15 June 2012

Renzo and His Piano

Razia and Renzo at RIBA
The evening at the RIBA began well last night as Angela Brady the President making a slip of the tongue and introducing him as “Renzo and his Piano”!  What followed was the first in a series of interviews conducted by Razia Iqbal to be broadcast on the BBC World Service under the title of Dream BuildersThe extended interview format was split into sections with questions from the audience after each section.  This led to a rather fragmented event lasting almost two hours, which never really got to the heart of what makes Renzo Piano tick.

The first section and recurrent theme of the evening was The Shard, with a short film exploring the building and interview with the buildings developer client Irvine Sellar. He told us that when first approached to design a tower, Piano was reticent about undertaking the commission as he thinks that they are usually “phallic and undemocratic”!

The interview that followed set the tone for the evening, with Razia asking a series of not too taxing questions and then allowing Renzo to provide long, poetic, but rather thin answers.  We learned that he thinks natural light is good, lightness a virtue, machines are sexy and transparency essential.  A lot was made of The Shard being a “vertical village” incorporating retail, office, restaurants, hotel and residential uses, along with a public viewing gallery and topped with London’s highest meditation space, which can also cater for up to forty well heeled private function guests.

Piano described the scheme with lyrical prose, as being highly democratic, making a significant contribution to the urban environment and how the words “civic” and “civilised” are virtually the same in Italian.  I am not sure how democratic luxury shops, restaurants and hotels really are, but swanky flats and offices definitely are not!  Sure, it is great to get elevated views over a city from a public viewing gallery, but this can often be experienced by the punter as a long, segregated queue in uninviting left over spaces that are kept out of sight of the beautiful people who the building is really designed for.

Typicl office plan with north point
Sustainability was briefly touched on, with the justification of the all glass façade being that it is triple glazed, with interstitial blinds that automatically close when the sun hits the various splinters that form the envelope.  Piano talked about lightness of the construction but this was really about the visual lightness of the façade than the actual weight and related embodied energy of the structure, made with an enormous amount of concrete.  He claimed that The Shard is the most sustainable tower in the world but did not back up this audacious claim with any evidence.  I was left with the impression that, as with so much in architecture at present, you must tick the sustainability box, but there is no need to let it interfere with how the building is designed.

Following on from The Shard the discussions became more philosophical, with Renzo talking about the size of his organisation and the way they approach their work.  Interestingly he does not see big as beautiful and has imposed a limit of one hundred people so that he can oversee, but not control the output of his office. 

Images of his breathtaking studio, situated on a cliff overlooking the sea outside Genoa appeared on the big screen, along with pictures showing the great man at the helm of his luxury yacht Kirribilli, creating a picture of someone with a very pleasant, if rather suburban lifestyle. 

Richard Rogers was in the audience and it occurred to me that in both his work and the way he organises his practice he is much more engaged with the urban realm.  Rogers work in cities has built upon the ideas behind The Pompidou Centre or as Piano and Rogers refer to it Beaubourg, while Piano’s later works are more aloof, read as objects rather than integrated pieces of the city. When asked if they were to collaborate on another project in the future, what they would like to do, Piano suggested a tower, which Rogers discounted, instead suggesting a Piazza.

After the event I was left thinking that The Shard was a bit of a missed opportunity.  In theory the mix of uses, the context of the site and its adjacency to a major transport hub and the size of the budget should have delivered something remarkable, but this opportunity is I believe frustrated by the tyranny of the image and iconography of the shard as an idea.

Menil Collection

I am left with many questions.  Why are all of the different uses treated with the same elevational response?  What richness would have been created if the programme had been made apparent on the exterior?  How could solar aspect and orientation have informed the design of each of the surfaces?  Is a narrow tapering form really the most appropriate shape to try to fit such a wide range of different user groups and activities within?

Jean Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre

I have always had a great respect for the work of The Renzo Piano Workshop and their approach, creating intelligent, beautifully crafted, simple elegant modern architecture.  Their Menil Collection and Jean Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre are highlights, shaped to respond to and manipulate the external environment to condition and regulate the interior, adopting bio-climatic design principles that directly govern the appearance of the completed buildings.  It would have been great if this approach had been taken in London, then we really would have had a relevant, provocative addition to our city.