Time and Place, Technology and Nature in the Work of The Renzo Piano Building Workshop
by Peter Buchanan
1992 was a momentous year for the Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Its usual triumphs continued abroad. The vast terminal of the Kansai International Airport, on an artificial island offshore of Osaka, Japan, commenced on site and is now well underway. And a competition and then commission were won to develop an immense site between the Potsdamer Platz in what had been East Berlin and the National Library in what had been West Berlin. But what was most unusual was that at last the Building Workshop has contributed major public works to Genoa, its main base and Piano’s home city. These works are both conspicuous and will have long-term repercussions in reconnecting the physical fabric and improving the life of Genoa.
The Columbus International Exposition that celebrated the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America by Genoa’s most famous son was set in the very heart of the city, in the oldest part of its port. Conceived as much more than a short-term event, it has contributed much needed new leisure and trade facilities and reconnected the historic core to its raison d’etre, the port. It also, as intended, sparked a very long overdue regeneration of Genoa. Parts of the city have been spruced up, and monuments such as the Palazzo Ducale restored. And new infrastructure has been constructed, such as the new subway system for which the Building Workshop built two stations.
But quite apart from these triumphs and the completion of these long overdue commissions in Genoa, the Building Workshop entered a new phase, in part reluctantly and with heavy heart, and in part of its own volition. Peter Rice, one time partner of Piano and the engineer, with Ove Arup & Partners, for the Pompidou Center and most projects since, died as this exhibition was being prepared. His skills were so great and various, his contribution to these projects so immense and wide ranging, and his personal working relationship with Piano so close, that he can never be replaced. Though the stone arches of the Padre Pio pilgrimage church were proposed by him, the last design he oversaw entirely is that of the Kansai International Airport.
But even without Peter Rice, the Building Workshop will always break new ground, technically as well as in other ways. Particularly significant is its latest commission, a competition winning scheme for a large area near Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz. This is much the most developed urban design to date by the Building Workshop. It is the first one in which the spaces between the buildings play a proper role in “structuring” the area and in which they will be as developed as the buildings that frame them. Though it has yet to become innovative at any technical level, as inevitably it will become, this scheme heralds a whole new dimension to the output of the Building Workshop.
The other major change is that the Building Workshop has recently completed a laboratory-workshop that serves as a research base for itself and UNESCO at Vesima on the coast west of Genoa. Most staff remain in the several rooms of the Gothic palazzo prominent on the little Piazza San Matteo in the introverted historic center. But others now work in an utterly different setting. Inconspicuously perched on a steep and verdant hillside above the sea, and reached only by a funicular from the coast road, they share a single space. Here are conducted various investigatory and innovatory activities of the Building Workshop, and UNESCO’s research into the constructional potential of natural materials, particularly plant fibers. These take place on a series of stepped levels all open to each other below the embrace of a sloping louver-shaded roof that like the walls is entirely glazed. Surrounded by plants that are visible through the glass and extend into the building, everybody basks in the everchanging light and enjoys the panoramic view over the Gulf of Genoa.
Though new, the building is rooted in its place. Snugly enveloped in and invaded by vegetation, it resembles the agricultural greenhouses on nearby slopes. Indeed it is only because of this resemblance, and the partially horticultural use of sheltering plants for research, that the building was possible here where new construction is constrained. And though isolated, the laboratory-workshop is in constant contact with the larger world. Clients and consultants come almost daily from around the globe to participate and monitor progress. Electronics too keep those working here in immediate contact with these collaborators, as well as with other branches of the Building Workshop in Paris and Osaka and its far-flung construction sites in Italy, France, Germany, USA, Japan and even New Caledonia.
Laboratory-workshop as archetype
For many, the Vesima laboratory-workshop is not what they expect of a Building Workshop design. There are no conspicuous high-technology elements — unless the automatically operated louvers and blinds that shade glass roof and walls are considered as such. Even the characteristic “piece,” the component that is always so important in generating a Building Workshop design and shaping its individual identity, is difficult to detect. And these butt-jointed wood-framed glass roof panels are, as technology, more optimistic than advanced.
Despite all this, and as is to be expected of its research base, the laboratory-workshop could also be considered an archetypal product of the Building Workshop, not least in being unlike anything else it has produced. In part the remarkable heterogeneity that is such a striking feature of the Building Workshop’s output is because each design is so responsive, not just to program, but also to both the specifics and traditions of the place and to the potentials of the latest technology. Such responsiveness to place and tradition, and the readiness to use any sort of material, distinguishes Piano from the more doctrinaire High-Tech that he is often mistakenly associated with. Certainly the Building Workshop experiments with and exploits leading-edge technology, so that many of its buildings could not have been conceived of, let alone realized, only a short time before. But Piano seeks to combine, in the most uncontrived manner, roots in tradition with the realization of present possibilities — just as a violinist would insist on using both his ancient Stradivarius and the latest digital recording technology.
“To participate today it is not essential to be in a congested center. With electronics the center is now everywhere.
Even if the Building Workshop is not High-Tech, there are colleagues and critics, particularly Italian, who consider its works not to be architecture at all. For a start, some reject Piano as a mere component designer, more interested in the “piece” than the whole. But though the “piece” at Vesima is low key in presence and not a refined piece of technology, the building is a good example of other reasons his work is dismissed. Not only is it non-urban and insubstantial in exterior presence, it has none of the conventional (and for these critics culturally and psychologically crucial) elements of architecture. It has no rooms or spatial sequences nor walls, windows or framed entrances.
Actually, as in other Piano buildings, the entrance is given experiential emphasis by it being prolonged and flanked by planting. This may find extreme manifestation with the funicular here and with the garden approach to the Schlumberger facilities in Paris. But some equivalent is found at the Menil Collection in Houston where the entrance is folded into the building between shrubs, and at the rue de Meaux housing in Paris, where all entrances are off the central garden. The Building Workshop’s architecture lacks nothing in the way of psychological and cultural resonances, but rather pursues different ones through different means than do buildings by other architects. Vesima may lack windows, but the sense of being open to and at one with the ever-changing cycles and moods of nature is surely as resonant as any framed view.
What most essentially makes the laboratory-workshop an archetypal product of the Building Workshop is its quest to create a sense of participation in the goings-on of the world. To participate with the world, the Building Workshop’s architecture does not assert itself upon a place, but rather, responds to and gently settles into it, adopting some local features and intensifying others. To participate in history means not only responding to the past and carrying forward some of its traditions, but also to live in the present by helping the future to be born. Hence the Building Workshop does not just use the latest technology available, but also researches and pushes forward the leading edge of that technology. And to participate in nature means not only to welcome and enjoy its presence, but to emulate it in one’s own creations. So if some works, like Vesima, are un-urban it is perhaps because they are post-urban. To participate today it is not essential to be in a congested center. With electronics the center is now everywhere.
A natural architecture
For architecture or technology to emulate nature neither necessitates nor excludes using natural materials and biomorphic forms. But as science unravels nature’s secret, it is the leading edge of technology, that some may mistake for its most unnatural and artificial pole that is most likely to faithfully approximate nature especially in artifacts expressly created for some high performance application. This artifact or component may have biomorphic form, not because styled that way, but because it happens to offer the economy, efficiency and exact fit for purpose found in organic creation. To fully participate in the unfolding of the future, and so in the present, each commission for Renzo Piano, as it was for Peter Rice, is a research project. Beyond being alert to and keeping abreast of social and technical developments, research nearly always concentrates on two areas in particular: on a material, and on the characteristic component of the building, the so-called “piece.”
The truss and light-diffusing “leaf” of the Menil Collection, for instance, evolved from the exploration of ductile iron and ferrocement. Yet the material to be researched need not be new. Sometimes it is an old one for which new techniques or theoretical insights offer new potential. While the IBM travelling pavilion explored polycarbonate and the very latest glues, the Padre Pio pilgrimage church now under development is pushing stone to new limits. From this research comes not just participation in the evolution of technology, but also an authentic creativity enjoyed by those who conduct it and, more importantly, subliminally communicated and responded to by the viewer.
Though dependent on this research into materials, the shaping of the piece is even more central to both the Building Workshop’s design method and to the final work. The piece is nearly always a repetitive structural element, and is always exposed. More than anything it is the piece that gives each building its particular identity: most of the buildings are as readily recognizable from the piece alone as by the whole. The pieces mediate between building and user in other crucial ways, providing both an intermediate scale people can immediately relate to and a sensually crafted presence that invites tactile contact, both especially pertinent qualities in buildings of large fluid spaces. They also elicit empathetic responses with structurally explicit forms that are often shaped to suggest they have a life of their own.
But there are other reasons for picking on the piece as the focus of so much attention. It is the piece that is most susceptible to a sustained and objective refinement. Technical improvements to it are easily judged, and so are aesthetic ones. Many may contribute to this refinement, architects, engineers and clients. And contributions can be made at all stages of development through sketching and drawing, handcrafting of prototypes and preparing shop drawings. With all this input, intellectual, visual and tactile, the piece is the one element that might approximate both the precise tailoring to purpose and the satisfying sense of being exactly right that is found in the products of natural evolution. Often too, the piece can and does continue to be refined long after the rest of the design has been settled. In an analogy from evolution, focusing on the piece could be seen as a neotenous strategy. (Neoteny is a way by which evolution speeds itself up by prolonging childhood, as in the case of humans, and so the learning period of each generation.)
Of course, in developing the piece the concern is not with a single object in isolation, but equally with what is created by the collective assembly of the pieces. Obviously then, connections are important, and so too is the whole that results when the pieces are assembled with all the other elements. Those who see the piece as a mere component that can be taken up and easily used in other designs, profoundly misunderstand its far more intrinsic role to a specific building, its scale and place.
“[Piano’s architecture engages] in the unfolding techno-cultural evolution of the world and in the reciprocities that hold it all together.”
In its responsiveness to a place and its traditions, and in its refinement of the piece and the assembly it is part of, the architecture of the Building Workshop could be characterized as an art of fitting in and fitting together. If the refinement of the piece has evolutionary analogies, then the way the architecture responds to place, respecting what exists and fitting in with this while making inevitable changes to it (like a new species entering an eco-niche) has obvious ecological analogies. These are the most profound senses in which Piano’s architecture could be said to be participatory, engaging in the unfolding techno-cultural evolution of the world and in the reciprocities that hold it all together.
The Building Workshop’s engagement with technology then is quite different from that of High-Tech. It does not subscribe to the blind technological imperative of the latter, using technology just because “it is of our time” or “it is there.” Nor do the Building Workshop’s innovations come from the competitive urge to do or use something first. All these too often lead, in architecture as in other fields, to a macho desensitizing to the consequences of using this technology, and its potentially deleterious impacts. Piano’s approach is the antithesis, because participation is not about technological assertion. Simply aspiring to participation heightens sensitivities.
Despite the differences between them, the Building Workshop and High-Tech share the same sources, specifically in the nineteenth century and the 1950s. High-Tech is a latter-day version of Structural Rationalism as espoused by architects like Viollet-le-Duc. British High-Tech compounds this with a nostalgia for the daring engineering seen in the public realm of the nineteenth century, in its stations and market halls. In a way it is the flip-side of British nostalgia for Empire and is symptomatic of its continuing post-Imperial confusions. Even High-Tech’s view of the future is nostalgic, still the relatively uncomplicated and optimistic one of the ’50s and ’60s, the last days of Empire.
The strong affinities with the nineteenth century in Piano’s approach are very different in spirit. Through his friend and mentor Jean Prouvé he seems to have been touched by or confirmed in some of the craft and social ideals of William Morris. Just as Viollet-le-Duc sought to emulate the forms and structural efficiencies of nature with the skeletal cast-iron forms seen in his drawings, so Piano seeks to emulate nature in the ways discussed.
That which can be achieved by a “tactful technology”
Both High-Tech and Piano have been influenced by Californian architecture of the mid-century period, specifically by Neutra and Eames, Ehrenkrantz and Ellwood. (Buckminster Fuller was of course another major inspiration.) Long before The Menil Collection emulated Craig Ellwood’s steel frame detailing, Norman Foster and Richard Rogers (as two of Team 4) had modeled their Reliance Controls factory on the same source. But largely under the influence of Foster and Rogers’ teacher, James Stirling, British High-Tech got contaminated by Brutalism and became monumental and overpowering. Piano remains far more true to the original ideals of California’s mid-century Modernism. Piano is not just interested in technology, but in the lightness, openness and transparency that can be achieved by a tactful technology that stands aside for, rather than intrudes upon, human action and that allows nature and building to interweave and blend.
Significantly, both nineteenth century Structural Rationalism and American architecture and design of the mid-century were touched by then current ideas about evolution. If Darwinian ideas about “survival of the fittest” legitimated capitalism and colonialism, his theory of evolution also inspired the idea that an advanced and authentic technology would refine its forms to resemble those of nature. These ideas came together with others, in a strand that conflated the organic and the technical and has continued in various guises right through the modern period. It found expression in America in the writings of Horatio Greenough and in the architecture of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, and then through the latter in that of Neutra and the Californians. Under the influence of Buckminster Fuller and others emerged the idea that design (or Anticipatory Design Science as Fuller called it) was the means by which mankind could intervene in and guide evolution.
Such notions now smack of colossal hubris. Since the Gaia hypothesis and various other insights from science, we know the world is far too complex and our understandings inevitably always too partial for us to be able to predict the consequences of our meddlings. Besides, it now seems, the world is far wiser than we are and has its own teleological program. What is necessary now is to abandon the arrogance that let us think we might control evolution and instead listen as best we can to the world, to let it continue its own evolution, and now also let it heal itself.
The deep appeal of the architecture of the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, and why so many instinctively feel it to be so significant, is that it is possible to believe that at some level it is shaped by some such intuitive realization, still barely formed and unarticulated. If the question were asked, what sort of architecture would the world or evolution themselves bring forth spontaneously? then the only current architecture to which the result might have some resemblance is that of the Building Workshop. Not restricted to a personal design idiom, it would be as varied as its locations and programs, and the technology available there and then. Conservative in the best sense of preserving still vital features of place and tradition, it would also embrace change: evolution is essentially about ever accelerating change. And it would certainly exploit all available technologies and especially those of the leading edge (assuming these are benign of course), because why else would the world have evolved them and have them available now?
“What sort of architecture might the world itself bring forth?”
Asking the question about what sort of architecture the world itself might bring forth, in turn raises the notion that we might have reached a crucial threshold in our relationship with our evolving built environment, again something Piano seems to have intuited. Let’s continue for a while with the idea that the world might bring forth architecture. It seems that to date it has done so to herd people into towns, provoking encounters in their constrained streets and squares, to develop mankind socially, and it has enclosed people in houses and rooms so that they might focus on and develop themselves as individuals. But mankind’s resulting self-absorption from this benevolent gesture has cost the world dearly, bringing it to the point of extreme precariousness.
Now our cities are fragmenting and the street and square disappearing as physical form and social mechanism. The same technologies that fuel this process and bring the world flooding into every room, also allow us to move out of the city. There we can now nestle into nature and be alert to its local moods and cycles, and in constant touch with the planet, its various processes and current pain. If the Vesima laboratory-workshop does not enclose its occupants within solid walls and roof where they might only steal framed views of the world, this does not result in psychological and cultural impoverishment, but rather might anticipate a still nascent psycho-cultural reality.
Just as double-glazing, adjustable shading and air conditioning allow us to open up our buildings and ourselves to nature, so too we might relate quite differently to such buildings. Perhaps we are outgrowing thick-walled and anthropomorphic abodes into the fabric of which our psyche can seep while identifying with its forms and physiognomy. Instead as Viollet-le-Duc intuited, we might now prefer a more skeletal or vegetal architecture that is more actively engaged by the hand in tactile manipulations. No longer sheltering away from nature in the equivalent of a cave we might now live in something closer to being in a grove or under a pergola. Here, very aware of nature, we might rediscover our connections with and responsibilities to our living planet.
The above of course is a highly speculative reading of the relevance and still largely unrealized promise that seems to lie behind the very instinctive impulses through which Renzo Piano guides the output of the Building Workshop. But even if this is a ridiculously idealized interpretation, it is ennobling and educative, and so a wholly benevolent myth to contemplate when looking at this exhibition or thinking about the confused state of architecture today.
The way the Building Workshop develops a design and Piano’s role in this process is entirely consistent with the architecture both aspire to. As far as possible the method is highly participatory, in contrast to what can be implied by the term multi-disciplinary. Too often the latter involves design passing sequentially through a series of specializations that each contribute in turn, as if on a production line. The Building Workshop aims for a much more synergistically creative process in which consultants contribute right from the beginning and continue right through the process as such integral members of the team that in retrospect it is impossible to disentangle who contributed what to the design. This is a way of working at which Peter Rice excelled.
Just as all specializations contribute at all stages of design, so the ideal is also that all parts of the person contribute. It is so that the hand contributes as much as the head that Piano insists on so much being mocked up full size in the workshop, as well as for the precision of aesthetic judgment and the resultant sensual tactility. For the Building Workshop, craft is as important as science, especially in giving soul to technology.
Piano himself is both more involved in design and its development than other architects, and also more detached. He no longer draws or even sketches at his own board, but spends his time at those of others or discussing pinned up drawings. After imparting his initial responses to a problem and the ideas and images it and the site provoke for him he tends to stand back and let others work up the design while he watches and guides. This detachment allows him to see more clearly and intervene more· easily and redirect a design in which he has little personal investment. For similar reasons he discourages “sensitive” and seductive drawings, preferring those that are bold and blatant so that their contents can be dispassionately assessed. In setting this drawing style and in making first stabs at a design the role of Shunji Ishida is immensely important in Genoa.
Design is not rushed. Often the crystallization of a design is postponed just as clarification and consensus seem to be reached. For Piano, an entirely instinctual rather than intellectual designer, such things need to stew in the subconscious. Only with this slow marination does he feel that crucial things are less likely to be overlooked. For him, a building is like an island placed in the river of life. Before intervening in that flow, it needs to be patiently charted in all its streams and eddies to ensure that any such rigidity as a building is minimally obstructive to, as well as most enhancing of, the continuum of both life and the places in which it is lived.
The text above was originally published in the exhibition catalogue for the 1992 Architectural League exhibition Renzo Piano Building Workshop: Selected Projects. All text by Peter Buchanan, © The Architectural League of New York.