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High Wire Acts


by Renzo Piano
Monacelli, 288 pp., $29.95 (paper)


Since its inception two decades ago, the Pritzker Architecture Prize has been promoted by its donors, owners of the Hyatt hotel chain, as the Nobel Prize of the building art. The roster of Pritzker “laureates,” as the Hyatt Foundation calls the winners of its annual $100,000 award, has indeed come to resemble that of the Nobel Prize in literature, if only in its sometimes odd choices, inexplicable omissions, ideological biases, and geopolitical motives. But the quality of an award’s recipients can sometimes do more honor to the prize than vice versa, and that was the case when the Italian architect Renzo Piano was named as the 1998 winner of the Pritzker.

Born in Genoa in 1937, Piano (who now maintains offices in his hometown as well as in Paris and Berlin, where he has large works-in-progress) is widely accepted as the most convincing current exponent of high-tech modernism, the branch of architectural design that derives from the machine aesthetic of the International Style. An enthusiast, early in his career, of bravura industrial effects such as those of the Pompidou Center in Paris, which resembles a towering oil refinery, Piano now tempers his much diminished use of such mechanistic elements with a strong undercurrent of minimalism. This gives his architecture a sense of repose not often found in the work of such like-minded contemporaries as his former partner Richard Rogers, or the New York- based Argentinian architect Rafael Viñoly. Piano’s light touch makes him more akin to Norman Foster, whose similar quest for structural weightless-ness and luminosity of enclosed spaces comes closest to the Italian’s mature approach.

Piano studied at the Milan Polytechnic School of Architecture, and after receiving his degree there in 1964 he went to work for his father, a second-generation Genoese building contractor. The elder Piano warned his son against entering a profession that in Italy leads only infrequently to new construction. “Why do you want to be just an architect?” he asked. “You can be a builder.”

That Renzo Piano was able to follow both his father’s pragmatic advice as well as his own artistic ambitions is amply evident in Logbook, the architect’s well-illustrated and unusually readable compendium of his three-decade career. (The book is an abbreviated, autobiographical version of the three-volume Complete Works by Peter Buchanan.) In it Piano gives credit to a number of mentors, especially the mid-century French architect and furniture designer Jean Prouvé, who as head of the jury for the Pompidou Center competition first brought the young Italian international recognition. Prouvé’s balance between modern technical expertise and the use of natural materials (especially wood) and vernacular traditions from Provence and other regions of France set him apart from many of his innovation-obsessed contemporaries. In passing, Piano also cites the greatest architect of the postwar period, Louis I. Kahn, in whose Philadelphia studio the young Italian served a brief stint in the mid-1960s, while Kahn was working on his masterpiece, the Kimbell Art Museum of 1966-1972 in Fort Worth.

Though Piano does not mention the Kimbell in his account of his own Houston gallery of 1982-1986 for the Menil Collection—the two buildings are now considered by many to be the finest American museums of recent decades—his omission seems all the more conspicuous because of the obvious debt the Houston museum owes to its more celebrated predecessor in Fort Worth. From Kahn’s late work Piano learned much about the importance of natural light in architectural interiors, a quality little valued during the final, corporate phase of the International Style, which placed much more emphasis on the development of external form than internal volume and showed little interest in natural illumination. Piano’s high-tech aesthetic is markedly different from Kahn’s self-conscious primitivism and increasing recourse to classical and medieval sources as his career progressed; but it is still possible to discern Kahn’s underlying influence in several of Piano’s schemes.

In 1971, at the age of thirty-four and with only a handful of completed projects to his credit, Piano suddenly catapulted into the international spotlight when he and the British architect Richard Rogers won the coveted commission to design a huge new cultural center on the Plateau Beaubourg in Paris, subsequently named the Centre Georges Pompidou and more familiarly known as the Beaubourg. Completed in 1977, the Pompidou Center had fallen into such a dilapidated state by 1995 that Piano was called back to undertake an extensive restoration program, scheduled for completion on December 31, 1999. It was the building’s second renovation in a decade. In 1985, the Italian architect Gae Aulenti undertook the reconfiguration of the museum’s undifferentiated, loftlike galleries—ill suited for showing paintings—into a series of smaller-scaled rooms.

The rapid decline of the Pompidou Center’s physical fabric, already evident within a few years of its opening, is now officially blamed on the severe toll that the building’s extraordinarily heavy traffic has taken on the structure, which for some time was France’s number-one tourist attraction. As admirable as many of that museum’s exhibitions have been over the years, a significant number of visitors never enter the building at all, but merely take the tubular plexiglass escalator to the top and enjoy the panoramic views of the city from the observation deck. Twenty-two years after it opened, the Pompidou Center seems less an architectural landmark—its preposterous imagery of an oil refinery in the heart of the otherwise gracefully preserved Marais quarter remains as offensive as ever—than it does a milestone in the devolution of the art museum into populist fun fair.

Richard Meier’s Getty Center of 1984-1997 in Los Angeles is replete with such similarly entertaining amenities as a mechanized people-mover, spectacular scenic lookouts, and multiple dining facilities. It is clearly derivative of the Pompidou Center in its excessive emphasis on crowd-pleasing diversions that have nothing to do with art. All that is missing at the Getty are the fire-eaters that have long been a popular fixture on the Plateau Beaubourg but would be inadvisable in the disaster-prone ecology of the Brentwood site.

When the Beaubourg was conceived, at the beginning of the seventies,” Piano writes in his Logbook, “no one went to museums. They were dreary, dusty, and esoteric institutions, and were perceived as politically incorrect, or rather as something for the elite.” This will come as news to the millions who thronged museums during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the culture boom was already in full swing not only in the United States (where the publicity-conscious promotions of Thomas P.F. Hoving, the P.T. Barnum of the blockbuster exhibition, were shaking up New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art) but also in such European cities as art-rich as Amsterdam, its superb, heavily attended museums buoyed by generous government subsidies.

A more accurate account of the Pompidou Center’s conception would have to acknowledge that by 1971, the French had at long last realized that Paris was no longer the center of the international art world and that radical measures would have to be taken to try to recapture the city’s former glory as center of the avant-garde. France’s National Museum of Modern Art, then housed in the Palais de Tokyo (an old pavilion left over from the 1937 World’s Fair), was an embarrassing reminder that Paris lagged well behind New York, whose Museum of Modern Art possessed more of the great treasures of twentieth-century art (especially works by French artists) than any other institution.

The apparent audaciousness of the Piano and Rogers competition entry intrigued the jurors, who finally chose it from among the 681 proposals submitted. In truth, the winning architects’ design was already somewhat dated, a late example of the vast multifunctional high-tech structures that had been designed by several experimental firms in London (especially Archigram), Florence, Vienna, New York, and Tokyo for the better part of a decade, though very few of those visionary schemes were ever executed. But the French have long had a weakness for the most superficial manifestations of modernism, and for high-tech exhibitionism above all. Thus the jury finally selected the pseudo-progressive Piano and Rogers proposal, which is essentially a gigantic shoebox enmeshed in miles of mostly useless painted metal ducts, pipework, and scaffolding. That choice only confirmed how out of touch with the avant-garde Paris had become.

Now Piano informs us that he and his British partner (whose association did not continue beyond this, their most celebrated project) intended from the beginning that the Pompidou Center would be a send-up of Modernism:

Beaubourg is a double provocation: a challenge to academicism, but also a parody of the technological imagery of our time. To see it as high-tech is a misunderstanding. The Centre Pompidou is a “celibate machine,” in which the flaunting of brightly colored metal and transparent tubing serves an urban, symbolic, and expressive function, not a technical one.

It is true that the frequent discrepancy between the outward appearance and the internal function of a building has been one of the paradoxes of Modernism, especially in structures with a pronounced machine aesthetic. This may have been understandable in the 1920s, for example, when Le Corbusier’s desire to give his designs as futuristic an aspect as possible could be fulfilled only by his using costly hand finishes and custom detailing to mimic industrial components and to display the possibilities of building techniques that in any event were not yet available. What did it matter if manually applied stucco masqueraded as poured-in-place concrete, or a nautical-style pipe railing was as carefully crafted as a Louis XV balustrade? But what excuse could there be, fifty years after that, to continue the charade? Despite Piano’s current rationale for his and Rogers’s reputation-making building as ironic and Pop—an idea not expressed when the building was launched—it must have occurred to the Italian architect that there was something meretricious about Beaubourg. His later work displays less and less dependence on such hollow effects.

The same cannot be said of the subsequent direction Richard Rogers’s work took. He continues in much the same vein of technological exhibitionism as that of the Pompidou Center. His best-known post-Piano building, the Lloyds headquarters of 1978-1986 in London, is reminiscent of the Paris museum in its pointless array of high-tech parts—such as its segmented metal coils, resembling a centipede, running down the front of the building—that are as eye-catching as they are difficult to maintain. Both structures are invariably filthy. Robert Venturi has aptly characterized this Neo-Modernist vogue for decorative imagery as “industrial rocaille” and

hyped and askew versions of architectural sculpture, paradoxically garbed in decoration representing heroic-functionalist exposed-frame construction symbolizing nineteenth-century engineering—while everybody knows the Industrial Revolution is dead.


When the Pompidou Center opened in 1977, its reception was magnified by the fact that few other important cultural buildings had been erected during the years of international recession that followed the Arab oil embargo of 1973. Understandably, the enormous publicity that accompanied the museum’s completion quickly led to other commissions, including Piano’s 1981-1984 expansion of the Schlumberger Company’s offices in the Paris faubourg of Montrouge. That intelligently conceived and cleanly executed commercial scheme brought the now solo practitioner more closely to the attention of the French-born Texas art patron Dominique de Menil, the daughter of a founder of the Schlumberger oil drilling equipment company. Furthermore, Piano’s imaginative 1982 installation of an Alexander Calder retrospective in Turin gave welcome evidence of his gift for the sympathetic display of modern art, a talent not apparent at the Pompidou Center.

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