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Renzo Piano: Quiet tributes to a star architect

Over the course of his career, Renzo Piano has seen more than 150 of his architectural designs realised in 50 countries distributed across the globe. But even if you lined up all of his works next to one another, it would be difficult to identify the architect’s signature style. Each of his buildings speaks for itself – and they do so quietly. They are modest, but not shy; subtle and understated and yet proud. Throughout his career, the Italian architect has refused to allow his life’s work to be pigeon-holed.

Renzo Piano: A timeless talent

“The trap that architects can easily fall into [...] is becoming caught up in a particular style”, muses Renzo Piano.

Having a “signature style” would preclude the freedom that he as an architect needs – and so the adventurous designer moves from one commission to the next, taking each on its own merit and striving to avoid preconception to find the best solution for the architectural challenge he faces. This approach has produced buildings ranging from the bold triangular tower on Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz (1998) and the light and spacious Weltstadthaus in Cologne (2005) to the undulating Zentrum Paul Klee museum in Bern, Switzerland (2005). “When an architect is lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, he can become a witness to change”.

Portrait of Renzo Piano

Experimental and instinctual

Renzo Piano is a man who has enjoyed great luck in life – and it was luck that paved the way for his journey to becoming one of the most renowned architects of our time. Born in 1937 in Genoa, the future architect’s father owned a construction company, so Piano had been immersed in the world of raw steel and concrete before he commenced his architecture studies in Florence and Milan. During his studies, he made his first contacts with established peers in the industry and founded his own company in 1964. Even as a young architect, Renzo Piano adopted an experimental attitude towards new materials and technologies; his first contracts were primarily for halls and roof constructions and he was commissioned to plan urban regeneration projects and industrial and trade fair buildings. Working on this kind of portfolio, Piano was a long way away from the complete creative freedom he longed for – until one stroke of genius changed the course of his career.

A quiet yet determined ascent to the top

In 1971, the 34-year-old Piano partnered with British colleague Richard Rogers to come up with a design for the Centre Pompidou in Paris – and the pair’s design won. Since its completion in 1977, the trademark exposed pipework of the revolutionary major project has been one of the French capital’s main tourist attractions. The genius design paved the way for a flood of ambitious new projects. As usual, Renzo Piano approached each challenge with composure and a clear head, and in 1980, he founded the Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW), which now has offices in Genoa, Paris and Osaka. The Italian architect coped with his rapid rise to fame and the high expectations suddenly placed on him in an exemplary fashion, and has since won many of his industry’s most prestigious awards, including the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1998 and the Golden Lion at the Architecture Biennale two years later.

The Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris

Source: Explore France / YouTube

Designs that harmonise with their environment

Piano’s works are not designed to compete with their surroundings, dominate the landscape or conquer nature. Instead, they discretely blend into their environment – as evidenced by the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco (2008), which Renzo Piano designed to lie partially beneath the park surrounding the site. Even when asked to design buildings that are to become neighbours to iconic structures, the architect manages to maintain his cool approach: The Piano monastery built in 2011 as an addition to Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut chapel in Ronchamp is tucked away discretely into the side of a hill. Refusing to be swayed by the visions and theories of his contemporaries, Renzo Piano continues to be an innovator with a designer’s spirit.

Reaching for the skies – with feet firmly planted on the ground

When discussing his projects, Renzo Piano is keen to share the limelight with his 150-strong team: “Working in a team allows greater scope for creativity”, says the architect. He also credits a huge part of the success of his projects to his clients, who provide the stories that serve as the inspiration for his ideas. The Mayor of London’s idea of creating a vertical city was the starting point for the glass construction that would eventually become The Shard (2014) near Tower Bridge. The resulting building fuelled a furore across Europe: While some hailed it as a masterpiece of post-modernist design, others felt that the huge tower destroyed the London skyline. But Renzo Piano is stoical in his acceptance of criticism: “As an architect you have to accept that people might be angry about what you do; you can’t be arrogant and simply say ‘I’ll do whatever I want’”.

The Shard: The tallest building in western Europe

Source: The View from the Shard / YouTube

“Beauty makes us better”

In the USA, Renzo Piano is known primarily for his museum designs. And the architect does have a preference for public buildings, concert halls and theatres, schools, universities and libraries – because his vision is not just to create buildings, but places of exchange, where people can share their values with others.

In line with his design philosophy of creating buildings that are both “good and beautiful”, Piano’s designs are aesthetically pleasing, fit for purpose and sustainable – with the latter aspect taking on an ever-increasing significance. The imposing New York Times Building, completed in 2007, was fitted with an environmentally friendly façade made from ceramic rods and low-iron glass. The Float office building currently under construction at Düsseldorf Media Harbour is yet another cutting-edge tribute to energy-efficient architecture.

The Float – An impressive new architectural highlight in the centre of Düsseldorf

Source: FLOAT / YouTube

No-one – not even the architect himself – knows how many more Piano buildings are yet to be conceived, commissioned and constructed.

In spite of his lack of signature style, the free-spirited designer remains true to one key philosophy: Taking things as they come.

Do you have a favourite Renzo Piano design? Share your opinions in the comments!

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