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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Renzo Piano

Although AIC's Renzo Piano-designed extension is far from his most impressive
effort, one might get the feeling in experiencing his many houses of art, that the
man does nothing but art museums.
Renzo Piano
On the final leg of our forty-two day jaunt around the outskirts of the American West this spring we stopped in Chicago for a couple days. I wanted to peer out the top of the Willis (Sears) Tower, see Wright's Robie House, and most of all, spend a day at the Art Institute of Chicago. Sometime before I'd written on this Chicago landmark institution as an item in my book, Art THINK (right hand column). As I planned the trip, I came to realize the place was more than twice the size I'd expected, having been extended across a rail yard behind the old building to a lakefront park. The original building is Beaux Arts in style. The extension is Postmodern. Like so many art museums today, the two don't match at all, though in this case the disparity is more noticeable inside than from the exterior. I recall that the new wing was light, airy, attractive, unobtrusive, and most of all white. I was impressed. Only today, as I was preparing a piece on the Italian architect Renzo Piano, did I realize I'd already visited one of his major works. Piano designed the AIC extension, which opened in May, 2009. Moreover, a few moments later, I stumbled upon the fact I'd also encountered two of the architects earlier museums addition earlier in our trip while on the west coast at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). In my eyes, one of Piano's most admirable traits is that his museums are not memorable. That is, they don't get in the way of the art inside them nor compete with that art for the visitor's attention.

Still under construction, Seoul's Landmark Business District as seen by Renzo Piano.

The Shard, 2012, Renzo Piano, London,
the tallest building in Europe.
That's not to say the Renzo Piano's architecture is bland. Although he has designed some twenty-five museums thus far in his carreer, (fourteen in the U.S. alone), Piano's design expertise extends to everything from entire urban commercial districts (above, Seoul, South Korea) to his Diogene micro house (below, all 64 square feet of it). London is home to his award-winning glass "Shard" skyscraper (left) while Rome proudly sports a soccer stadium designed by Piano. Perhaps one reason I was so unaware of his design expertise, despite having been inside two or three of his museums, is that he seems not to have a design "trademark," so to speak. Each one of his buildings stands alone, comfortable in its location, purpose, and appearance. Piano is fond of glass, and white, while seeming most at home with cubes and rectangles, but then, that could be said of dozens, perhaps hundreds of Postmodern architects today. The difference is, he does not impose upon his buildings any foredrawn conclusions, but instead, lets the site, its assets and liabilities, as well as those who will occupy his structures, dictate the form, while he turns his talents to beautifying those demands. He's an architect who listens. Curators love that.

The Diogene Micro House, Renzo Piano
The surprisingly spacious looking interior of
Piano's Diogene Micro House. It wouldn't
make a very good art museum, though.
Renzo Piano was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1937, so he's no longer a young man out to make a reputation for himself. When he was young, during the late 1960s, Piano worked with the fabled Louis Kahn and during the early 1970s, collaborated with the British architect, Richard Rogers in the design of Paris' landmark Pompidou Center, which, in turning the museum "inside out" exposing it's utilitarian elements, could only be said to have revolutionized museum architecture unlike anything since Frank Lloyd Wright "swirled" the Guggenheim into existence some twenty years before. In 1981, Piano founded the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, (RPBW) which today employs 150 people with offices in Paris, Genoa, and New York City. What? You thought he drew all the plans himself? Architects today mostly inspire, they guide, they manage, and most of all they promote (themselves and their employees). They do sketch a little, sometimes, conceptualizing, idealizing perhaps, but there are so many engineering and outisde legal restrictions imposed upon them it's a wonder anything ever gets built, and no wonder that, when it does, it ends up costing so much.

The Paul Klee Center, 2005, Renzo Piano, Bern, Switzerland.
The New York Times Building,
2005, Renzo Piano
Quite apart from his impressive list of museums, which include the recently opened Whitney addition in New York, an addition to the Kimball in Fort Worth, and a brand new Harvard Art Museum (so new it's still under construction), Piano's list of office and commercial buildings is equally impressive. In the "Big Apple," the New York Times Building, (right) since 2007, soars up fifty-two floors in all its tinted glass glory, while his expansion of the Manhattanville campus of Columbia University is so new its not yet under construction. "New" is a good word in describing Piano's work. Though born and raised in the 20th-century, he is very much a 21st-century architect. If you want to know what the future will look like, take a trip to a by Renzo Piano (there's lots of them to pick from).

The Giovanni and Marella Agnelli Art Gallery, Torino, Italy, Renzo piano


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