‘Art is about steal­ing – and giv­ing back...’

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

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

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