‘Art is about stealing – and giving back...’
Genoa, a few weeks before the tragic collapse of the Morandi Bridge. It’s an idyllic location, overlooking the Mediterranean, and features the Renzo Piano Foundation which contains a museum of the models, drawings and mock-ups of the buildings which have defined his career. It tracks his work chronologically from 1966 right up to the present day and I spent some time there trying to get my head around how these radical, highly imaginative buildings – with their soaring masts and towers, their sweeping curves and dislocated structures – related to his aesthetic roots. Genoa, after all, has a remarkable architectural heritage. There are great medieval buildings such as the cathedral, but there was also a huge economic boom in the 16th century when prosperous families rebuilt their palazzi in Renaissance style.
But when I try to coax out of Piano whether or how these extraordinarily beautiful buildings had influenced his work, he is reluctant to be drawn. He admits to being “in love with the stone of Genoa” and that the concept of the piazza is central to his work: it is “one of the founding icons” of the city. “There is something Italian in what I’m doing,” he continues, and he agrees that classical ideas of proportion and balance are important. But he won’t be tied down to specifics. “Architecture is about harmony, beauty, poetry – it may come from light, suspension, and language and expression”, as well as other buildings.
Piano does concede that “All art is about robbery – about stealing and giving back.” And he has certainly done some giving back in Genoa. One of his most subtle and perhaps most effective projects was the redevelopment of the city’s waterfront in 1992. He cleared some of the derelict buildings which formed a barrier city and port and rejuvenated the quaysides, warehouses and open spaces of the old docks.
Now it is a new waterside piazza for the city – a place for passeggiata, entertainment and eating out. His final contribution may well be a new bridge to replace the Morandi – he has already offered his help to the city in its hour of need.
So, while I came away still unclear about the connections between contemporary architecture and the great buildings of the past, I certainly had my eyes opened to Genoa. Since my visit it has seen tragedy. But it is a great city, much overlooked in favour of its more famous Italian neighbours. Though it suffers from occasional waves of daytrippers from the cruise-ship dock, its day-to-day rhythms are largely unaffected by tourism.
Walk into a restaurant in Florence or Venice and you will be surrounded by other tourists, while the waiters will have commuted in from distant suburbs. Here, once you have negotiated the throngs of the old town’s thriving passeggiata, there is a good chance you will sit down at a table and be told that the menu is in Italian only. In the days when the centres of so many historic cities have lost their souls and surrendered to the ever-rising tide of tourism, Genoa’s heart is still beating.
Renzo Piano: The Art of Making Buildings is at the Royal Academy (royalacademy.org) from Sept 15 2018 to Jan 20 2019.
Renzo Piano at work in 1987, the year the Menil Collection opened, left; alfresco dining in Genoa, below