America Is Hard to See
If Renzo Piano seems to be putting up museums everywhere on our planet, the reasons for that success involve more than what emerges from his drawing board. He is, by all accounts, extremely pleasant company. And because he comes from a family of contractors, he has absorbed their discipline. He finishes on schedule. He finishes within budget. He draws from what has worked in earlier projects and discards what has not.
However remote these considerations may seem from skillful design, they are fundamental to the practice of architecture, an art form that often involves inordinately large amounts of other people’s enthusiasm, time, and money. If any one of these resources begins to run out, they all do; the creation of architecture is a balancing act that contends not only with physical forces like stress, resilience, and gravity, but also with psychic forces like confidence, inspiration, and, often enough, sheer persistence. Ultimately, in order to work at all, an architectural design must come to terms with the world around it, and the usual agent for this coming to terms is the contractor who carries out the real labor.
Thus an architect’s art is almost by definition an art of compromise, in which good-enough buildings may create a more effective balance among a riot of contending demands than flights of genius. Francesco Borromini, that indisputable genius of the seventeenth century, made his workmen redo the wrought-iron finial at the pinnacle of the church of Sant’Ivo eight times before they captured the complex curves he had in mind, but most of the people who sponsor construction projects lack that kind of patience, that kind of leisure, or that kind of funding.
Piano’s new home for the Whitney Museum of American Art is a colossal achievement many times the size of Sant’Ivo: four thousand tons of steel anchoring 28,000 tons of building, layered into eight floors of galleries and offices over a basement full of machines and crowned by an array of cooling towers. Bringing this Herculean project to completion on schedule and on budget required the collaboration, by his own admission, of a thousand people. The design’s guiding principle was flexibility, in two important senses: the galleries are configured to adapt to works of art that are executed, these days, in a slippery variety of mediums, and the building’s latticework of steel is meant to allow it to bend, rather than snap or crumble, should another hurricane ever bear down on the southern tip of Manhattan. (Sandy struck when construction had already begun, prompting a series of changes to the design of the building’s lower levels.)
Piano himself has repeatedly described the Whitney project as a ship. A native of Genoa, the hometown of Christopher…
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