50 years on: case studies of Renzo Piano’s masterpieces on show in Paris
Enter into the gallery space dedicated to Renzo Piano Building Workshop; ’La Méthode Piano’ at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris, and you will be confronted with an impressive model of the Centre Pompidou—made from Lego bricks. Built around the same time as its full-size counterpart, it offers a playful introduction to a richly detailed show, while also representing RPBW’s raison d’être: the art of construction, piece by piece.
Timed to the architect’s 50 years in practice, and adapted from an exhibition conceived by the Renzo Piano Foundation, ’La Méthode Piano’ plays out not as a retrospective, but rather a survey of 15 major projects, including the Kimbell Art Museum expansion, the Tijbaou Cultural Center in New Caledonia, the new Whitney Museum of American Art, and yes, The Shard. Consistent with the “workshop” framework, each is laid out as a case study of photos, renderings, models, catalogues and text within identical white tables surrounded by folding chairs. As you linger at each station pouring over the materials, certain insights and themes start to emerge between such vastly different projects, cumulatively achieved over several decades.
To wit: Piano’s loyalty to a humble green felt-tip pen. If this isn’t obvious enough from all his personal sketches, one of many videos catches the side of his hand covered in green smudges. More substantially, visitors will come away from the show understanding his commitment to environmentally conscious, sustainable construction—from the sample of shredded denim used as an insulation alternative at the California Academy of Sciences, to the frequent use of photovoltaic cells, ventilating facades, light sensitive glass roofs and fully integrated green spaces. With at least six of the featured works still in process—from the Children’s Surgery Centre made from compacted earth in Entebbe Uganda to the sprawling Columbia University Campus—they reveal how RPBW’s team of 150 people is constantly rising to any number of enormous challenges, and how every solution must endure for the long term.
A few days before the exhibition opened, the Genoa-born architect addressed this subject in front of a small audience consisting of students and a contemporary or two (i.e. Jean Nouvel). He explained how his family’s construction business exposed him early on to the idea of building things as a collective, and how Genoa’s seaport allowed him to appreciate that such massive vessels possessed the lightness to float on water. Sounding more like a humanist than someone who recently completed a 72-storey gleaming glass tower, he also emphasised the importance of modesty as an essential, levelling characteristic of any good architect. His takeaway message—and one that resonates throughout the show – ’We don’t change the world, but we confirm change.’