Happy Birthday Renzo Piano!

Sheila Byers Sheila Byers
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In this ideabook, we celebrate the birthday of the star of Italian architecture, Renzo Piano, who will be 77 years old this Sunday! Recognition and awards for this creative talent are numerous and impressive; in 1998 he received the coveted Pritzker Prize for his outstanding contribution to the field. And, as much as we can, here at homify we still want to make our own tribute to him to mark the occasion of his birthday.

We have therefore put together a retrospective of his colossal work, which spans almost half a century, through flagship projects that have marked his career. The list of his projects is vast and beloved by many, and it was difficult to choose which buildings to present. We finally settled on seven exceptional projects that mark the urban landscape of European cities (with one Japanese exception!), just like the seven wonders of the world. You will see in these projects, we hope, the sensitive and learned work of a talented architect, who has a unique design language and a passion that unites both major technological innovations and environmental responsibility. Ready to blow out the candles? Happy Birthday, Mr. Renzo Piano!

Georges Pompidou Centre (1971-1977, Paris)

(Photo: Tamás Mészáros)

Each architect has a foundational project, one with some symbolic value that has marked his entire career in a definitive manner. In the case of Renzo Piano, this is certainly his design for the National Art Centre—Georges Pompidou, conducted jointly with another outstanding architect, the English designer Richard Rogers. The project is the result of an international design competition that sought to create a showcase for contemporary art and construct an architectural icon in the city of Paris. 

The proposal of the Italian-British duo managed to stand out among the 680 other proposals (!) and was selected by the jury headed by French architect Jean Prouvé. This is a project of the most daring and avant-garde: inspired by constructivist ideas and hi-tech for its time, the building is surrounded by its structural elements, revealing the pipes and mechanical appliances which create the internal space. Thus, the building appears as a well-designed machine, futuristic and industrial and very much in contrast with the historic character of the neighbourhood in which it is located. Finally, the design includes a huge urban square (very rare in a city as dense as Paris!). Lets take a step back and appreciate the mechanised facade, and iconic escalator that leads to the different exhibition spaces.

Potsdamer Platz (1989-2000 , Berlin)

At the time of reunification in early 90s, the city of Berlin undertook a monumental reconstruction of the famous Potsdamer Platz. The multiple bombings of the Second World War had left a sad 'No Man's Land' at the heart of the city where luxurious hotels, and a bustling train station had once stood. The colossal mandate of designing the overall plan was given to Renzo Piano, who was already very famous, thanks to the many successful projects that followed the Georges Pompidou contest. 

Together with the German architect Helmut Jahn, Piano designed this area to house several office towers, a new important train station, large avenues and the SonyCentre, a huge project uniting areas of multimedia entertainment and business premises. The Italian architect also designed the Debis Tower, a project that mixes the warm tones of terracotta walls with the cold facades of glass and polished steel. Besides presenting a beautiful, hi-tech appearance, the facade hides innovations in terms of ventilation and natural air conditioning, that would make any other ecological project turn green with envy. The different materials that make up the various double-ventilated facades can absorb the sun's heat to warm or cool the building depending on the season.

(Photo: Martin Winz)

NEMO Centre (1992-1997 , Amsterdam)

(Photo: DMLangereis)

This is a sensitive and generous project that Renzo Piano realised for the people of Amsterdam in the mid 90s. NEMO is a science museum located in the middle of the city's historic centre, near the main train station on one of the largest canals. But thanks to Piano's design, the building is much more than a museum. Its aged copper front wall and unique profile make the structure a strong symbol for urban space, reminiscent of a ghost ship from the maritime character of the capital (also suggested by the project name, NEMO, is the hero of the famous novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea). Moreover, the sloping roof of the project is fully accessible, creating an open public square, which hosts a summer restaurant and offers visitors breathtaking views of the city.

Hermes store (1998-2006, Tokyo)

In 1998, French fashion house Hermes decided to implement its Japanese headquarters in Ginza, a shopping district known today for its bright and colourful atmosphere, neon lights and the many quirky architectural projects that host the most exclusive fashion houses in the world. Piano's project combines a store, exhibition centre, office space and access to the subway which runs under the building. The intense neighbourhood character has had a large impact on the design. The high density of the surroundings has influenced the simple and compact design of the building: a narrow prism 10 metres wide and 56 metres long, which stands ten floors tall. The dynamic energy of the neighbourhood has in turn influenced the unique look of the facade: structural glass blocks let in valuable warm, golden light. The translucent exterior walls are reminiscent of the rice paper walls of traditional Japanese architecture and create a luxurious setting for the famous Hermes silk scarves.

(Photo: japanese_craft_construction)

Peek & Cloppenburg Commercial Centre (1999-2005 , Cologne)

This design for a shopping centre in the middle of the German city of Cologne includes several aspects that are closely tied to Piano's distinctive look and reputation. The use of the combined elements of metal, glass and wood evokes the hi-tech style so dear to the Italian designer, while creating a sense of lightness and evanescence: surprising indeed given the gigantic proportions of the building! The large volume of the glass shell that covers the entire building refers to natural forms, another major theme in the work of Piano. Indeed, as is clear in all of its projects, the architect maintains a sensitive and personal relationship with nature, which inspires the elemental form of the structures and sometimes even becomes part of the buildings themselves, through the presence of plant material or natural ventilation systems. Also, of course, Piano is  sensitive to the context and users of its projects. Here, we feel that the fully glazed surface allows you to connect the building to its urban context while its soft, fluid form, invites passers-by to take a turn in the many shopping malls that populate the interior.

(Photo: Seier +Seier)

Astrup Fearnley Museum of Contemporary Art (2006-2012, Oslo)

(Photo: WojtekGurak

This very new building is part of a large redevelopment project in the Aker Bryggeat area southeast of Oslo. Formerly a shipyard peninsula, in recent years the area has been transformed into a mixed urban entertainment and housing space, that takes advantage of the magnificent view of the fjords that surround the city. The architecture of Renzo Piano echoed this mixed usage, by offering an art museum which also houses office space, a public sculpture park, an urban beach and a promenade along the water. The shape of the building itself is quite unique: three linear buildings of different sizes, all covered with treated wood cladding, are protected from the weather by a large glass hat that curves over the whole site. The various details that combine glass, metal and wood are characteristic of the work of Piano, but here they have a Scandinavian influence that allows the building to fit perfectly in context. Finally, the unique morphology of the buildings as well as the transparent materials used, allows natural light into the exhibition spaces. We feel here that Piano has arrived at the top of his game, skilfully mastering all the aesthetic and symbolic aspects and techniques of this project. 

The Shard (2000-2012, London)

We conclude this amazing architectural journey with one of the latest projects by the office of Renzo Piano built in the centre of London. The Shard, also known by the name of the London Bridge Tower, has transformed the skyline of the entire city. This skyscraper, which is aptly named, points skyward like a burst of iridescent glass. Its dizzying height  goes beyond 309 metres, making it the tallest building in the European Union! And yet, Piano still manages to develop a design that evokes lightness and delicacy, an effect he achieves partially through the use of offset and angled glass facades. These shifts also create a natural ventilation throughout the building. The building contains both public spaces (restaurants, hotels, a panoramic lounge) and private spaces (offices and residential). A true masterpiece!

That completes our overview of the work of one of the greatest architects of the twentieth century, and we wish him a happy birthday. Few designers have indeed managed to achieve such great control of their architectural projects, caring as much about technical issues as aesthetic issues for a result that stands proudly and honestly and for everyone. Again, happy birthday Mr. Piano! We wish you the best and cannot wait to see more future projects! 

 (Photo: Bjmullan)

Which is your favourite project? Share your comments!
Whitton Drive:  Terrace house by GK Architects Ltd

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