Builder poet

The star­chi­tect be­hind icons such as The Shard and the New York Times Build­ing loves de­sign­ing pub­lic build­ings that bring to­gether beauty, com­mu­nity and light, says So­nia Kolesnikov-jes­sop

Prestige (Singapore) - - CONTENTS -

Renzo Pi­ano may have just turned 81, but the ar­chi­tect be­hind the iconic Cen­tre Pom­pi­dou in Paris and The Shard in Lon­don re­mains full of creative en­ergy, and is still very much in­volved in the Renzo Pi­ano Build­ing Work­shop, which he founded in 1981.

After the tragic col­lapse of the Ponte Mo­randi mo­tor­way bridge in Italy in Au­gust, the youth­ful-look­ing oc­to­ge­nar­ian im­me­di­ately picked up his pen­cils to con­ceive a new bridge for his beloved home­town city of Genoa. Within two weeks, he had put for­ward a pro­posal that recog­nises the city’s mar­itime her­itage and in a subtly po­etic way hon­ours the mem­ory of those who had lost their lives – the shape re­calls a ship set on 43 pil­lars, one for each vic­tim, with the in­cor­po­rated so­lar-pow­ered lights emit­ting a pale halo at night as a per­ma­nent me­mo­rial.

“When a bridge falls, it falls twice; it falls phys­i­cally and it falls sym­bol­i­cally, be­cause a bridge is a sym­bol of con­nec­tion. That’s why the re­con­struc­tion is fun­da­men­tal and I’m try­ing to do what I can. My hope is that this mo­ment of con­struc­tion will be­come a mo­ment of pride again,” Pi­ano says.

Though he won the highly pres­ti­gious Pritzker Ar­chi­tec­ture Prize in 1998 – with the jury com­par­ing him to Michelan­gelo and Leonardo da Vinci – Pi­ano dis­likes the star­chi­tect port­man­teau and of­ten sim­ply refers to him­self as a builder. His prac­tice has long fo­cused on pub­lic build­ings, in par­tic­u­lar cul­tural ones.

“I love mak­ing pub­lic build­ings be­cause they are for peo­ple to gather and stay to­gether – the art of build­ing meets the art of build­ing for peo­ple,” he says, not­ing that the con­cept that ar­chi­tec­ture can change the world is mis­guided. “Ar­chi­tec­ture doesn’t change the world; the world changes by it­self, by big shifts. But ar­chi­tec­ture is cel­e­brat­ing these changes, in fact giv­ing shape to these changes, and those build­ings in some ways rep­re­sent that; they rep­re­sent a change in so­ci­ety that be­came a build­ing.”

Kate Good­win, cu­ra­tor of ar­chi­tec­ture at the Royal Academy of Arts in Lon­don, points out that one thing that dif­fer­en­ti­ates the ar­chi­tect from many of his peers “is that there isn’t a sin­gle Renzo Pi­ano style; rather, there are things he re­turns to. It feels like a Renzo build­ing, but not be­cause of the form; it’s be­cause of cer­tain things that come about. His build­ings con­tinue to sur­prise.” How­ever, Good­win, who

co-cu­rated Renzo Pi­ano: The Art of Mak­ing Build­ings, an on­go­ing ex­hi­bi­tion at the Royal Academy that will run till Jan­uary 20, 2019, adds that there is still a clear red thread through­out the Ital­ian ar­chi­tect’s out­put: his search for light and weight­less­ness.

Pi­ano has of­ten said he sees ar­chi­tec­ture as much more than build­ing; to him, it com­bines po­etry, beauty, com­mu­nity and hu­man­ism. Ar­chi­tec­ture is “the art of an­swer­ing needs, as well as the art of an­swer­ing de­sires”.

Born in Genoa to a fam­ily of builders, Pi­ano re­mem­bers grow­ing up ei­ther look­ing at the sea or sit­ting at a build­ing site. These early ex­pe­ri­ences had a pro­found in­flu­ence on him, in­still­ing a fas­ci­na­tion with light, a love of beauty and na­ture, and a thirst for ad­ven­ture and dis­cov­ery.

He has com­pared some of his build­ings to fly­ing ves­sels, want­ing to el­e­vate them from the ground and cre­ate space be­neath where peo­ple can con­gre­gate. His de­signs have also of­ten sought to “sculpt light”, be it in find­ing in­no­va­tive meth­ods to dif­fuse nat­u­ral light over an art col­lec­tion (such as the Me­nil Col­lec­tion in Hous­ton) or an­gling a roof so a new build­ing does not cast a shadow over a city park (Aurora Place in Syd­ney).


In 1971, Pi­ano and his then part­ner Richard Rogers beat 680 other bids with their au­da­cious pro­posal for Cen­tre Pom­pi­dou. Their rev­o­lu­tion­ary in­side-out con­cept – with a hint of nau­ti­cal in­flu­ences – cre­ated a novel space con­fig­u­ra­tion for a mu­seum that aimed to democra­tise the mu­se­um­go­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, break­ing down the mon­u­men­tal and in­tim­i­dat­ing de­signs that had up un­til then been stan­dard fea­tures as­so­ci­ated with mu­se­ums to cre­ate a com­pletely open space, ac­ces­si­ble to all. Pi­ano ad­mits with a laugh that the pro­ject was “com­pletely mad, like a space­ship had landed in the mid­dle of Paris”.

Al­though highly con­tro­ver­sial at the time, Cen­tre Pom­pi­dou pos­i­tively changed the re­la­tion­ship be­tween a cul­tural build­ing and the pub­lic, thanks in part to the pi­azza set out­side and the col­umn-free in­te­rior that makes it more adapt­able. “It was about cre­at­ing a new pub­lic space and say­ing that cul­ture is not just that which takes place within a build­ing; it’s also about peo­ple and the life out­side,” says Good­win. “The whole idea of strip­ping out the in­side and putting all the ser­vices on the out­side was about ex­press­ing how build­ings work as well as free­ing the space in­side.”


“I think that’s some­thing that’s very in­ter­est­ing about Renzo’s work. There was some­thing that was so of the mo­ment, but also so for­ward-think­ing, provoca­tive, talk­ing about cul­ture but also dis­turb­ing Paris in some ways – you get this with a lot of his build­ings. And as they start to be­come used, they be­come loved and bet­ter un­der­stood. And this is a re­cur­ring theme, how he puts some­thing that is slightly un­set­tling into a place in a very pos­i­tive way. The best ar­chi­tec­ture turns some­thing in your mind, and in­vites you to think about the place it­self and what it’s do­ing.”

After Cen­tre Pom­pi­dou was com­pleted in 1977, Pi­ano and Rogers went their sep­a­rate ways. Pi­ano worked for a few years on ex­per­i­men­tal projects be­fore set­ting up his prac­tice, the Renzo Pi­ano Build­ing Work­shop, which now has of­fices in Paris, New York and Genoa. Some of his firm’s most no­table projects in­clude The Shard in Lon­don, as well as the 52-storey New York Times Build­ing and the new Whit­ney Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art in New York.

Hav­ing just sur­veyed the ex­hi­bi­tion at the Royal Academy, Pi­ano muses: “It’s mad­ness, what you can do in life when you never stop.”

De­signed as a “ver­ti­cal city”, Renzo Pi­ano’s 95- storey The Shard trans­formed Lon­don’s sky­line

Right: Cen­tre Ge­orges Pom­pi­dou in Paris, com­pleted in 1977; Be­low: A study model of the Fon­da­tion Jérôme Sey­doux- Pathé in Paris

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