Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Renzo Piano – Pritzker Laureate

Renzo Piano was born in Genoa, Italy, on 14th September 1937. The family had a construction business that included his father, grandfather and his uncles. Piano grew in a strong environment of construction. As a child he used to visit his father’s construction sites and like any other child he was fascinated to see the people at work creating stimulating structures.

Usually construction does not thrill adults so much, unless they are involved, but for the children it’s an adventure and a lot of fun. The same thing happened with Piano; he looked at the details and the execution due to an instinctive curiosity. He also wondered about the designers who designed those buildings.

As he grew, his curiosity about the designers amplified and decided to become an architect. He was seventeen when he approached his beloved father with the idea of going to an architecture school. "Why do you want to be just an architect? You can be a builder," was his father's response. “You can make things, why would you just design things?”

Committed towards architecture, Renzo Piano later made his father agree and joined the Polytechnic School of Architecture at Milan in 1959 at the age of 22. Joining architecture was a dream come true for him and most importantly, he knew what he had to learn. The Milan Architecture College is one of the pioneer institutions in Italy, and while studying there he started working with Ar. Franco Albini who also provided design guidance to Piano.

Born in 1905 Franco Albini did his architecture from the same school in 1929. He was one of the most influential designers of that time. Much of his furniture was designed to make use of the inexpensive raw materials of the area in the post-war years when other materials were scarce. His work, both in architecture and design, displays a commitment to a rigorous craftsmanship and elegance built on a minimalist aesthetic, unencumbered by extraneous ornamentation.

The pieces of furniture that became the icons of his career were produced primarily in the fifties. Albini’s most innovative product design was a radio made of glass that revealed the entire internal component. Working with Albini, Renzo got all these qualities embedded in his soul.

While still studying architecture in Milan, he married a girl he had known from his school days in Genoa, Magda Arduino. In 1964 Renzo Piano graduated from the architecture school and came back to his hometown Genoa to work with his father.

This time he was not just a viewer but a participant in the construction activities. After doing architecture, his understanding was totally transformed and he starting respecting construction on site as well. Within a year he understood the astounding results of the meticulous detailing in architecture. Also it was on building sites that the young architect acquired the rudiments of his experimental and craftsman like philosophy, which he learned from Albini.

From 1965 to 1970 he also worked with the legendary architect Louis Kahn in Philadelphia, the architect who had designed IIM, Ahmedabad. While Piano’s experiment with architecture was still continuing he desperately required a break, which eventually came in 1969. Japan was to organize a World Expo at Osaka in 1970 with “Progress and Harmony for Mankind” as the theme. Invitations were sent to all the nations to participate with designs that would suit the theme.

The Osaka Expo 70 emphasized greatly on this theme and in its invite it was mentioned that the designs should produce the best possible architectural statement expressing strong spirit. For this reason most of the countries organized national competitions to get innovative designs. In India, 58 entries were received and the winner was Ar. Jasbir Sachdev, while in Italy the competition was won by Renzo Piano.

The construction of the Italian Pavilion was done by Piano’s brother Ermanno. It was a major turn in Piano’s professional life; the Expo project attracted a lot of favorable attention. When he visited the exhibition Piano met Ar. Richard Rogers who had designed the pavilion for England. The two architects found that they had a great deal in common and when an engineering firm suggested they work together and enter another ongoing international competition for the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris.

President Pompidou of France in 1969 conceived the idea for an art centre that would bring art and culture to the "man on the street". Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers participated and won the competition along with the legendary structural consultant ‘Ove Arup and Partners’ of England. The construction started in 1972 and was opened to the public on 2nd February 1978.

The design of this art centre was highly modern but soon fell into a furious controversy that arose over the assertive industrial style of this building. Its bold "exo-skeletal" architecture contrasts violently with the surrounding houses in the heart of an old section of Paris.

But the architecture of this building was also greatly admired internationally for its radical design. The Georges Pompidou Centre has been immensely successful, and has been a venue for many art exhibitions, attracting more than 160 million people since its inauguration—five times more than anticipated.

With 30,000 visitors each day, the building services were severely affected due to heavy wear and tear and were renovated 20 years later in 1999. Certainly the building has been very successful in what it was intended for. It is still admired and is one of the legendary buildings of the 20th century.

After Georges Pompidou Centre, in 1977 Piano founded Atelier Piano & Rice along with the engineer Peter Rice, a professional who would work with him on many projects.

Ten years after the completion of Georges Pompidou Centre, in 1987 another remarkable project came to him – the Kansai Air Port at Osaka Bay. A building spread across a little less than 1.5 kilometres. It was to be constructed on a man-made island and because this artificial island was continously sinking the structure had to be flexible enough to sustain irregular settlements. This project required a great deal of technical expertise without compromising on the aesthetics and both were perfectly achieved by Piano’s committed team.

Due to the spectacular architecture and engineering of this world-renowned terminal, Kansai International Airport is now considered to be one of the most brilliantly designed terminals ever erected. It was completed in 1994 and was inaugurated by the Prince of Japan.

Just before the completion of Kansai Airport, in 1993, Peter Rice died. It was a great setback for Piano as he and Peter had designed many beautiful structures together for sixteen years. However Piano then founded the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, with offices in Paris and Genoa. Today, some 100 people work with him in close collaboration with some associated architects, linked to him by years of experience.

His father's romance for construction and his childhood memories at the construction sites have never been forgotten. Perhaps that is the reason for the name Renzo Piano Building Workshop, rather than Piano Architects & Associates. Piano not only designs but makes things and tests them.

By 1990, Renzo Piano had already become an international architect. Recognizing his contributions, in 1998 the eminent jury of the Pritzker Foundation, which also included Indian representation by Ar. Charles Correa, Renzo Piano was chosen for the 21st Pritzker Award. It was the 20th anniversary of the Pritzker Award Foundation and the venue for the award ceremony was the White House. The most powerful building on earth, whose architect James Hoban is virtually unknown.

Apart from the wonderful citation, distinguished people and architects provided their views about Piano’s designs. "He brings to each project a great seriousness of purpose, combined with a lyrical understanding of materials - so that what emerges is an architecture of extraordinary clarity and finesse."
- Ar. Charles Correa, Pritzker Juror

Today Piano is a celebrity, a man whose work is reinventing architecture in projects scattered around the world - from a mixed use tower in Sydney to the mile-long Kansai Air Terminal on a man-made island in Japan, to the master plan for the reconstruction of Potsdamer Platz in Berlin or the Beyeler Foundation Museum in Basel, Switzerland.

Even this spread over the globe does not indicate the full range or the enormous output of this prodigious architect. Renzo Piano's projects include not only buildings that range from homes to apartments, offices to shopping centers, museums, factories, workshops and studios, airline and railway terminals, expositions, theaters and churches; but also bridges, ships, boats, and cars, as well as city planning projects, major renovations and reconstructions. He is even a television star of a program on architecture.

“When style is forced to become a trademark, a signature, a personal characteristic, then it also becomes a cage. The effort to be recognizable at any cost, to put your hallmark on things, kills the architect and his or her freedom to develop. The mark of recognition lies in the acceptance of the challenge. And then, yes, it does become identifiable: but by a method, not by a trademark.” - Ar. Renzo Piano
Credit: CBS forum


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