Renzo Piano knows how to make buildings that vanish. Two current projects, one a crystalline tower over London that shatters outdated ideas about what a skyscraper is and about the metropolis it stands in, the other an intervention at the timeless site of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel, both do it.
One disappears into the sky, the other into the earth, and both cunningly use angles. ‘A little trick’, Piano intimates, as he enters a room at the Paris offices of his practice RPBW, brandishing a photo from an online forum of Shard observers. It shows a surprisingly narrow, angular finger of light tapering into the sky blue, but on either side, the tower’s form simply merges with it. ‘Like a kaleidoscope that reflects the sky!’ bubbles Piano. ‘You can spend a day in front of it and it will never be the same.’
Piano, now 74, is charm and tact embodied, a kindly guru in a woolly jumper that’s so sky blue that the Shard could well disappear into it. He is as high on ideas as if they were pills he’d popped. He flatters those he talks with, offering thoughts like intimacies, and frequently responding ‘you are right’. The charisma he deploys on developers, mayors and press around the world indicates another characteristic – deep patience.
Ever since 2001 he’s been telling the same story to evangelise London’s 306m-high Shard, just now finishing construction – but, he says, it’s ‘a good story’. For him, the mixed-use skyscraper tells ‘the way the city may save land, instead of dispersing, the idea that the city can grow from inside’. He talks about exploiting public transport hubs, and the idea of ‘making a building that can intensify the city of London, especially in a place that needs life, without adding traffic. [Then London Mayor] Ken Livingstone was brilliant. He asked me not put more than 48 parking spaces. 48 is nothing!’ (It’s actually the minimum required for disabled drivers.)
The Shard’s vanishing trick, due to its off-vertical facades of especially clear glass, was crucial at the 2003 public enquiry it had to win. ‘I was very grateful for those months of discussion,’ Piano recalls. ‘In some ways the building became better.’ Rather than nervous, he says his state was anxiety. ‘It’s like going to the doctor with your baby. It’s love… and you are taking care of your creature in some way’. Richard Rogers had helped him prepare, stressing public realm and the Shard’s intensification of London.
The friendship with Rogers dates from when they taught at the Architectural Association in the late Sixties. Rogers was more scholarly, Piano more interested in practical experiments, taking him into Bedford Square every day to build things. He says they looked like Beatles (presumably White Album period). ‘We were like bad boys. That’s the reason we won “Beaubo”’. Short for Palais de Beaubourg and said the same as ‘bobo’, meaning bohemian-bourgeois types, he uses the name to refer to the Centre Pompidou. ‘It was part of the provocation to make a joyful spaceship, right in the middle of Paris,’ he says of the huge, colourful art centre just a block away, which still has all the va-va-voom of when it opened in 1977.
After Pompidou, Piano and Rogers were hot names. Piano set up RPBW in 1981, and gradually built it into a global design force, which has recently expanded from Paris and Genoa to New York. He describes the practice as ‘a joyful machine’. He shares ownership with 10 partners and 15 associates, some of whom have been there through all four decades. ‘They give you strength and continuity, a coherence, not just in terms of design but in the way you behave, with client and all that’.
Buildings are in his blood – he comes from a Genoese family where all the men – ‘my father, my grandfather, my uncle, my brother’ – were builders. It may explain why the practice is called a building workshop. In Paris, it actually fronts on to the street with the model workshop, complete with tools and workbenches for all to see. In the offices, a red model of the ribbing from the Kansai Airport terminal in Osaka hangs from the ceiling like a great tapeworm. 1:100 models of the Shard and 2007’s New York Times Building sit together, immaculate white sentinels. Active projects are everywhere around: a major intervention at the Fondation Pathé and a strangely blocky new Ministry of Justice, both in Paris; Valetta’s City Gates in Malta, and a 30-year project for a new Colombia University campus in Manhattan’s Washington Heights.
Piano won the Pritzker Prize in 1998, and up to last year had served five years on its jury. He’s not surprised that Wang Shu won this year. He is adamant that Pritzkers are not given for strategic/political reasons, nor to a predictable name. ‘Pritzker is a great responsibility’, he says. ‘It’s trying to detect the little seeds of freedom, of creativity, of talent. It’s not easy. I absolutely agree that China is one of those places where this talent shows up.’ He notes that while at RPBW, ‘Chinese students want to learn and go back with stealing knowledge. I like that!’
The Fondazione Renzo Piano brings international students to work and learn from his practice, an arrangement he compares to ‘la bottega’, meaning again workshop, but, he says, with Renaissance Italy’s implication of ‘the art of teaching by showing, by absorbing, even by stealing’.
It’s a process he went through himself. ‘I learned from masters,’ he says, naming among others Jean Prouvé, best known for La Maison Tropicale. But absorbing their skills can only go so far. ‘One day you say,“Fuck!”– I need my freedom’, he explains. ‘If you don’t have that shift to desire freedom, you get paralysed. You have to be grateful and be a rebel’. Piano’s ‘fuck’ moment came as a student with neo-rationalist designer Franco Albini and then techno-functionalist designer and Domus editor Marco Zanuso.
Piano worked briefly for another master, Louis Kahn in Philadelphia, in 1965. When approached to design new galleries for Khan’s 1972 legendary Kimbell Art Gallery in Fort Worth, he initially said no: ‘In such a scheme you have a problem because, if you are not careful, if you are arrogant, you start to compete, then you are bloody stupid. Or you can be totally reverential, so subdued, intimidated that you disappear’. Piano was loath to tamper around Khan’s work. ‘Then’, he says, ‘I started to build up my freedom… Those schemes are always coming from a double attitude – respect and rebellion.’ Piano’s own new Fort Worth $125m galleries, separated from Khan’s, open in 2013.
It was the same story when he was asked, despite being a non-believer, to design facilities at Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel. When he finally said yes, he faced a campaign by the Fondation Le Corbusier, guardians of his legacy, to overcome. Piano says it ‘was not totally clean’ and suspects that ‘they wanted to gain control of the chapel’. The fondation gained the support of big-name architects, such as Alvaro Siza, but they never said that his new nunnery and gatehouse, down the slope, was invisible from the chapel, tucked into the earth so as not to disturb the setting that le Corbusier had found so mystical, or that Piano was the architect. ‘Alvaro told me he didn’t know,’ recalls Piano. A public enquiry voted 40-0 in favour of the plans, which completed last year. ‘It’s emotionally completely different from the chapel,’ he explains. ‘It’s more about silence, about living in the forest, like a little house.’
Ronchamp and the Shard share Piano’s clarity of design and openness to natural light, but how different the tranquility of
a nunnery and the vertical dynamics of the big-city skyscraper. The Shard dwarfs anything else on London’s skyline, and its crystalline quality makes even the current wave of glass skyscrapers look dingy. Its angularity not only plays with light, but seems to evaporate mass with height.
Piano’s original vision was sketched in Potsdamerplatz, Berlin in 2000, when he met developer Irvine Sellar. It has evolved, and now been realised by the architects in charge, RPBW’s Joost Moolhuijzen and William Matthews. The Shard’s base merges seamlessly with the surrounding public realm and London Bridge station with its 54 million-a-year users.
The tower’s jagged facades begin 20m up, two on each side of a square, all angled differently in plan. Grey blinds in each triple-glass panel are activated by solar sensors, and stored in red boxes, the only colour in the facade. The tower’s form has a blocky extension, or ‘backpack’, to pack more in.
Piano describes it as ‘a liaison’ between brick buildings on St Thomas Street and the tower. The highest storeys, above the concrete core, are the Observatory, which will include a jaw-dropping, triple-height space suspended in the sky. It will handle a million visitors a year, a third of what the London Eye gets – Matthews said that any more and it would be a ‘turbo-sausage machine’. Above it, Piano considered a meditation space, but access is limited and anyway, the Observatory will already blow people’s minds.
The original eco-ideas of drawing on the London aquifer and passively radiating excess heat with 3km of pipe in the spire have been dropped, but the Shard has good sustainability credentials. Much of the steel is recycled, and the concrete uses fly-ash. Heat from offices will reduce energy requirements from above. Not least, it plugs straight into the nexus of rail, Tube and buses. There is confidence for a BREEAM Excellent rating.
At 310m above sea-level, the Shard breaches the Civil Aviation Authority’s 1,000ft limit by just over 5m – Matthews noted that, ironically, planes now fly lower to get the view. It’s only serious London competition, the 288m-high Pinnacle, is halted. A decade ago, there were only 18 skyscrapers in the world taller than the Shard, but now there are 60. The Foster-designed twin Hermitage Plaza towers at 320m high at Le Defense in Paris have been approved. It’s as if cities are somehow second rate if they don’t have a super-tall (300m plus) tower.
‘It’s true, you are right,’, Piano reflects. ‘But this is not a good part of the story. You know very well it’s a phallic symbol. In Italian it’s called priapismo. I like the idea of going up because it’s a pleasure, the fresh air. I don’t like the idea that you race up to show you are more powerful than someone else. Our job is not to follow that line.’ From the word go he has insisted that it is not about height, although he is set to double the Shard height with Seoul’s Yongsan tower. What matters is ‘the art of intensifying the city’ and the 24-hour mixed use that makes it ‘a vertical city’.
But surely, the city is different – full of surprise, different spaces, textures and atmospheres? Piano again agrees – ‘I love historical centres, I love cities.’ His analogy of building as city goes back to the Centre Pompidou. ‘ I used this idea that it’s like a little town. You have streets, stairs, plazas, you have different functions. The city is not predictable.’ He promises surprise at the Shard, especially at the Observatory – ‘I can already see the faces of the people there.’
Piano ponders when asked what buildings he would like to be remembered for. He picks the Centre Pompidou, his own Genoa offices (‘a greenhouse on top of the sea, the perfect interpretation of the environment’)… and the Shard, whose genesis was when his youngest child was born. ‘The tendency is to say you love the youngest child most, the one who is still there, who needs more help… Maybe I’m saying so because the Shard of Glass is the youngest, but also because I love the story.’
Is the Shard a good thing? You bet. Why? Firstly, as promised, it epitomises the new development model of intensification and connectivity and even suggests an urban car-free future. Secondly, foolishly or not, it confidently reaffirms London’s future world status by joining it to the now Asian-dominated club of cities with supertalls, yet does so without denying the history around it. Thirdly, its form reinvents the heavenward aspiration of gothic spires, but with air and light, and just as big glass becomes questioned and cliché, it is re-presented, crisp and fresh. Lastly, most skyscrapers could belong anywhere, from Dallas to Dubai, but the best are uniquely local. The Shard is already visually redefining London, even with the quiet thrill of distant glimpses.
‘The building will be adopted, because it will be public,’ says Piano. ‘I think people will start to love it more and more.’ Many are sharing that love already.