form but to idealise it as well. The modern master of this rhetoric is Le Corbusier, who claimed that certain industrial products had developed as if by natural selection (which immediately made them appear necessary), and liked to compare luxury machines of the time (like a Delage sports car) with the Parthenon. Similarly, Buchanan sees ‘natural evolution’ at work in the Piano pieces, which are also said to combine ‘the efficiency of a machine and the integrity of the organism’, and an abstracted classicism runs through his work as well.
‘The lesson of the machine lies in the pure relationship of cause and effect,’ Le Corbusier wrote in L’Art décoratif d’aujourd’hui (1925). ‘Purity, economy, the reach for wisdom. A new desire: an aesthetic of purity, of precision, of expressive relationships setting in motion the mathematical mechanisms of our spirit: a spectacle and a cosmogony.’ There is little here that does not speak to Piano: often in his architecture, too, the principle of transparency shades into ‘an aesthetic of purity’, in which a fusion of the organic, the mechanical and the classical is essayed, and technology is indeed treated as a leitmotif. In L’Art décoratif Le Corbusier looked to the machine as the austere basis of a new kind of decorative art, one that would also differ from the stylish compromises with industrial production offered by Art Deco; yet his own fusion of the organic, the mechanical, and the classical also worked to reconcile – to gloss over – the contradictory demands of the technological and the traditional. This note of an ‘architecture deco’ is present in Piano as well, perhaps because, like Le Corbusier, he operates at a time when such contradictory demands are especially insistent. Here his connection to Prouvé is again pertinent, as is his affinity with Brancusi (Piano designed the Brancusi Atelier adjacent to the Pompidou), both of whom produced beautiful compromises between the technological and the traditional.
At moments in Le Corbusier the pressure of such contradictions pushed his ‘aesthetic of purity’ to the point of outright fetishisation. Here he is in the same passage from L’Art décoratif:
The machine brings before us shining disks, spheres and cylinders of polished steel, shaped with a theoretical precision and exactitude which can never be seen in nature itself. Our senses are moved, at the same time as our heart recalls from its stock of memories the disks and spheres of the gods of Egypt and the Congo. Geometry and gods sit side by side! Man pauses before the machine, and the beast and the divine in him there eat their fill.
This is over the top, but then 1925 was the high point of Parisian primitivism à la Josephine Baker, and Le Corbusier did eat his fill. Piano is never so extreme, yet sometimes his exquisite architecture discloses a fetishistic side, too. Consider his Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center in Nouméa, New Caledonia (1991-98), whose distinctive feature is a fine series of ten pavilions with curved walls in wood slats that range from nine to 28 metres in height. Disposed as in a village, the pavilions evoke nearby huts, palm trees and sails all at once, as well as the traditional basketwork and rooftop fetishes of the local culture; at the same time the centre is a state-of-the-art design expressive of the ‘light modernity . . . that Piano has long favoured’. For Piano enthusiasts the result is a successful negotiation of the local and the global; for critics it evokes a contemporary version of primitivist deco.
The notion of a ‘light modernity’ is suggestive. ‘There is one theme that is very important for me,’ Piano remarks: ‘Lightness (and obviously not in reference only to the physical mass of objects).’ He traces this preoccupation from his early experiments with ‘weightless structures’ to his continued investigations of ‘immaterial elements’ like wind and light. Lightness is also the message of his primal scene as a designer, a childhood memory of sheets billowing in the breeze on a Genoese rooftop, a vision that conjures up the shapely beauty of classical drapery as well as contemporary sailing boats as architectural ideals. For Piano lightness is thus a value that bears on the human as well as on the architectural – it concerns graceful comportment in both realms. As a practical imperative, however, lightness confirms the drive, already strong in modern architecture, toward the refinement of materials and techniques, and yet now this refinement seems pledged less to healthy, open spaces and transparent, rational structures, as in modern design, than to aesthetic effects and decorous touches. A light architecture, then, is a sublimated architecture, one that is particularly fitting (that word again) for art museums and the like.
Such lightness is also pronounced in the Museum of Modern Art in New York as renovated by Yoshio Taniguchi in 2004. Its importance to contemporary design was also first signalled at MoMA in a 1995 show called ‘Light Construction’ in which Piano was represented by his Kansai terminal. The curator, Terence Riley, took his cue for the show from another Italian, Italo Calvino, who in his last book, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988), proclaimed the special virtues of lightness for the new age: ‘I look to science,’ Calvino wrote, ‘to nourish my visions in which all heaviness disappears.’ The attraction of this dream is clear: it is part of the promise of modernity that free movement will lead to freedom. Viewed suspiciously, however, it is little more than the old fantasy of dematerialisation and disembodiment retooled for a cyber era, and it has become a familiar ideologeme to us all – though it still seems odd that architecture, long deemed the most material and bodily of the arts, would wish to advance it. Viewed even more suspiciously, this lightness is bound up not only with the fantasy of human disembodiment but with the fact of social derealisation: the lightness of the unreal under Communist regimes for Milan Kundera, who proposed this sense of the term before the fall of the Wall, yet under capitalist regimes for the rest of us. This kind of lightness is no ideal at all; it is ‘unbearable’. Perhaps in the end the two notions of lightness must be thought together, dialectically – that is, if dialectics has not suffered its own final lightening, as many people now seem to think.
In the discourse around Piano lightness is driven by historical necessity as well as technological advance. Buchanan offers a fanciful schema of an architectural Geist that passed from the heavy forms of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt (ziggurats and pyramids), through the ‘colonnaded edifices’ of classical ‘Mediterranean cultures’, to the abstract ‘grid’ of modern ‘Atlantic culture’, ‘in which nature is enmeshed by the grasp of reason and technology’, and on to a ‘Pacific cultural ecology’ where, in the hands of designers like Piano, ‘the lines of the grid will etherealise into intangible conduits of energy and information, or take tactile biomorphic form.’ For his part Piano states simply that the Pacific is ‘a culture of lightness’, and that he prefers it: ‘Although I grew up in Europe, I feel much closer to the Pacific, where lightness, or the wind, is much more durable than stone.’
Perhaps this notion of a ‘light modernity’ must also be viewed dialectically, countered, say, by the less sanguine notions of a ‘liquid modernity’ and a ‘second modernity’ proposed by the sociologists Zygmunt Bauman and Ulrich Beck respectively. For Bauman modernity is now ‘liquid’ because present flows of capital seem able to carry almost anything along with them (maybe not yet ‘all that is solid melts into air,’ but closer all the time). Piano all but expresses this condition, architecturally, with his Hermès store in Tokyo. There, he faced in glass blocks that do indeed appear liquid: the ‘floating world’ of Edo meets the floating world of capital today. For Beck, modernity is now in a ‘second’ stage because it has become reflexive, concerned to modernise its own bases. This notion, too, is suggestive vis-à-vis Piano: like other major architects, he is commissioned to convert old industrial structures (his Paganini auditorium was once a sugar factory), sometimes entire sites (such as the Genoa harbour), in ways that are fitting for a postindustrial economy. Here the best example is his series of additions to the Fiat Lingotto Factory in Turin. Designed by the engineer Giacomo Mattè Trucco in the late 1910s, this large structure, complete with a test-track for new cars on its roof, is an icon of modern architecture: Le Corbusier concluded Vers une architecture (1923) with images of the track, and Reyner Banham hailed it in Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960) as ‘the most nearly Futurist building ever built’. Tellingly, Piano has now fitted this old factory with a helicopter pad, a glass bubble conference room for company directors, and a private museum for the Agnelli art collection on the roof, as well as a concert hall below.
In our current economy such structures for exhibition and performance are much in demand, as are stadia for sport and entertainment, as well as the usual shopping malls, office towers, banks and business centres; and, like his peers Rogers and Foster, Piano is involved in all categories. In this economy display remains very important, and often architecture serves as both stager and staged. New infrastructure is also imperative, especially for transport, and designers like Piano are hard at work in this area as well, with new airports, train stations and subway systems. Some of this infrastructure is regional in scope, but some is global (Kansai Airport is hardly for Osaka alone). If modern architecture was ‘the international style’, then neo-modern architecture is ‘the global style’; like the second modernity that it serves, it often exceeds national boundaries. Yet such design still needs traces of the local in order for its buildings to appear grounded; in fact these traces rise in value, as do vestiges of the past (as Rem Koolhaas likes to say, there is just not enough past to go around, so its aura continues to skyrocket). Often, then, reference to the local appears in global architecture precisely as a trace souvenir of the old culture, a token at a remove, a ‘mythical sign’ (in the parlance of Roland Barthes): hence the allusion to the floating world in the Hermès store in Tokyo, the village huts in the cultural centre in New Caledonia and so on. Beck calls this phenomenon ‘banal cosmopolitanism’, and, like Rogers and Foster, Piano is adept at its architectural expression. In a sense, lightness sublimates not only material nature but historical culture as well. Here fetishisation is at work once again; apparently it too can operate on a grand – even global – scale.