Renzo Piano Building Workshop retrospective to open at London’s Royal Academy of Arts

Renzo Piano Building Workshop retrospective to open at London’s Royal Academy of Arts

Conventional office work doesn’t traditionally involve climbing on a funicular to reach your desk, having a beach at your feet to swap post-work drinks with a dip, open-plan spaces framing picture perfect sea views, or lush green gardens to practice yoga during lunchtime; yet this is daily life at the Renzo Piano Building Workshop’s Genoa office, a short drive from the historical Italian city’s heart.

The workshop – built on a lot that belonged to the Piano family for decades, and as the architect himself says modestly, ‘is just a roof’ – can feel rather isolated during the winter, some of the employees might point out, but still, they wouldn’t change a thing. It’s where the magic happens and if ever there was a parallel between inspirational environments and creative output, the perfect embodiment is here. ‘I wanted to make a greenhouse for architects’, says Piano, only half-joking about his Italian headquarters, which also encompasses his foundation which holds the practice’s vast archive.

Here, as well as in the hugely successful international firm’s other offices in Paris and New York, a team of architects, assistants, technicians and other architecture specialists produce a series of extraordinary works, one after the other – from the sweeping curves of the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Nouméa (one of the fairly early works of 1998), to most recent offerings such as the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (2015), or the Centro Botin in Spain (2017). 

The practice’s portfolio is well known and peppered with architectural icons. For anyone starting off in the architecture profession in the 1990s, some names will always remain near-mythical in their level of achievement in the field – Richard Rogers, Normal Foster, and of course, Renzo Piano, whose works made a distinct mark in the world of building design during the last decades of the 20th century, changing the course of architecture with completions right through to the 21st-century today.

It is this architectural reverence but also the practice’s deep sense of humanity that the Royal Academy’s Kate Goodwin, head of architecture and Drue Heinz curator, aims to highlight with her major retrospective ’Renzo Piano: The Art Of Making Buildings’ – the first one of its size and depth in London in 30 years. 

‘There a dignity in how he conducts himself and in his approach to architecture. He takes the social and technical responsibilities of the profession very seriously and understands that what he creates will have a lasting impact on a place’, says Goodwin. ‘He brings together the functionality of architecture, the mechanics, with the poetic. He takes a building from being functional and practical and elevates it offer something more for the human spirit – he adds beauty and delight. He puts a human face to it. I am hoping to bring that out in the show.’

Piano has offices in Genoa, Paris and New York. Pictured here, in the Paris workshop. Photography: Francois Mori/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Piano’s office in Genoa is a case in point, reflecting perfectly, the architect’s attitude. ‘It is not just an office’, says Goodwin. ‘There’s a human sensibility to how it feels to be in, there’s a connection to nature and it is quite aspirational with a hint of romance as you rise in the funicular to look out over the Mediterranean Sea. He shies away from stating these ideas but it is there in the building. His architecture is very human in that sense, but at the same time it is not dreamy or overtly romantic because it’s rooted in practicality and building. When meeting Renzo you find he is open and puts people at ease and it is a value that comes across in the architecture.’ 

The architect, who splits his time between Genoa, Paris and New York even as he enters his ninth decade in life is still as active as ever. The exhibition at the Royal Academy was agreed on the year he celebrated his 80th birthday, as with Richard Rogers’ retrospective at the same venue in 2013. ‘I am surprised I am 80’, Piano laughs. ‘I still don’t believe it!’ He follows closely commission after commission, also pursuing his private passion for sailing whenever he can. ‘Sailing is not about touching down, it’s about suspension and silence’, he says, continuing to explain that his architecture may have been, subconsiously, informed by this passion. ‘Like the Whitney’, he adds. ‘It’s like a flying vessel. But you don’t sit and think, I am going to make a building like a flying vessel. It just happens’. 

Yet his global, nomadic spirit doesn’t mean his designs feel detached or foreign. ‘His buildings are always contextual. For example the Whitney, even though it seems foreign in its form, it’s contextual. It picks up a language of an industrial past, it has a form that is quite abstract and a volume that was created in response to the surrounding context of the Highline on one side and the Hudson River on the other’, explains Goodwin. ‘His architecture activates a place. A lot of his buildings take a little while to bed in as they are about activating something new, like the Pompidou Centre back in the 1970s to the Shard here in London. Now, around London Bridge, it all makes sense and in this way, architecture is a long game.’

‘As an architect, you feel at home everywhere you have a building’, says Piano. When asked about his own identity, he continues. ’I feel Italian, French, European, but perhaps mostly Mediterranean. This is not water’, he adds, pointing to the sea beyond the studio. ‘It’s a consommé of cultures’. 

The show will take the visitor through 16 different projects, from early works in light architecture, to the Pompidou, recent completions such as the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre in Athens, as well as two schemes still in construction, delving into different aspects of the architect’s work. Rarely seen drawings, archive architectural models and a specially commissioned film by Thomas Riedelsheimer will help tell the story, which will culminate in a centrally placed ‘imagined Island’, a bespoke sculptural installation depicting nearly 100 of Piano’s projects within a single piece: the world of Renzo Piano. §

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