At 81, Piano is remarkably sprightly for his age, articulate, relaxed, urbane and charming, still heading up the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, which he founded in 1981, and still involved in all aspects of the design development of their projects. He was born into a family of builders, and soon set about designing a sailing boat, which he built in the garage. He had not quite honed his ergonomic and spacial perception skills, as, when he came to move it out and tow it down to the sea at Genoa, it would not fit through the doors, which had to be dismantled. The exhibition is laid out as two workshops/classrooms, with drawings, models. photographs and materials neatly displayed on squeaky-clean white-topped desks, with canvas directors’ chairs ranged around them. Above, hang sketetalvertabrae like specimens in a natural history museum. In between, there is a darkened viewing area, in which there is a selection of black and white photographs by Gianni BerengoGardinis of Piano over the years, and a 17-minute film by Thomas Reidelsheimer, highlighting Piano’s intelligent approach to architecture and his languid attitude to life. In the middle of the room is a specially-constructed, imaginary ‘island’, on which are installed over 100 models of his projects, which include the largest, the 1.7km-long terminal of Kansai Airport, built on an artificial island in Osaka Bay, to the smallest, his Diogene one-room cabin in Weil am Rhein, which was informed by boat building and decades of architectural experience.
He is probaly best-known in this country for his iconic Shard, with its faceted 11,000 glass panels, containing 44 lifts, including double-deckers, offices, shops, restaurants, an hotel, 10 exclusive residences and a public gallery, 309.6 metres above London, it being Europe’s tallest building. He genuinly does have an empathy for people, the environment and the impact architecture has on their lives, which is more than can be said for many of his ego-fuelled contemporaries, who have little or no sense of place or history. There are a number of very rough initial sketches of buildings in magic marker pen, which are loose doodles in comparison to the highly detailed working drawings that emerge at a later stage. One gets the feeling that these are the genuine article, whereas one suspects that some architects utilise a post-rational approach and do the sketch only after the bridge, millennial or otherwise, has been constructed. Piano is passionate about light and how in an art gallery, such as the Menil Collection in Houston thirty years ago or the recently finished Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, creating spaces using natural light is a prerequisite in viewing the art. The Jérôme Seydoux PathéFondation has a fiendishly complicated organic carapace floating within the strictly nineteenth century shell in Avenue des Gobelins in the XIII arrondissement, with original bas-relief sculptures by a young Auguste Rodin. The new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is currently under construction in Los Angeles, and, in all, there are 16 of Piano’s past and future projects on display, including the New York Times Building in New York and the extraordinary Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Nouméa, New Caledonia, whose conical domes are constructed using laminated and natural iroko wood, concrete, coral, aluminium castings, glass panels, tree bark and stainless steel. Louvres, called nacos, open and close in tandem automatically by computer control, calibrated to the speed of the wind.
Although Richard Rogers is credited with authorship of the then radical Pompidou Centre, it was designed by both Renzo Piano and Rogers in collaboration. In 1977, it was deemed startlingly innovative, in that it had all the ‘innards’ on the outside, although many of the components were purely cosmetic and served no structural purpose. The lack of a formal entrance was novel in its approach, but still rankles visitors. Colour-coding was part of the design, so that ventilation ducting was painted blue, plumbing and fire control piping green, electrical elements orange and yellow, circulation throughout the building red, and the larger structural components painted white. It took six years to build and cost close to 1000 million francs, but in 1997, it was showing signs of premature ageing, having received more than 180 million visitors, or 25,000 visitors a day, and a further 576 million francs had to be spent on renovation. One innovative element was the introduction of large hollow members created from cast steel that were fabricated in Germany, known as a ‘gerberettes’, so-called from the German engineer Heinrich Gerber, each weighing 11 tonnes, and fixed together with an oversized nut and bolt system. One is painted red and stands as a sentinel outside the Burlington Gardens building.
The main sponsor of this exhibition is Rocco Forte Hotels, and the Hotel de Rome is one of their flagship hotels, located on Bebelplatz, off Unter den Linden in Berlin and was rebuilt by Piano. Surely, these two distinguished gentlemen did not join forces simply to make a pianoforte gag?