Unlike many other retrospectives on Renzo Piano’s work, the exhibition at La Cité de l’Architecture clarifies the process leading to the realisation of his visions.
The Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine is holding an exhibition entitled “The Piano Method”, focusing on landscapes, heights, confrontations, urban heritage, pieces of the city and materials. These six sections reveal the genius of the Italian master and his Building Workshop. Each section centres on two or three recent projects by his office (all except one post-2000).
Unlike many other retrospectives on his work, this exhibition clarifies the process leading to the realisation of his visions. Never has a title been more fitting as method comes from the Greek méthodos meaning “pursuit, investigation” which, in turn, stems from hodós or “pathway, road”. Piano describes his method as inclusive, a collective construction process in which, by the end of a project, no one in the team knows who came up with the original idea. The design belongs to all and is the fruit of the sum of the brains that contributed towards it.
Piano has great collaborators and if his reputation and commissions have grown over the years it is thanks to participatory and collective teamwork albeit based on certain rules, standards and trails pursued by the Italian architect. It is a horizontal process in which even an intern with a good idea can contribute positively with their energy and sensitivity to the success of the project. This artisanal dimension – where the decisions stem from the reiteration of ideas – shines through in the first section of the exhibition, devoted to the research into lightweight structures developed by Piano since the 1960s.
At that time, Piano was not yet aware that France and the Centre Pompidou were to bring him international acclaim and the opportunity to build a museum in New York, skyscrapers in London, a children’s clinic in Uganda and an arts centre in New Caledonia. The idea behind all his designs never changes: exploit the potential of materials by pushing the limits of construction techniques, drawing the soul out of the material. Piano’s collaborators produce a huge number of models and prototypes while developing the ideas that accompany a design on its journey towards reality. Every corner of the Paris building workshop is occupied by materials with new potential in what is like a material-library.
His origins are well known. Piano comes from a family of builders and completing a construction in the best way possible is in his blood. Unlike many architects who make themselves known by raising their voices and shouting or via sometimes gratuitous experimentation, Pianos’s recent works clearly reveal the use of parametric software (the parliament in Malta and the Pathé foundation especially) and the serene adoption of advanced design systems. In this case, it is the young members of the office who bring new visions and design methods which Piano willingly listens to and promotes.
But RPBW experimentation is not an end unto itself. On the contrary, it is always integrated into an urban and energetic approach that considers people and their comfort. Like Zaha Hadid, Renzo Piano is an architect who hardly ever designs private houses. The only dimension of being architect he considers is purely public. However, unlike many archistars, the Italian architect has never ceased to see architecture as a socially useful discipline that serves the purpose of harmonising the new with the existing.
This is evident in one section of the exhibition – Confrontations – where two Piano designs are compared first with Louis Kahn’s for the Kimbell Museum in Forth Worth and then with Le Corbusier’s for the Monastère Sainte-Claire in Ronchamp. Both designs converge on the themes underpinning Renzo Piano’s oeuvre – huge sensitivity driven by his work on structures, materials, climate and the urban principle. This, in short, is the Piano method.