Renzo Piano - 10 Buildings and Projects

People, Lightness, Beauty, Harmony, and a Gentle Touch

grey bearded man motioning near egg-like structure with jagged top -- the Italian architect says he has built a 'site, not a building' on the Tina peninsula.
Renzo Piano at Tjibaou Cultural Center, New Caledonia. Langevin Jacques/Sygma via Getty Images (cropped)

Explore the design philosophy of Italian architect Renzo Piano. In 1998, Piano won architecture's highest award, the Pritzker Architecture Prize, when he was in his 60s but just hitting his stride as an architect. Piano is often called a "high-tech" architect because his designs showcase technological shapes and materials. However, human needs and comfort are at the heart of the Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) designs. As you view these photos, also notice the refined, classical styling and a nod toward the past, more typical of an Italian Renaissance architect.

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Centre George Pompidou, Paris, 1977

detail of glass facade with tubular walkway attached to the side
The Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, France. Frédéric Soltan/Corbis via Getty Images (cropped)

The Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris revolutionized museum design. The young team of British architect Richard Rogers and Italian architect Renzo Piano won the design competition — much to their own surprise. “We were attacked from all sides," Rogers has said, "but Renzo’s deep understanding of construction and architecture, and his poet’s soul, brought us through.”  

Museums of the past had been elite monuments. In contrast, the Pompidou was designed as a busy center for fun, social activities, and cultural exchange in a 1970s France of youthful rebellion.

With support beams, duct work, and other functional elements placed on the exterior of the building, Centre Pompidou in Paris appears to be turned inside out, revealing its inner workings. Centre Pompidou is often cited as a landmark example of modernist high-tech architecture.

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Porto Antico di Genova,1992

biosphere next to spidery structure of long white poles near water
Biosfera and Il Bigo at Porto Antico, Genoa, Italy. Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images (cropped)

For a crash course in Renzo Piano architecture, visit the old port in Genoa, Italy to find all elements of this architect's design — beauty, harmony and light, detail, a gentle touch to the environment, and architecture for the people.

The master plan was to rehabilitate the old port in time for the 1992 Columbus International Exposition. The first phase of this urban renewal project included the Bigo and an aquarium.

A "bigo" is a crane used at shipyards, and Piano took the shape to create a panoramic lift, an amusement ride, for tourists to better view the city during the Exposition. The 1992 Acquario di Genova is an aquarium that takes the look of a long, low dock jutting into the harbor. Both structures continue to be tourist destinations for the public visiting this historic city.

The Biosfera is a Buckminster Fuller-like biosphere added to the aquarium in 2001. A climate-controlled interior allows the people of northern Italy to experience a tropical environment. In keeping with an environmental education, Piano added the Cetaceans Pavilion to the Genoa Aquarium in 2013. It is dedicated to the study and display of whales, dolphins and porpoises.

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Kansai Airport Terminal, Osaka, 1994

airport terminal seats (blue, red, and yellow) amidst a framework of glass and triangular patterns
Kansai International Airport Terminal in Osaka, Japan, Renzo Piano, 1988-1994. Hidetsugu Mori/Getty Images

Kansai International is one of the largest air terminals in the world.

When Piano first visited the site for the Japan's new airport, he had to travel by boat from Osaka harbor. There was no land to build on. Instead, the airport was constructed on an artificial island — a couple miles long and less than a mile wide strip of fill resting on a million support columns. Each support pile can be adjusted by a built-in individual hydraulic jack attached to sensors.

Inspired by the challenge of building on a man-made island, Piano drew sketches of a large glider landing on the proposed island. He then modeled his plan for the airport after the shape of an airplane with corridors stretching out like wings from a main hall.

The terminal is about a mile long, geometrically designed to mimic an aircraft. With a roof of 82,000 identical stainless steel panels, the building is both earthquake and tsunami resistant.

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NEMO, Amsterdam, 1997

man on bicycle cross small bridge to asymmetrical blob-like green ship-like structure
New Metropolis (NEMO), Amsterdam, Netherlands. Peter Thompson/Heritage Images/Getty Images (cropped)

The NEMO National Center for Science and Technology is another water-related project by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Built on a small slip of land in the complex waterways of Amsterdam, Netherlands, the museum design aesthetically fits into the environment as it appears as a giant, green ship's hull. Inside, the galleries are made for a child's study of science. Built atop an underground highway tunnel, access to the NEMO ship is via a pedestrian bridge, which looks more like a gangplank.

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Tjibaou Cultural Centre, New Caledonia, 1998

aerial photo of penisula with several structures rising like missile-shaped monuments
Tjibaou Cultural Center, New Caledonia, Pacific Islands. John Gollings/Getty Images (cropped)

The Renzo Piano Building Workshop won an international competition to design the Tjibaou Cultural Center in Noumea, a Pacific island French territory in New Caledonia.

France wanted to build a center to honor the culture of the indigenous Kanak peoples. Renzo Piano's design called for ten cone-shaped wooden huts grouped among the pine trees on the Tinu Peninsula.

Critics praised the center for drawing on ancient building customs without creating overly romanticized imitations of native architecture. The design of the tall wooden structures is both traditional and contemporary. The structures are both harmonious and built with a gentle touch to the environment and the native culture they celebrate. Adjustable skylights on the roofs allow for natural climate control and the soothing sounds of Pacific breezes.

The center is named after the Kanak leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou, an important politician who was assassinated in 1989.

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Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome, 2002

aerial view of three large, asymmetrical blob-like buildings surrounding an amphitheater
Auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome. Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images (cropped)

Renzo Piano was in the middle of designing a large, integrated music complex when he became a Pritzker Laureate in 1998. From 1994 to 2002 the Italian architect was working with the City of Rome to develop a "cultural factory" for the people of Italy and the world.

Piano designed three modern concert halls of various sizes and grouped them around a traditional, open-air Roman amphitheater. The two smaller venues have flexible interiors, where the floors and ceilings can be adjusted to accommodate the acoustics of the performance. A third and largest venue, Santa Cecilia Hall, is dominated by a wooden interior acoustically reminiscent of ancient wooden musical instruments.

The arrangement of the music halls was altered from the original plans when a Roman villa was unearthed during the excavation. Although this event was not uncommon for the area of one of the world's first civilizations, building upon architecture that existed from before the birth of Christ gives this venue a timeless continuity with Classical forms.

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The New York Times Building, NYC, 2007

detail look at The New York Times sign on facade of lighted office building
The New York Times Building, 2007. Barry Winiker/Getty Images

Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano designed a 52-story tower high on energy efficiency and directly across from the Port Authority Bus Terminal. The New York Times Tower is located on Eighth Avenue in midtown Manhattan.

"I love the city and I wanted this building to be an expression of that. I wanted a transparent relationship between the street and the building. From the street, you can see through the whole building. Nothing is hidden. And like the city itself, the building will catch the light and change color with the weather. Bluish after a shower, and in the evening on a sunny day, shimmering red. The story of this building is one of lightness and transparency." — Renzo Piano

At an architectural height of 1,046 feet, the news organization's working office building rises only 3/5 the height of One World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. Yet, its 1.5-million square feet is solely dedicated to "All the news that's fit to print." The facade is clear glass overlaid with 186,000 ceramic rods, each 4 feet 10 inches long, attached horizontally to create a "ceramic sunscreen curtain wall." The lobby features a "Moveable Type" text collage with 560 ever-changing digital-display screens. Also inside is an glass-walled garden with 50-foot birch trees. In line with Piano's energy-efficient, environmentally-friendly building designs, more than 95% of the structural steel is recycled.

The sign on the building shouts out its occupant's name. A thousand pieces of dark aluminum are individually attached to the ceramic rods to create the iconic typography. The name itself is 110 feet (33.5 meters) in length and 15 feet (4.6 meters) high.

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California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, 2008

aerial view of grass roof with mounds on a low rise rectangular building
California Academy of Science in San Francisco. Steve Proehl/Getty Images (cropped)

Renzo Piano merged architecture with nature when he designed a green roof for the California Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

Italian architect Renzo Piano gave the museum a roof made of rolling earth planted with more than 1.7 million plants from nine different native species. The green roof provides a natural habitat for wildlife and endangered species like the San Bruno butterfly.

Below one of the earthen mounds is a 4 story recreated rain forest. Motorized porthole windows in the 90 foot dome in the roof provide light and ventilation. Beneath the other roof mound is a planetarium, and, forever Italian in nature, an open air piazza is located in the center of the building. Louvers above the piazza are temperature-controlled to open and close based on interior temperatures. Ultra-clear, low-iron content glass panels in the lobby and open exhibit rooms offer sweeping views of the natural surroundings. Natural light is available to 90% of the administrative offices.

The mound construction, not often seen on living roof systems, allows the easy capture of rainwater runoff. The steep slope is also used to funnel cool air into the interior spaces below. Surrounding the green roof are 60,000 photovoltaic cells, described as "a decorative band." Visitors are allowed on the roof to observe from a special viewing area. Generating electricity, using six inches of roof soil as natural insulation, radiant hot water heating in the floors, and operable skylights provide efficiency in the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system of the building.

Sustainability is not just building with green roofs and solar power. Constructing with local, recycled materials saves energy for the entire planet — processes are part of sustainable design. For example, demolition debris was recycled. The structural steel came from recycled sources. The timber used was responsibly harvested. And the insulation? Recycled blue jeans were used in most parts of the building. Not only does recycled denim hold heat and absorb sound better than fiberglass insulation, but the fabric has always been associated with San Francisco — ever since Levi Strauss sold blue jeans to miners of the California Gold Rush. Renzo Piano knows his history.

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The Shard, London, 2012

An aerial view of the Shard on June 28, 2012 in London, England. Standing at 309.6 metres high the Shard is the tallest buliding in Europe and was designed by architect Renzo Piano.
The Shard in London. Greg Fonne/Getty Images

In 2012, the London Bridge Tower became the tallest building in the United Kingdom — and in western Europe.

Today known as "The Shard," this vertical city is a glass "shard" on the banks of the Thames River in London. Behind the glass wall is a mix of residential and commercial properties: apartments, restaurants, hotels, and opportunities for tourists to observe miles of the English landscape. Heat absorbed from the glass and generated from the commercial areas is recycled to heat the residential areas.

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Whitney Museum, NYC 2015

Manhattan, Meatpacking District, High Line Elevated Park and Whitney Museum of American Art
Whitney Museum of American Art, 2015. Massimo Borchi/Atlantide Phototravel/Getty Images (cropped)

The Whitney Museum of American Art moved from its Brutalist building designed by Marcel Breuer into Renzo Piano's modern meatpacking factory architecture, proving once and for all that all museums do not have to look alike. The asymmetrical, multi-level structure is people-oriented, providing as much unencumbered gallery space as a warehouse might have while also providing balconies and glass walls for people to spill out into the New York City streets, as one might find in an Italian piazza. Renzo Piano crosses cultures with ideas from the past to create modern architecture for the present.


  • RPBW Philosophy, [accessed January 8, 2018]
  • RPBW Method, [accessed January 8, 2018]
  • "Richard Rogers on working with Renzo Piano" by Laura Mark, September 14, 2017, The Royal Academy of Arts, [accessed January 6, 2018]
  • RPBW Projects, Kansai International Airport Terminal. [accessed January 8, 2018]
  • RPBW Projects, Parco della Musica Auditorium, [accessed January 9, 2018]
  • Who We Are (Chi siamo), Musica per Roma Foundation, [accessed January 9, 2018]
  • New York Times Tower, EMPORIS, [accessed June 30, 2014]
  • New York Times Press Release, November 19, 2007, PDF [accessed June 30, 2014]
  • Our Green Building, [accessed January 9, 2018]
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Craven, Jackie. "Renzo Piano - 10 Buildings and Projects." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Craven, Jackie. (2021, July 31). Renzo Piano - 10 Buildings and Projects. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "Renzo Piano - 10 Buildings and Projects." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).