Who is Renzo Piano?

What we build.
Dec. 15 2004 4:35 PM

Renzo Piano

A celebrity architect without all the glitz.

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The planned New York Times tower is a good example. If its final form matches the renderings we've seen so far, the building will be remarkably light and airy for a 52-story skyscraper. The design achieves that weightlessness by starting with a tall, thin glass box and then draping over it a vertical series of white ceramic rods, which also help shade the offices. Every single element that doesn't promote a sense of lightness has been stripped away.

The Centre Pompidou in Paris (click to expand)
The Centre Pompidou in Paris (click to expand)

Piano's current approach couldn't be more different from his early designs. The building that made his reputation—the Centre Pompidou in Paris, a modern-art museum also known as Beaubourg—is daring, eccentric, and spilling over with energy. Piano designed the Pompidou with the British architect Richard Rogers when both were in their 30s; he's described the building, which opened in 1978, as a "young man's building" and an "act of loutish bravado."

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Trying to challenge every architectural orthodoxy they could think of, Piano and Rogers pulled out the building's guts—steel frame, escalators, heating ducts, etc.—painted them bright shades of red, green, and blue, and hung them on the outside of the museum. And surprisingly, people fell in love with a design that went out of its way to be a provocation. Still, the design was somewhat out of character for Piano: As an early example of what became known as "high-tech" architecture, it evinced little of his place in a long line of craftsmen. (His grandfather, father, four uncles, and a brother were contractors.)

The Beyeler Foundation museum in Basel, Switzerland (click to expand)
The Beyeler Foundation museum in Basel, Switzerland (click to expand)

After Piano began working without Rogers, his architecture began to move away from the spectacular and grew more refined. The buildings that Piano produced in the 1980s and '90s tended to fall into two categories: midsized cultural projects and huge corporate or public ones. The first group includes the Beyeler Foundation galleries in Basel; the Menil collection in Houston; and, with the landscape architect Peter Walker, the recently completed Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. In the second group are office towers lining Potsdamer Platz in Berlin; headquarters for several Italian corporations; and the gigantic Kansai Airport in Japan, which opened in 1994 on its very own island.

The Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center in New Caledonia (click to expand)
The Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center in New Caledonia (click to expand) 

While Piano has occasionally produced strikingly photogenic designs, like this cultural center in New Caledonia, he doesn't have anything resembling a signature style. What unifies his projects, instead, is his interest in using computer design tools to bring the same rigor and aesthetic richness to contemporary architecture that used to be provided by master craftsmen in Italy and elsewhere. The firm's best work somehow manages to be sleek and remarkably tactile at the same time.

All of which raises a question: If what Piano adds to his firm's projects is not a touch of genius—the dramatic form scribbled on a cocktail napkin—but has more to do with sustained, experienced craftsmanship, how can he possibly have kept his work from slipping as he's become so prolific? That effort can be tough even for firms a quarter of the size of Piano's. But so far, Piano has managed—both by staying unusually engaged in the details of his firm's work, according to the clients I've talked to, and also by hiring well—to strike his profession's most impressive balance of quality and quantity. It remains to be seen, of course, whether he'll wind up triumphing in Manhattan, which has so often dashed architects' dreams. We'll have to check back in six or seven years.

Christopher Hawthorne is the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times.