Biography of Italian Architect Renzo Piano

Pritzker Prize-Winning Architect, b. 1937

middle-aged bearded man in a sweater surrounded by wooden models
Italian Architect Renzo Piano in His Punta Nave Workshop. Vittoriano Rastelli/Corbis via Getty Images (cropped)

Architect Renzo Piano (born September 14, 1937 in Genoa, Italy) is known for his broad range of iconic projects around the world. From a sports stadium in his native Italy to a cultural center in the south Pacific island of New Caledonia, Piano's architecture exhibits a sensitivity to the environment, attention to the user experience, and futuristic design. He delights in solving problems of space and continuity with an intelligence that, for many people, has a brewing period of aesthetic familiarity — sometimes the exterior of a postmodern building is at first jarring to the general public. His interiors, however, and consolidation of spaces have made Piano and his team one of the most sought-after architectural firms of the 21st century.

Piano first gained success collaborating with British architect Richard Rogers. The pair spent the better part of the 1970s designing and building a cultural center in Paris, France — the Centre Georges Pompidou. It was career-launching architecture for both men.

Piano is also celebrated for his landmark examples of energy-efficient green design. With a living roof and a four-story tropical rainforest, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco claims to be the "world's greenest museum," thanks to the design of Piano. The Academy writes that "It all began with architect Renzo Piano’s idea to 'lift up a piece of the park and put a building underneath.'" For Piano, the architecture became part of the landscape.

In 1998 Renzo Piano was awarded what some call architecture's high honor — The Pritzker Architecture Prize, an honor Rogers did not receive until 2007.

Early Years

Renzo Piano was born into a family of builders. His grandfather, father, four uncles, and brother were contractors. Piano honored this tradition when in 1981 he named his architecture firm Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW), as if it were forever to be a small family business.

"I was born into a family of builders, and this has given me a special relationship with the art of 'doing.' I always loved going to building sites with my father and seeing things grow from nothing, created by the hand of man. For a child, a building site is magic: today you see a heap of sand and bricks, tomorrow a wall that stands on its own; at the end it has all become a tall, solid building where people can live. I have been a lucky man: I have spent my life doing what I dreamt as a child." — Piano, 1998

Piano studied at the Polytechnic University of Milan from 1959 to 1964 before returning to work in his father's business in 1964. Eking out a living by teaching and building with his family's business, from 1965 to 1970 Piano traveled to the United States to work in the Philadelphia office of Louis I. Kahn and then on to London to work with the Polish engineer Zygmunt Stanisław Makowski, known for his study and research of spatial structures. Early on Piano sought out learning from those who blended architecture and engineering, including the French-born designer Jean Prouvé and the brilliant Irish structural engineer Peter Rice. From 1971 to 1978 Piano was in partnership with the British architect Richard Rogers. After their success with the 1977 Centre Pompidou in Paris, France, both men could afford to open their own firms.

Architectural Style

Critics note that Piano's work is rooted in the classical traditions of his Italian homeland. Judges for the Pritzker Architecture Prize credited Piano with redefining modern and postmodern architecture.

Renzo Piano's work has been called "high-tech" and bold "postmodernism." His 2006 renovation and expansion of the Morgan Library and Museum shows that he is much more than one style. The interior is open, light, modern, natural, old and new at the same time. "Unlike most other architectural stars," writes architecture critic Paul Goldberger, "Piano has no signature style. Instead, his work is characterized by a genius for balance and context...."

The Renzo Piano Building Workshop works with the understanding that architecture is ultimately uno spazio per la gente, "a space for people." With attention to detail and maximizing the use of natural light, Piano's many projects exemplify how massive structures can retain a delicateness. Examples include the 1990 sports stadium San Nicola in Bari, Italy, designed to appear to open like petals of a flower. Likewise, in the Lingotto district of Turin, Italy, the 1920s-era car manufacturing factory now has a transparent bubble meeting room on the roof — a light-filled area built for employees in Piano's 1994 building conversion. The exterior facade remains historic; the interior is all new.

Piano building exteriors are rarely the same, signature style that cries out the architect's name. The 2015 stone-sided New Parliament Building in Valletta, Malta is quite different from the 2010 colorful terracotta facades of Central St. Giles Court in London — and both are different than the 2012 London Bridge Tower, which because of its glass exterior is today known as The Shard. For Renzo Piano, even designs within a five-year time span are unique to the project.

" There is one theme that is very important for me: lightness....In my architecture, I try to use immaterial elements like transparency, lightness, the vibration of the light. I believe that they are as much a part of the composition as the shapes and volumes." — Piano, 1998

Finding Spatial Connections

The Renzo Piano Building Workshop specializes in thoughtful design instead of any particular style or architecture type. The firm has developed a reputation for reinventing standing architecture and creating something new. In northern Italy, he's done this at the Old Port in Genoa (Porto Antico di Genova) and the brownfield Le Albere district in Trento. In the U.S. Piano has made modern connections that transformed disparate buildings into a more unified whole. The Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City went from a city block of separate buildings into a center of research and social gathering under one roof. On the West Coast, Piano's team was asked to "fuse the scattered buildings of Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) into a cohesive campus." Their solution was, in part, to bury the parking lots underground, thus creating space for "covered pedestrian walkways" to connect the present and future architecture.

"To be truly creative, the architect has to accept all the contradictions of his profession: discipline and freedom, memory and invention, nature and technology. There is no escape. If life is complicated, then art is even more so. Architecture is all of this: society, science and art."  —  Piano, 1998

Choosing a "top 10 list" of Renzo Piano projects to highlight as characteristic is nearly impossible. Renzo Piano architecture, like the works of many other Pritzker Laureates, is elegantly distinctive and socially responsible.


  • New Parliament Building photo by Mark Avellino/Getty Images (cropped); The Shard photo by George Rose/Getty Images; Central St Giles photo by Julian Castle/Getty Images