Renzo Piano, stealth classicist
May 17, 2009
The opening of Renzo Piano’s new Modern Art wing at the Art Institute of Chicago has won him another rave from critics throughout the U.S. Even the New York Times’s Nicolai Ouroussoff, generally a curmudgeon when it comes to Piano’s work, granted him a positive nod. His only complaint was that the country was feeling the effects of “Renzo Piano fatigue” as a result of his slew of recent commissions in America. Why should this be the case?
Piano is a suave, cultured and disciplined designer who engenders confidence in institutional clients, both in the U.S. and abroad. His success is hard won and, in my view, entirely deserved. While other international starchitects like Daniel Liebeskind, Rem Koohaas, and Zaha Hadid plop their trademark works in cities, expecting adulation for ignoring their local audience and trashing the urban environment, Piano carefully knits his buildings into the fabric of the places he encounters. While there is a superficial similarity to his work–most buildings are light, glassy and structurally innovative–he tries, sometimes to a fault, to find a balance between his interventions and the character of the buildings which set the stage for the new work. This is true at the Morgan Library entrance pavilion, which must attach to three disparate urban buildings (including the greatest classical building in New York–Charles McKim’s original library of 1909). It is also true of his California Academy of Science in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, a building that effortlessly includes an older Beaux Arts museum into a larger new facility while providing numerous sustainable systems that make the structure as contemporary as possible. His light, beautiful, and classical museum so outshines its clumsy Herzog & DeMeuron neighbor (the De Young) that visitors may wonder how the Swiss architects were ever considered for their commission at all.
There are moments when one architect achieves a pre-eminent position in the global marketplace, often because his work strikes a chord with stylemakers, critics and politicians. This was the case with Frank Gehry around the time of his Disney hall and Guggenheim Bilbao projects. It was surely the case when Louis Kahn unveiled his brilliant Kimball museum and Salk Center designs. Today’s master builder is Renzo Piano, an architect who has found a contemporary answer to the world’s need for a classical balance and assurance amidst chaos and uncertainty. He has made his mark quietly, largely without pandering to avant-garde critics, and the patronage network has responded with the best institutional commissions of the last decade. On balance, Piano has given us work that will outlast the flash-in-the-pan quasi-sculptures of Gehry, and perhaps rival the serene masterpieces of Kahn. That is an achievement worth celebrating, and Americans should be pleased with their good fortune and good judgment in choosing an architect of such gifts.