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Renzo Piano - Architect

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We build with love.
- Renzo Piano

If built, the London Bridge Tower - a 1016 foot (310m) 'shard of glass'1 designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano2 and rising directly above London Bridge station - would be by far the tallest, and perhaps the most immediately identifiable building in Europe. Many cities would jump at the chance, but this is London. Protected views and the 'heritage' lobby are given at least as much credence as civic regeneration and economic development. As a result, such a proposal is guaranteed to generate controversy. Londoners would be justified in asking therefore, just who is this man who would build Europe's tallest skyscraper in our city?

A Life in Architecture

Born in Genoa, Italy in September 1937, the young Renzo practically grew up on construction sites. The son of a successful builder, Piano studied architecture at the University of Florence and at Milan Polytechnic, while simultaneously working in the family business.

He graduated in 1964 and founded Studio Piano the following year with the support of his father. Between 1971 and 1978 he worked in partnership with Richard Rogers and it was during this period that both Piano and Rogers were catapulted into the international spotlight, as co-architects of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. At once shocking, controversial and yet genuinely elegant, Pompidou was a moment of enlightenment, quite literally redefining many people's concept of architecture overnight.

A lengthy and illustrious partnership with the engineer Peter Rice followed, initially as Piano & Rice Associates, and later through Piano's own practice, the Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Today, the Building Workshop boasts an exemplary portfolio of projects completed over more than 20 years and employs around 100 staff, with offices in Genoa, Paris and Berlin.

An Exemplary Portfolio

Pompidou was revolutionary in that all services - pipes, elevators, ventilation ducts - are banished to the exterior, leaving the internal spaces as free and as flexible as possible. The result is an unorthodox and uncompromising exterior aesthetic which, perhaps not surprisingly, created a flurry of controversy. While Rogers took this idea to its literal extremes with his famous Lloyd's Building (City of London, 1986), for Renzo Piano it became merely one aspect of the architectural language he was to employ over the coming years.

The Building Workshop's Menil Collection (Houston, 1986) is an elegant counterpoint to the high-tech of Pompidou. It is a gallery and study centre, clad in clapboard and utilising a roof of ferro-concrete 'leaves' which allow the maximum of natural light to enter while fending off the direct rays of the merciless Texas sun. The Menil Collection provided a contemplative environment for the study of artworks, and demonstrated the extent to which Piano's style had matured in the decade since the completion of the Centre Pompidou.

A great many high-profile and diverse commissions followed including the 41-storey Aurora Place in Sydney, a wind tunnel for Ferrari and AS Bari's San Nicola Stadium. Arguably the Building Workshop's most ambitious project to date is the Kansai International Airport terminal, built on an artificial island in Osaka Bay, Japan. Stretching 1.7 kilometres - quite probably the longest building ever constructed - and with a vast, sweeping roof clad in stainless steel panelling, this is a truly beautiful structure and a remarkable feat of engineering. Peter Rice did not live to see the project completed, but Kansai serves as a wonderful climax to, and a fitting legacy of, this period of collaboration.

Renzo Piano's creativity continued to reach new heights with the Tjibaou Cultural Centre on the small South Pacific island of New Caledonia. The last of Fran├žois Mitterand's grands projets (and therefore the product of a colonial government) this was a sensitive commission. Piano responded in style, basing his structure around lofty, soaring, wooden shells which evoke native building traditions and integrate almost organically with the landscape. Rarely, if ever, is architecture so romantic and yet so subtle.

From Pompidou to New Caledonia

From Pompidou to New Caledonia, Piano's style is remarkable for its broad heterogeneity. There are common factors, such as extensive use of natural lighting, frequently exposed structural components, and a determination to combine cutting-edge technology with local traditions and materials. Yet the fact remains that no two of his buildings look the same. This is because each single project is approached as exactly that: a unique challenge. For Piano, creating a building which is right for its users, for its location and for the local community is just as important as placating his fee-paying clients.

This is entirely consistent with the man's natural humility and humanity: there is a warmth which shows through in his buildings. His ability to create built environments of vast scale and which cope with enormous numbers of people - stadia, basilicas, airport terminals - and yet which empower rather than marginalize the individual is a strength all too rarely found among his peers.

Piano is characteristically understanding about Londoners' scepticism surrounding the London Bridge Tower. After all, our existing tall buildings are closed, hostile and usually very ugly office towers, machines for making money out of us and keeping us at arm's length. Renzo Piano, however, is no ordinary architect, and the London Bridge Tower would be no ordinary office block. In fact less than half of the floors will be given over to office space. The architect talks of public accessibility, sky gardens, and a peace chapel 260 metres up in the sky, not to mention a cornerstone of the ongoing economic and urban regeneration of Southwark, widely considered to be one of central London's shabbiest neighbourhoods until very recently. In describing his plans, Piano's vocabulary speaks volumes: words such as 'democratic', 'dreams' and 'love' abound.

Conclusions

Now well into his late sixties, Renzo Piano is as busy as ever, and the talents of the Building Workshop are in constant demand, with Piano finding it necessary to turn down 'more or less a job a day'3. The decades of outstanding work have been honoured around the world, with Piano having been awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects' Royal Gold Medal, the American Pritzker Prize and the Cavalieri di Gran Croce in his native Italy, among numerous other prestigious awards.

Renzo Piano is unquestionably regarded as one of the very finest architects in the world and one of few living architects who could be described as a 'Master' without fear of promptly being taken to task. Long may he continue.

1Renzo Piano's own words.2Pronounced 'Rent-zo Pee-ar-no'.3The Guardian, Friday 29 March, 2002

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