The art of building and assembling is the trademark of Renzo Piano, born into a family of builders whose projects were experimentation fields in the technical sector as well as on the urban scale. If there is a common theme in his work, it is the relationship with the city. Designing the highest tower in Europe on a London train station in the same way as inserting asmall building in a Haussmannian block in Paris or developing an eco-district in northern Italy in Trento, or incorporating the new Maltese parliament into the “City of the Knights” in Valletta, are challenges that Renzo Piano and his team like to tackle.
“The Piano Method” Renzo Piano Building Workshop
November 11, 2015 – February 29, 2016
Cité de l’architecture & du patrimoine
45, avenue du président Wilson,
To be precise, the question is clearly one of teamwork with his partners at the Building Workshop. Unlike the usual retrospective, the aim of this exhibition is to update that very specific collective process in which no one no longer knows who had the idea first. “The Piano method” focuses on this indispensable iteration at work in the Genoa office, as well as the one in Paris; this is its trade secret.
The “laboratory” aspect of this work is presented in the exhibition’s first introductory section, dedicated to research on lightweight structures that Renzo Piano developed in the 1960s. At this period, he didn’t know that France was going to give him, with the Centre Pompidou designed with his teammate Richard Rogers, the springboard needed to acquire an international dimension. Through a system of very well-documented tables, the exhibition invites the visitor to enter the universe of a project, plunging him into this experimentation approach that made it possible to build a renowned museum in New York, a vertical law court in Paris or a rammed-earth pediatric hospital in Uganda. Exploiting the potential of different materials by pushing the limits of construction techniques is the idea.
Uncountable models and prototypes are studied and finalized to test the theories. Work on structure, building materials, climate, urbanity, Renzo Piano’s creations take on a particular dimension when they are, moreover, compared to those of Louis Kahn or Le Corbusier. The exhibition’s thematic itinerary is built around six families of projects mainly in Europe and the United States, with a special focus on a humanitarian project in Africa.
This method has repeatedly proven itself. No theorising, but a collective practice, with neither discourse nor protocol. Piano’s method, in search of a constructive truth, takes an approach to the profession that breaks with the idea of the artist’s gesture, the dazzling stroke that carries everything. Architects, engineers, consultants and of course the client, are fully involved with the design process, a process that is the opposite of top down and that promotes lateral thinking.
Preferring practical knowledge to conceptual ideas, Piano and his team work less with materiality than with materials (most recently rammed earth in Uganda), they enjoy putting things together – Piano’s trademark. They research and test ideas using models and prototypes, where precision is the solution to complexity. Hundreds of models are made in their street-front workshop in Paris and at the slightly more hidden office at Punta Nave, just outside Genoa. Multiple “versions enable us to understand how the pieces will work with each other,” explains Piano.
Piano’s method is also about the pedagogy of aproject. This workshop-exhibition takes a journey through RPBW’s recent projects via a series of very detailed work tables that invite the visitor to immerse themselves in each project, its genesis and its specific logic.
Between 1964 and 1970 Renzo Piano engaged in a series of constructional experiments: prefabricated structures, mainly in plastic. The first example (1964-65) was a roof made of elements in reinforced polyester. The individual pieces were produced by hand molding on wooden templates. A steelplate embedded in the apex of each pyramid-made it possible to join the elements together by means of steel rods and bolts.
For the 14th Milan Triennale in 1968 Piano devised a machine for manufacturing shell structures. A coordinate-measuring machine transferred the measurements of a scale model, divided into sectors, to a computer controlling a grid of mechanical jacks, which reproduced the curvatures of the model on a flexible rubber slab. On the slab as many pieces of the structure were formed as the number of sectors of the model. The pieces obtained were then assembled on site with polymer resins. The open-plan house at Garonne (1968) had a roof structure consisting of timber pyramids, nailed together to compose spatial trusses drawninto tension by parallel steel cables that joined their lower vertices. This rigid spatial structure supported the shed skylights in reinforced polyester.
For the headquarters of the family’s construction business (1966-1969), Piano developed a square panel roof measuring 2.50 m per side in reinforced polyester. At the center of each piece a star-shaped radial corrugation surrounded a steel reinforcing plate embedded in the plastic. This plate received the thrust of a lower strut, stretched by a grid of steel cables. This tension, through the star-shaped corrugation, was transferred to the surface ofthe panel which was thus stiffened by it. Next to this factory Piano built his office-workshop (1968-69) The basic structural element wasa steel pyramid with a base measuring 2 x 2 m, and 1 m high. Assembled vertically or horizontally, this became the load-bearing structure for both the wallsandthe flat roof. On the roof Piano adopted a patented shed panel in reinforced polyester, opaque in the sections facing south and translucent in those facing north.
Finally, the Pavilion of Italian Industry at the 1970 Osaka Universal Expo. This was a light weight box in reinforced polyester on a square plan measuring 38 meters per side and 10 m high. The structure consisted of 17 steel pillars supporting a network of steel rods. The walls and roof of the pavilion were made of large prefabricated panels of reinforced polyester. In the central corrugation of each piece was embedded a plate connected to a joint with four pulleys that intercepted the network of ties. By tightening the threaded rod, the tension transferred the stress to the reinforced polyester element, so making it rigid.
Seeking a symbiosis with the landscape, by creating your own landscape; choosing to make a structure disappear or to assert it. Be it a contemporary ‘village’ – referencing the Melanesian huts of Nouméa – to house a new cultural centre between the ocean and the lagoon, or quite another type of village – a group of scientific establishments in San Francisco, tucked beneath a topographic green roof in one of the biggest urban parks in the world – the solution is bioclimatic, low-tech even in the case of the Antipodes.
These two very specific projects – one filtering the trade winds and relating structurally to the New Caledonia pines on one pacific coast, the other blending into a linear park while becoming a major new part of it on the other side of the ocean – each generate their own landscape using very different methods of construction.
Tjibaou Cultural Center Nouméa, New Caledonia 1991 – 1998
California Academy of Sciences San Francisco, California, USA 2000 – 2008
What style, what context should be applied when working on a site marked by the presence of an architectural masterpiece? The challenge is significant, be it in France or the United States: the undulating landscape of Ronchamp indelibly marked by Le Corbusier, or by Louis Kahn on the flats of Fort Worth, Texas.
In the face of these giants of architecture, there is precious little room for manoeuvre; anything that disturbs the icons of an era will not be easily forgiven. Here is the answer, set into the topography of the Haute-Saône, and neatly resolved in a friendly face-off in the Texan city. Whether it is building a monastery or extending a museum, the silent dimension becomes part of the conceptual debate. For the Poor Claires at Ronchamp, an architecture that ‘disappears’ creates the ideal conditions for contemplation; for the American museum, an architecture of serial repetition and logic serves to house their collections.
Kimbell Art Museum expansion Fort Worth, Texas, États-Unis 2006 – 2011
Ronchamp Gatehouse and Monastery Ronchamp, France 2006 – 2011
Insertion, integration, installation; a trilogy that summarize the challenge of ‘building a city into a city’. At the heart of a Haussmannian block in Paris, an organic piece of architecture emerges, the result of the synthesis of the confines of its surroundings. At the centre of an ancient fort in a regional French city, a military site has been converted for a university.
Enmeshed in the grids of Manhattan’s streets, in a neighbourhood transformed in part by the conversion of a raised railway line into a park, stands the new home of a prestigious cultural institution, one that is already endowed with a building by Marcel Breuer. All these are projects that regenerate the fabric of a city by entering into a dialogue with their 18th, 19th or 20th century contexts.
Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé Foundation Paris, France 2006 – 2014
The Whitney Museum of American Art New York, États-Unis 2007 – 2015
Citadel University Campus of Amiens Amiens, France 2010 – in progress
Scraping the sky, clinging to the ground: that, beyond the technical, is the challenge of high-rise architecture. Its place in the neighbourhood and the relationship with its surroundings are its social and environmental challenges. The subject of towers in European cities provokes debate, even anger, in some countries more than others. In London a point spears the sky, while in Paris, a series of high-rise plateaus take shape; mixed-use and linked to a railway station for the former, single-use and built on a great slab over a bundle of railway tracks for the latter.
In Southwark, opposite the City of London with its forest of towers, or in Batignolles at the heart of a new deliberately diverse Parisian neighbourhood, each tower is very specific, impossible to compare: the one following the concept of a vertical city with a ‘piazza in the sky’ by the Thames, the othera law courts mixing vertical and horizontal on the edge of Paris. On either side of the channel, both aresingular, solitary towers that invite you inside.
Paris Courthouse Paris, France 2010 – in progress
The Shard – London Bridge Tower London, United Kingdom 2000 – 2012
PIECES OF THE CITY
Stitching back together, or reoccupying – strategies aiming to re-establish links through the fabric of thecity that apply in Europe as well as in the United States. In Oslo a new urban block unites a museum with offices, extending the city with an architectural idea that has a lightness that appears to float. Reconnecting the city of Athens with the sea via a giant slope, a huge public park, beneath which are tucked two arts centres. In Trento, at the foot of the Alps, creating a section of city, an eco-neighbourhood, that incorporates a museum into an area of housing.
Developing a new campus for a great American university: a new site, a new concept that includes a slice of urbanism, opening the buildings up at ground floor level to New York’s Harlem neighbourhood. Four projects designed around the fundamental concept of public space.
Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art Oslo, Norway 2006 – 2012
Columbia University, New Campus New York, USA 2002 – in progress
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre Athens, Greece 2008 – in progress
Stone and earth, what could be more simple? A city gate linking the parliament and opera in Valletta, Malta, anda paediatric hospital in Entebbe, Uganda. The use of raw, ancestral materials for contemporary projects in Europe and Africa is another type of challenge. Opening a quarry to extract the same stone that was used by the Maltese knights to build their fortress-city is a way of renewing links with history and geology. Chosen for its structural potential, it was also used for its properties as a facing material.
Whereas RPBW had already worked with stone to build the arches of a basilica in Italy, working with rammed earth was a first for the practice. Choosing earth is part of a contextual approach: their first experience with the material took place on the banks of Lake Victoria, for a wonderful humanitarian project.
Valletta City Gate Valletta, Malta 2009 – 2014
Children’s Surgery Center Entebbe, Uganda 2013 – in progress