Renzo Piano

A celebrity architect without all the glitz.

For an architect with a fancy reputation to live up to, there aren’t many challenges tougher than getting a successful project off the ground in New York City. Of the last five winners of architecture’s prestigious Pritzker Prize—from Rem Koolhaas to Zaha Hadid—not one has completed a free-standing building in New York.

Italian architect Renzo Piano (click to expand)

Yet there’s one Pritzker winner, from 1998, who’s lately managed to collect a pile of big, promising New York commissions: Renzo Piano, who works out of offices near his hometown of Genoa and in Paris and leads a firm called Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Piano, who is 67, is now working on three projects in Manhattan for high-profile clients: a tower for the New York Times (in tandem with a bigger firm, Fox & Fowle) and extensions to the Morgan Library and the Whitney Museum. He’s also been hired by Columbia University to help plan a possible extension of the campus near 125th Street.

How has Piano landed so much work in New York? The same way he’s done it all over the world—with designs that are beautifully precise but never radical. Depending on your point of view, Piano is either the most corporate avant-garde architect in the world or the most avant-garde corporate one. Increasingly, his firm is the one museums and big companies call on when they want to bridge the gap between iconic, eye-catching architecture and a quieter, more pragmatic—and more affordable—approach.

The new basilica of San Giovanni Rotondo (click to expand)

Piano has a reputation for carrying himself with authority but without attitude—or an entourage. Here’s how one of his clients—Patrick Kociolek, the executive director of the California Academy of Sciences, which hired RPBW to design a new museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park—describes meeting him for the first time:

Most of the architects we interviewed arrived with minions and models and fully developed ideas of what they thought our building, and the Academy, should be. But one architect, Renzo Piano, stood out. Piano came by himself, with only a sketchpad and a green felt-tip pen. Instead of explaining his design for the new Academy, Piano simply asked what the Academy’s ethic was. … We immediately knew Piano was our architect.

The story is the tiniest bit hokey—enough to make you wonder if Piano’s famous charm isn’t also, at least in part, a marketing technique. But it suggests the degree to which Piano’s cool, urbane personality accounts for his popularity. Indeed, Piano landed three of his biggest American jobs—for the Whitney, the Times, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—only after those institutions came close to tying the knot with one of Piano’s brasher competitors.

In the case of the Whitney, in the late 1990s the museum’s trustees and its then-director, Maxwell Anderson, signed on to build a Koolhaas design that was aggressive even by the Dutch architect’s standards. It proposed adding a tall new wing that would not only loom over the existing 1966 museum, designed by Marcel Breuer, but threaten to swallow it whole. The addition also had a hefty price tag: $200 million.

The Nasher Sculpture Garden museum in Dallas (click to expand)

As the roaring ‘90s economy began to cool, so did the museum’s enthusiasm for the Koolhaas design. The natural choice from the bullpen was Piano—not just because he’d already completed several acclaimed museums, but also because he could be counted on to produce something both striking and feasible. He has proposed adding a boxy, nine-story tower covered in metal panels and connected to the Breuer building by glass walkways. The elegant scheme, which borders on the conservative without relying on ornament or nostalgia, is characteristic of Piano’s recent work.

A similar process unfolded in Los Angeles, where the L.A. County Museum of Art gave up on a $300 million plan by Koolhaas that would have knocked down much of the museum’s existing collection of buildings. They replaced it with a plan by Piano that will instead knit those structures together and add one new building. Not only will the plan likely cost less, but the museum can build it in phases, something they became convinced wasn’t possible with the Koolhaas design.

Piano’s firm’s work is distinguished by the details of the buildings it designs—and by the accumulation of these details, rather than dramatic forms (à la Frank Gehry), metaphorical conceits (à la Daniel Libeskind), or avant-garde gestures (à la Hadid). In New York, as elsewhere, ambitious pieces of architecture tend to have their wild edges sanded down as they move through boardrooms and planning departments. One of the hallmarks of Piano’s work is that by the time it leaves his office, it has already been polished to a smooth finish. Some critics have seen in this quality a lack of messy vitality or a risk-averse, overly accommodating style. It’s certainly true that Piano’s work does little to threaten the status quo, at least as developers and planning officials see it. But at their best, Piano’s designs are like persuasive essays that have gone through a dozen clarifying drafts.

The planned New York Times tower is a good example. If its final form matches the renderings we’ve seen so far, the building will be remarkably light and airy for a 52-story skyscraper. The design achieves that weightlessness by starting with a tall, thin glass box and then draping over it a vertical series of white ceramic rods, which also help shade the offices. Every single element that doesn’t promote a sense of lightness has been stripped away.

The Centre Pompidou in Paris (click to expand)

Piano’s current approach couldn’t be more different from his early designs. The building that made his reputation—the Centre Pompidou in Paris, a modern-art museum also known as Beaubourg—is daring, eccentric, and spilling over with energy. Piano designed the Pompidou with the British architect Richard Rogers when both were in their 30s; he’s described the building, which opened in 1978, as a “young man’s building” and an “act of loutish bravado.”

Trying to challenge every architectural orthodoxy they could think of, Piano and Rogers pulled out the building’s guts—steel frame, escalators, heating ducts, etc.—painted them bright shades of red, green, and blue, and hung them on the outside of the museum. And surprisingly, people fell in love with a design that went out of its way to be a provocation. Still, the design was somewhat out of character for Piano: As an early example of what became known as “high-tech” architecture, it evinced little of his place in a long line of craftsmen. (His grandfather, father, four uncles, and a brother were contractors.)

The Beyeler Foundation museum in Basel, Switzerland (click to expand)

After Piano began working without Rogers, his architecture began to move away from the spectacular and grew more refined. The buildings that Piano produced in the 1980s and ‘90s tended to fall into two categories: midsized cultural projects and huge corporate or public ones. The first group includes the Beyeler Foundation galleries in Basel; the Menil collection in Houston; and, with the landscape architect Peter Walker, the recently completed Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. In the second group are office towers lining Potsdamer Platz in Berlin; headquarters for several Italian corporations; and the gigantic Kansai Airport in Japan, which opened in 1994 on its very own island.

The Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center in New Caledonia (click to expand) 

While Piano has occasionally produced strikingly photogenic designs, like this cultural center in New Caledonia, he doesn’t have anything resembling a signature style. What unifies his projects, instead, is his interest in using computer design tools to bring the same rigor and aesthetic richness to contemporary architecture that used to be provided by master craftsmen in Italy and elsewhere. The firm’s best work somehow manages to be sleek and remarkably tactile at the same time.

All of which raises a question: If what Piano adds to his firm’s projects is not a touch of genius—the dramatic form scribbled on a cocktail napkin—but has more to do with sustained, experienced craftsmanship, how can he possibly have kept his work from slipping as he’s become so prolific? That effort can be tough even for firms a quarter of the size of Piano’s. But so far, Piano has managed—both by staying unusually engaged in the details of his firm’s work, according to the clients I’ve talked to, and also by hiring well—to strike his profession’s most impressive balance of quality and quantity. It remains to be seen, of course, whether he’ll wind up triumphing in Manhattan, which has so often dashed architects’ dreams. We’ll have to check back in six or seven years.