The Italian architect, lecturer, and designer Renzo Piano (born 1937) is best known for his work with Richard Rogers on the Centre Pompidou in Paris (1971-1977). He gained an international reputation from projects executed in Italy, France, England, the United States, Germany, Senegal, and Japan.
Renzo Piano was born in Genoa, Italy, on September 14, 1937. He entered the Polytechnic of Milan in 1959 to study architecture and from 1962 to 1964 worked under the guidance of Franco Albini. In 1964 he received his diploma and subsequently worked with his father, a building contractor, in Genoa. It was on building sites that the young architect acquired the rudiments of his experimental and craftsmanlike philosophy. Between the years 1965 and 1970 Piano worked with Louis Kahn in Philadelphia and with Z.S. Makowsky in London studying stressed-skin space grids and three-dimensional structures in tension.
Two of his earliest architectural products were a woodworking shop and a factory for sulphur extraction. The woodworking shop in Genoa (1965) was based on a simple steel lozenge structural element and was conceived as an open-ended structure—what Piano calls "a work in progress." The factory for sulphur extraction at Pomezia, Italy (1966), was made of detachable elements so that the structure could be disassembled and reassembled to move along the path of the mining operations.
His collaboration with Richard Rogers began in 1971 when, together with the engineering firm of Ove Arup and Partners, they won the international competition for the design of the Centre National d'Art et Culture Georges Pompidou, more familiarly known as the Beaubourg. It was roundly criticized for its high-tech appearance. However, Piano did not see it as an industrial building, but as a prototype based on fine craftsmanship. In order to leave the interior spaces clear, the mechanical services and plant were placed on the exterior of the building. New developments in information systems and communications could be accommodated in these flexible spaces. The functions of the Beaubourg are multiple and varied: a public library, a museum of modern art, services of documentation and research, a cinema, a theater, and a place for travelling exhibitions and music.
Even more demanding of Piano and Rogers' talents was the building done for the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in the center of Paris (1973-1977). To provide improved acoustics, they designed an underground structure whose roof forms a plaza at street level. New spatial formulations were needed to accommodate studios, workshops, and the experimental concert hall with variable acoustics. At IRCAM scientists and musicians work as equals exploring uncharted waters in an effort to abolish the boundary line that separates science and art.
In 1977 Piano formed an association with Peter Rice, the structural engineer for Beaubourg's superstructure. The two men were asked to solve an ever-broadening base of design problems. One area of design to which Piano and Rice applied their skills was a modular system of office furnishing which integrated the functions of lighting, climate-control, and communications in Milan, Italy (1977). In 1978 Fiat called upon them to invent the car of the 1990s—to transform the image of the automobile. When a multi-disciplinary team arrived at a prototype capable of change but not manifesting any design innovations, Fiat suspended the experiment.
In a completely different vein, Piano and Rice set up a one week neighborhood workshop in Otranto, Italy (1979), under the sponsorship of the United Nations Economic and Scientific Committee (UNESCO) as an experiment in urban reconstruction. A mobile workshop was erected in the Otranto square to serve the purposes of restoration, documentation, and retraining. Work was carried out with the help of local skilled labor and craftsmen. People were allowed to remain in their homes with a minimum of disturbance of their daily lives. It was planned that continued maintenance of the historic town center would become a source of employment for local people in hopes of reviving their dormant craft skills.
Piano and Rice joined with the Arvedi steel and piping factory in Cremona, Italy (1980), to develop a new system of construction, the Arvedi Space Frame system. This system was used for the spectacular entrance to the Cremona Trade Fair, where the combination vertical platform and canopy served as a spatial backdrop for and graphic symbol of the fair. It was scheduled to be used on a grand scale flanking the Seine river at the Parisian Universal Exhibition in 1989.
In the mid-1980s Piano was associated with Richard Fitzgerald in Houston, Texas. This was the result of work on the museum for the Menil Collection of Symbolist and African Art, opened in 1987. Whereas Piano had wanted to demystify culture with the design for the Beaubourg, here he saw the need to establish a cultural landmark where none had existed. Light played the crucial role in the design of the Houston museum. A complex study of the behavior of light in a variety of conditions was carried out and resulted in the use of a basic structural element, "the leaf, " to form the roof.
In the mid-1990s, his projects ranged from the giant $2 billion Kansai airport in Japan to the Potsdamer Platz in the heart of Berlin, to a small arts center on the pacific island of New Caledonia. In Turin, his firm was rehabilitating the marvelous 1925 Lingotto Fiat factory, which consists of a structure a third of a mile long, with an auto test track on the roof. Outside of the Menil Collection in Houston, his work was little known in the United States until an exhibition opened at the Architectural League in New York, which ran in January of 1983, then traveled to the Menil Collection through the end of March.
Though Piano collaborated with different architects, he saw success as the result of team-work. His "studio" revolved around several operative bases. The oldest was located in Paris in the historic center of Le Marais where architects from nine different countries worked together. In Genoa there was a planning workshop where architects, structural engineers, economists, and other specialists provided a multi-disciplinary approach to solving problems. The London office of engineers, Ove Arup and Partners, carried out much of the scientific research, and the London computer was used for all the work. The office in Houston was specific to the work done there. Telephone cables and computers provided lines of communication between the various teams.
Piano drew on technological know-how, but tried to go beyond the clash between creativity and science. He believed in craftsmanship and the latest technology. According to Piano, the architect should understand his materials and use them to the best of their conditions. Through systematic research, she or he should control technology. Piano wanted his work to be studied for its methodology rather than for its architectural forms. With each design he started at the beginning and arrived at a solution specific to it. Because each design was separate, there was no consistent artistic development, in the traditional sense, in Piano's work.
Many people associate Piano with the boisterous design of the Centre de Georges Pompidou. Admittedly it was not been easy for him to shake that stigma. Following the construction of the Centre, Piano was labeled "high tech"—something he insisted didn't fit him, "it implies that you aren't thinking in a poetic way" and that is contrary to his nature. Piano claimed to be a humanist techie—while embracing the spirit of modernism, he held dear the spirit of his Renaissance forebears. Technology, for Piano, is a means as well as an end, but never something visually specific, technology is not alien to nature but part of nature.
Further Reading on Renzo Piano
Articles on Piano may be found in many international architectural magazines, such as Domus, Casabella, and the Architectural Review. Piano is listed in Contemporary Architects, edited by Muriel Emanuel (1980), and the exhibition catalogue Renzo Piano/Pezzo per Pezzo, edited by Gianpiero Donin (1982), contains an English translation of the Italian text. The most comprehensive and richly illustrated study of Piano and his projects and his buildings is Massimo Dini's Renzo Piano (1984). Piano, Rogers, and others authored The Building of Beaubourg (1978).