For an architect with a fancy reputation to live up to, there aren't many challenges tougher than getting a successful project off the ground in New York City. Of the last five winners of architecture's prestigious Pritzker Prize—from Rem Koolhaas to Zaha Hadid—not one has completed a free-standing building in New York.
Yet there's one Pritzker winner, from 1998, who's lately managed to collect a pile of big, promising New York commissions: Renzo Piano, who works out of offices near his hometown of Genoa and in Paris and leads a firm called Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Piano, who is 67, is now working on three projects in Manhattan for high-profile clients: a tower for the New York Times (in tandem with a bigger firm, Fox & Fowle) and extensions to the Morgan Library and the Whitney Museum. He's also been hired by Columbia University to help plan a possible extension of the campus near 125th Street.
How has Piano landed so much work in New York? The same way he's done it all over the world—with designs that are beautifully precise but never radical. Depending on your point of view, Piano is either the most corporate avant-garde architect in the world or the most avant-garde corporate one. Increasingly, his firm is the one museums and big companies call on when they want to bridge the gap between iconic, eye-catching architecture and a quieter, more pragmatic—and more affordable—approach.
Piano has a reputation for carrying himself with authority but without attitude—or an entourage. Here's how one of his clients—Patrick Kociolek, the executive director of the California Academy of Sciences, which hired RPBW to design a new museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park—describes meeting him for the first time:
Most of the architects we interviewed arrived with minions and models and fully developed ideas of what they thought our building, and the Academy, should be. But one architect, Renzo Piano, stood out. Piano came by himself, with only a sketchpad and a green felt-tip pen. Instead of explaining his design for the new Academy, Piano simply asked what the Academy's ethic was. ... We immediately knew Piano was our architect.
The story is the tiniest bit hokey—enough to make you wonder if Piano's famous charm isn't also, at least in part, a marketing technique. But it suggests the degree to which Piano's cool, urbane personality accounts for his popularity. Indeed, Piano landed three of his biggest American jobs—for the Whitney, the Times, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—only after those institutions came close to tying the knot with one of Piano's brasher competitors.
In the case of the Whitney, in the late 1990s the museum's trustees and its then-director, Maxwell Anderson, signed on to build a Koolhaas design that was aggressive even by the Dutch architect's standards. It proposed adding a tall new wing that would not only loom over the existing 1966 museum, designed by Marcel Breuer, but threaten to swallow it whole. The addition also had a hefty price tag: $200 million.
As the roaring '90s economy began to cool, so did the museum's enthusiasm for the Koolhaas design. The natural choice from the bullpen was Piano—not just because he'd already completed several acclaimed museums, but also because he could be counted on to produce something both striking and feasible. He has proposed adding a boxy, nine-story tower covered in metal panels and connected to the Breuer building by glass walkways. The elegant scheme, which borders on the conservative without relying on ornament or nostalgia, is characteristic of Piano's recent work.
A similar process unfolded in Los Angeles, where the L.A. County Museum of Art gave up on a $300 million plan by Koolhaas that would have knocked down much of the museum's existing collection of buildings. They replaced it with a plan by Piano that will instead knit those structures together and add one new building. Not only will the plan likely cost less, but the museum can build it in phases, something they became convinced wasn't possible with the Koolhaas design.
Piano's firm's work is distinguished by the details of the buildings it designs—and by the accumulation of these details, rather than dramatic forms (à la Frank Gehry), metaphorical conceits (à la Daniel Libeskind), or avant-garde gestures (à la Hadid). In New York, as elsewhere, ambitious pieces of architecture tend to have their wild edges sanded down as they move through boardrooms and planning departments. One of the hallmarks of Piano's work is that by the time it leaves his office, it has already been polished to a smooth finish. Some critics have seen in this quality a lack of messy vitality or a risk-averse, overly accommodating style. It's certainly true that Piano's work does little to threaten the status quo, at least as developers and planning officials see it. But at their best, Piano's designs are like persuasive essays that have gone through a dozen clarifying drafts.