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Renzo Piano is a famous architect renowned for his unique approach to design and his philosophy. He was born into a family of builders and he continued on the tradition of “making things” as he puts it, by designing some award winning & famous buildings, including the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris, France, the San Nicola Stadium in Bari, Italy, the Kansai International Airport, Osaka, Japan and the Jean Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Noumea, New Caledonia. Renzo’s work is highly regarded as art.
Each building is innovative, well detailed and each designed with a unique approach. Renzo views light as a “building material” and this is obvious throughout all of his projects.
Born in 1937 in Genoa, Italy, Renzo studied at the University of Florence and the Milan Polytechnic. Following his graduation from architecture school in 1964, he worked in his father’s construction company where he got the chance to design, under the guidance of Franco Albini. Renzo formed his own practice in 1965 before joining Richard Rogers in 1971.
It was his last collaboration with Richard Rogers on the controversial Georges Pompidou Centre, in 1977 that initially brought him fame. In 1978 Renzo began a long period of collaboration with Irish engineer Peter Rice, which would produce many fine buildings. Renzo then created the Renzo Piano Building Workshop in 1981, with studios in Genoa and Paris. He received the RIBA Gold Medal in 1989 and the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 1998.
Renzo lists the Renaissance architect, Filippo Brunelleschi among his many inspirations. Brunelleschi, who is famous for inventions including heavy lifting mechanisms based on the inner workings of a clock and linear perspective, was a true innovator and experimenter.
In addition to his 15th century idol, Renzo pays homage to Jean Prouvé‚ of France with whom he formed a friendship while working in collaboration with Louis Kahn in Philadelphia and Z. S. Makowsky in London. Louis Kahn was regarded as a philosopher among architects, he didn’t have many projects (only 25 or so) but he has inspired hundreds. His work infused the “International Style”.
Two other important influences he acknowledges were Buckminster Fuller and Pier Luigi Nervi.
Renzo was born into a family of builders. His grandfather, his father, four uncles and a brother were all contractors, and he admits, he should have been one too. He was seventeen when he approached his father with the idea of going to architecture school. “Why do you want to be just an architect? You can be a builder,” was his father’s response which has never been forgotten. Renzo states that as the main reason for naming his architecture studio the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, rather than Piano Architects & Associates.
While still studying in Milan, Renzo married a girl he had known from school days in Genoa, Magda Arduino. They have three children, two of which have carried on the Piano family tradition, with their son Matteo becoming an industrial designer and their daughter Lia an architect. Renzo & Magda separated during construction of the Georges Pompidou Centre as Magda preferred to be in Genoa, but Renzo was required in Paris.
Renzo met Emilia Rossato when she came to work for him. They were married in 1992 by Jacques Chirac, then the Mayor of Paris who supported the construction of the Georges Pompidou Centre through the many crises.
Renzo’s first important commission was in 1969 to design the Italian Industry Pavilion at Expo ‘70 in Osaka. His late brother, Ermanno, built and installed the pavilion and a number of other projects before his premature death in 1993.
Georges Pompidou Centre, completed 1977.
Renzo Piano’s association with Richard Rogers led to many interesting buildings, but it is the Georges Pompidou Centre, in Paris which brought them fame. One of his original ideas for the Centre had been to build a giant inverted pyramid but his clear belief in functionality and logic led him and Rogers to opt for the clarity of the giant rectangle of a city block.
Initially, all of the functional structural elements of the building were colour-coded: green pipes for plumbing, blue ducts are for climate control, electrical wires are encased in yellow, and circulation elements are red. Although in recent renovations, this colour coding has been partially removed, and many of the elements are simply painted white.
During the planning and construction stages of the project the Pompidou was very controversial, with various court cases and public protests holding up completion, but it has since become exactly what Piano and Rogers wanted it to be, “a joyful urban machine.” Despite often being described as “High Tech” Renzo gets very annoyed if the Pompidou Centre is described as such. Instead he prefers it described as “a double provocation: a challenge to academicism, but also a parody of the technological imagery of our time”.
The building itself created over a hundred thousand square meters in the heart of Paris, devoted to the figurative arts, music, industrial design, and literature. In the three decades since it opened, over a 200 million people have visited it, averaging more than 25,000 people per day which shows its overwhelming success.
San Nicola Stadium completed 1989.
Renzo Piano and Peter Rice collaborated on the design of the San Nicola Stadium in Bari, Italy which was built for the World Cup, Italia ‘90. The stadium was built of one basic material, concrete. The shape of the stands and the beams clearly reveals the modularity of the structure. The entire ellipse of the stadium is made up of 26 “petals”, each assembled out of 310 crescent shaped elements, which were prefabricated on site. Each petal is supported by just four pillars. Although these supports are fairly massive, the well thought out design makes the petals appear to rise above the banked ground as if they are floating. The gaps between the petals let the light and colour of the landscape into the stadium. Usually, concave structures tend to induce claustrophobia however the transparency achieved with the vertical cuts reduces this effect, and contributes to a more relaxed enjoyment of the sport.
Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Genoa
The Renzo Piano Building Workshop was built in 1989 on the coast west of Genoa. Perched on the rocks and surrounded by the sea and mountains, Renzo describes this creation as “half rock, half ship”. In fact, the place is called Punta Nave, meaning Ship Rock. Renzo believes “Creating something is difficult enough, but putting yourself in the right state to create something is even more difficult” and says of this studio, “here I find calm, silence and concentration”. Overlooking the Mediterranean and surrounded by beautiful scenery, the setting provides an “inspiring ambience”. Renzo and his brother Ermanno’s firm collaborated with UNESCO to build a plant research station and workshop on the same site. UNESCO scientists are now growing and studying bamboo, agave and cane in the building and the surrounding lands.
Kansai International Airport, completed 1990.
Before entering the competition for the Kansai Airport, Renzo, wished to visit the site, as is normal procedure. In this case it involved a boat trip which led to a moment of embarrassment, as at a certain point on the open sea, one of Renzo’s party asked where the airport was to be, only to be told, “Here.” Since Osaka had no room for an airport, the local authorities decided to build an artificial island for it in the bay. Not a small island either, on completion it would be 15 square kilometres.
Renzo describes the structure as “a missing link between ground and airplane” as it “spreads over the island like a glider”. At 1.7 kilometres long, it’s one of the world’s largest buildings and as the terminal caters one hundred thousand passengers per day, it’s also one of the busiest.
A testament to Renzo’s quest for technological and site sensitive design considerations is that during the Kobe earthquake of 1995, there was not a single pane of broken glass at Kansai, despite being exactly the same distance from the epicentre as Kobe, which suffered severe damage.
Jean Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Noumea
The Renzo Piano Building Workshop won an international competition in 1991 to design the Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Noumea, a Pacific island territory in New Caledonia. The French government built this centre which is named after the late Jean Marie Tjibaou, to record and exhibit the culture of the Kanak people. Renzo’s concept is a genuine village composed on ten structures of different sizes and functions, the largest being as tall as a nine story building. The ten structures of the centre are organized into three villages: one is devoted to exhibitions; another is for administrative staff & historians; the third is for creative activities such as dance, painting, sculpture and music. The buildings are, as Piano puts it, “an expression of the harmonious relationship with the environment, that is typical of the local culture. They are curved structures resembling huts, built out of wooden joists and ribs; they are containers of an archaic appearance, whose interiors are equipped with all the possibilities offered by modern technology”.
As Colin Amery (Special Advisor to the World Monuments Fund) put it, “there was a real danger that a western architect could have presented a scheme that was a kitsch rendering of traditional styles, but Renzo and his colleagues were more than aware of this possible pitfall and it is a tribute to their approach that their design appears indigenous while being contemporary”.
Renzo won the competition because he did not arrive in the islands imposing his designs and ideas on the community. He listened to the client’s requirements, traditions and ideas in order to create a personalised design that is sensitive to the delicate and beautiful setting. Renzo states “There is always the temptation to impose one’s own design, one’s own way of thinking or, even worse, one’s own style. I believe, instead, that a light approach is needed. Light, but without abandoning the stubbornness that enables you to put forward your own ideas whilst being permeable to the ideas of others”.
Renzo Piano’s architecture has been described as a “rare melding of art, architecture, and engineering in a truly remarkable synthesis” and he has been compared to Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo for his innovation. While his designs incorporate the most current technology, his roots are clearly in the classic Italian philosophy and tradition. He is also intensely concerned with issues of habitability and sustainable architecture in a constantly changing world.
Renzo’s designs are the result of analysis and research and are the best, practical answers to specific problems. As Colin Amery said, “there is a sense in all his works of a problem solved” and “He may try an experiment to solve the problem but he will not build anything that is not an intelligent solution”.
What is Architecture? This is a topic on which Renzo encourages open discussion. In his words he describes architecture as “a service, in the most literal sense of the term. It is an art that produces things that serve a purpose. But it is also a socially dangerous art, because it is an imposed art. You can put down a bad book; you can avoid listening to bad music; but you cannot miss the ugly tower block opposite your house. And architecture is an ancient profession; perhaps the world’s oldest, a little like hunting, fishing, farming, exploring the seas. These are man’s original activities from which all others stem. Immediately after the search for food, we find the search for shelter; at a certain point, man was no longer content with the refuges offered by nature and became an architect”.
In my opinion, Renzo Piano has more to offer than beautiful, purposeful buildings. I believe that his philosophies can be applied to all design disciplines. My interpretations of Renzo’s beliefs are: Embrace technology, but respect the theories, practices and traditions of the past. Good design is a union of technology and art. Listen to the client’s requirements rather than imposing your own ideas. You’re designs should be practical, innovative and effective. Pay attention to detail, for it’s the finest details that have the longest lasting effect. Don’t stick to one style; treat every project as a new adventure. If you don’t, you risk becoming bored and will gradually loose inspiration. Experiment with materials and processes in order to gain an understanding of what is possible, rather than abiding by the limits imposed by what you already know, or think you know.
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