Renzo Piano – sensibility, knowledge and progress

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“The past is a safe refuge. The past is a constant temptation. And yet the future is the only place we have to go, if we really have to go somewhere.” When Renzo Piano was announced as the Laureate of the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1998, the awarding jury described his work as a “rare melding of art, architecture and engineering … a truly remarkable synthesis … as broad and far ranging as those earlier masters of his native land, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.” To this day, his designs are regarded as the most precise balance of aesthetics and function – the two forces that define architecture.

As a son of the post-war reconstruction era, Piano and his architecture believe in progress. Distant from the dogmas of modernism, his work does not rely on speed, advanced machinery or mass production; contrarily, his buildings and spaces depart from the conceptual understanding of the human condition, its history and complexities. Function is progress at the service of social wellbeing and what he calls “normal life”. “For my generation, the word ‘progress’ really meant something,” he explains. “Every year that went by took us further from the horrors of war and our life seemed to improve day by day. Growing up in that period meant having an obstinate belief in the future.”

Piano was born into a family of builders in Genoa, Italy, in 1937. His grandfather, his father, four uncles and a brother were contractors. Following his graduation from Milan Polytechnic Architecture School in 1964, he worked in his father’s company. This close encounter with fabrication and craftsmanship and his work in the offices of American architect Louis Kahn in Philadelphia and Polish engineer Z S Makowski in London forged his culture of “testing and doing”. Technically oriented, Piano has famously come to deliver architecture through a problem-solving technique.

His work came to international attention in the 1970s with a futuristic intervention in the heart of Paris, in collaboration with British architect Richard Rogers: it was the Pompidou Centre. Conceived as “a joyful urban machine, a creature that might have come from a Jules Verne book”, the project became iconic for its radical approach of placing structure and circulation externally as well as for the brave use of colour and materials. The “Beaubourg”, as it locally came to be known, pushed the boundaries of engineering. “We had to make a structure out of pieces of cast metal.” Piano recalls,

“The entire French steel industry rose up in arms: it refused point-blank, saying that a structure like that wouldn’t stay up. But we were sure of our facts, and passed the order on to the German company Krupp. And so it was that the main structure of the Centre Pompidou was made in Germany, even if the girders had to be delivered at night, almost in secret. This was one case in which technique protected art. Our understanding of structures set free our capacity for expression.”

The success of the project ultimately depended on the provision of a generous public space and the flexibility of the internal layout that allows the building to constantly transform over its lifetime. The Pompidou Centre defied architectural conventions and cultural traditions: a progressive provocation.

In 1988, Piano entered the competition for the Kansai International Airport Terminal Building on a 15 square kilometres man-made island in Osaka Bay, Japan. His intellectual curiosity led him to collaborate with Tom Barker, a celebrated mechanical engineer. Together they investigated the ocean streams of air, from which the shape of the asymmetrical undulating roof would emerge.

“In cross section, the roof is an irregular arch … given this shape to channel air from the passenger side of the terminal to the runway side without the need for closed ducts. Baffles were left open to guide the air flow along the ceiling and reflect the light coming from above. We were creating an aerodynamic ceiling, concerned not with the flow of air outside, but inside. Kansai is a precision instrument, a child of mathematics and technology.”

The overall configuration of the building was determined by the aircraft and the space required for their manoeuvreing; the departure area has 42 passenger loading bridges and is capable of handling 100,000 passengers a day. During the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Kansai registered no damage despite being at the same distance from the epicentre. By then, the 1700 metres long building had become a landmark of aesthetical clarity, finesse and precision.

Piano’s experimentations took a different direction with the design of Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church in Foggia, Italy, in 1991. Piano’s audacity and willingness to explore and innovate made him contemplate the use of stone as a structural material. His aim was to let the building “spring out of the stone of the mountainside.” Walls, parvis, supporting arches, and covering roof were all to be made from the local stone.

The building employs stainless steel for the props supporting the top, laminated timber for the beams and pre-oxidised copper for the elegantly curling roof. The twenty two arches, the largest one being 16 metres high and 50 metres long – the longest supporting span ever built from stone – created a dome for the church with capacity for 6000 visitors. A sloping courtyard for 30,000 pilgrims accompanies the building as well as a carefully designed landscape with more than 3,300 native trees.

This building not only allowed the architect to find out “what can be done with stone today” but it also evidenced Piano’s progress as cumulative. His architecture directs a flow of thought that is not opportunistic or contextual, but that is determined by certain special ideas which wield a veritable force of attraction. According to him, “the quality of the domestic environment, the rehabilitation of derelict areas of cities and, especially in Europe, the reclamation of historic buildings” constitute the main themes of contemporary architecture.

The Shard, Renzo’s latest project, currently under construction and dominating the London skyline, materialises these principles. This 72 storey mixed-use skyscraper will be the tallest building in the European Union when completed in 2012, reaching a height of 300 metres. Its design offers another insight into Piano’s creativity and commitment to the integrity of architecture. For a city that has been historically hostile to skyscrapers (rarely a tall building achieves planning consent without controversy and public debate), Piano’s attitude was confrontational. Since the tower is not part of any of the high-rise clusters in London, its design had to be prominent and iconic. He opted for a gently tapering pyramidal shape that reduces the area of the floors from larger office floors at the bottom to the smaller hotel and residential floors at the top. The tower is assembled of eight different ‘shards’ of glass, providing space for natural ventilation where they intersect and where winter gardens are located. A publicly accessible observation platform at 240 metres high extends the city into the sculptural building.

To Piano, architecture is art. “It uses technique to generate an emotion, and it does so with its own specific language, made up of space, proportions, light and materials … There is one theme that is very important for me: lightness … In my architecture, I try to use immaterial elements like transparency, lightness, the vibration of the light. I believe that they are as much a part of the composition as shapes and volumes.”

One of Piano’s most recently completed and acclaimed builds, The Maison Hermès in Tokyo’s Ginza district typifies this concept. It is a thin, tall volume of light. Designed for the eponymous French luxury brand, the façade is entirely made of specially-fabricated earthquake-resistant glass blocks that give the building its individual image within the visually busy area of Tokyo. “The magic lantern”, as Piano calls the building, creates a continuous and luminous screen between the serenity of the inner space and the buzz of the city, between day and night, tradition and technology.

Inspired by traditional Japanese temples, the entire building was designed to move. Each of the 13,000 glass blocks which constitute the glass facade can equally absorb seismic movement, by 4 millimetres on each side. This guarantees the integrity and security of the structure in relation to the other numerous systems that the building requires. Maison Hermès is alive and responsive.

Piano’s 40 year long architectural trajectory has been fecund and proportionally indirect to the logic of ‘slowness and specificity’ that his processes of design follow. The array of groundbreaking projects, present in four continents and of varying scale, favour detailed research in contrast to modern globalised methods of architectural production.

The trademark of Piano’s intelligent solutions is not style but a continuous dialogue of art and science in the search of new architectural dimensions and, ultimately, habitability and sustainable progress – humanist values at their purest. “Architects have to live on the frontier, and every so often they have to cross it, to see what is on the other side.”

by Christian Parreno

Taken from the Glass Archive – Issue Four  –  Secret