Biography of Renzo Piano, Italian Architect

Italian Architect Renzo Piano in his Punta Nave workshop

Vittoriano Rastelli / Corbis via Getty Images

Renzo Piano (born September 14, 1937) is a Pritzker Prize Laureate, an architect known for his broad range of iconic projects that blend architecture and engineering. From a sports stadium in his native Italy to a cultural center in the south Pacific, Piano's architecture exhibits futuristic design, a sensitivity to the environment, and attention to the user experience.

Fast Facts: Renzo Piano

  • Known For: Pritzker-Prize Laureate, leading-edge and prolific contemporary architect
  • Born: September 14, 1937 in Genoa, Italy
  • Parents: Carlo Piano
  • Education: Polytechnic University of Milan
  • Major Projects: Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, the Lingotto Factory restoration in Turin, Italy, the Kansai International Airport, Osaka, the Museum of the Beyeler Foundation, Basel, the Jean Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center, Nouméa, New Caledonia, the Potsdamer Platz reconstruction, Berlin, "The Shard," London, California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, The Whitney Museum, New York
  • Awards and Honors: Legion of Honour, the gold medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in London, Pritzker Architecture Prize
  • Spouse: Magda Arduino, Emilia (Milly) Rossato
  • Children: Carlo, Matteo, Lia
  • Notable Quote: "Architecture is art. I don't think you should say that too much, but it is art. I mean, architecture is many, many things. Architecture is science, is technology, is geography, is typography, is anthropology, is sociology, is art, is history. You know all this comes together. Architecture is a kind of bouillabaisse, an incredible bouillabaisse. And, by the way, architecture is also a very polluted art in the sense that it's polluted by life, and by the complexity of things."

Early Years

Renzo Piano was born into a family of building contractors, including his grandfather, father, uncles, and brother. 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. Says Piano:

"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."

Piano studied at the Polytechnic University of Milan from 1959 to 1964 before returning to work in his father's business in 1964, working under the guidance of Francis Albini.

Early Career and Influences

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. He then went 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 guidance from those who blended architecture and engineering. His mentors included the French-born designer Jean Prouvé and the brilliant Irish structural engineer Peter Rice.

In 1969, Piano received his first major commission to design the Italian Industry Pavilion at Expo ‘70 in Osaka, Japan. His Pavilion garnered international attention, including that of young architect Richard Rogers. The two architects formed a fruitful partnership that lasted from 1971 to 1978. Together they entered and won the international competition for the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.

The Centre Pompidou

Piano and Rogers spent the better part of the 1970s designing and building the Centre Georges Pompidou, also known as Beaubourg. It remains one of the main cultural centers and attractions in Paris. Completed in 1977, it was career-launching architecture for both men.

The radically innovative Centre has often been described as “high tech.” Piano has objected to this description, offering his own:

“Beaubourg was intended to be a joyful urban machine, a creature that might have come from a Jules Verne book, or an unlikely looking ship in dry dock...Beaubourg is a double provocation: a challenge to academicism, but also a parody of the technological imagery of our time. To see it as high-tech is a misunderstanding.”

International Notoriety

After their success with the Centre, the two architects went their own way. In 1977, Piano partnered with Peter Rice to form Piano & Rice Associates. And in 1981, he founded the Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Piano has become the most sought-after museum architect in the world. He is renowned for his ability to harmonize buildings both with their external environment and the art exhibited within them. 

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, "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.

Architectural Style

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 has 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.

Variety

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."

But Renzo Piano does speak of a theme that unites his work:

"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."

Finding Spatial Connections

The Renzo Piano Building Workshop has developed a reputation for reinventing standing architecture and creating something new. In northern Italy, Piano has done this at the Old Port in Genoa (Porto Antico di Genova) and the brownfield Le Albere district in Trento.

In the U.S., he 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.

Choosing a "top 10 list" of Renzo Piano projects to highlight is nearly impossible. Renzo Piano's work, like that of other great architects, is elegantly distinctive and socially responsible.

Legacy

In 1998, Renzo Piano was awarded what some call architecture's highest honor—The Pritzker Architecture Prize. He remains one of the most respected, prolific, and innovative architects of his time.

Many people connect Piano with the raucous design of the Centre de Georges Pompidou. Admittedly, it was not easy for him to lose that association. Because of the Centre, Piano has often been labeled "high tech," but he is adamant that this does not describe him: "[I]t implies that you aren't thinking in a poetic way," he says, which is far from his self-conception.

Piano considers himself to be a humanist and technologist, which both fit into modernism. Scholars of architecture note, as well, that Piano's work is rooted in the classical traditions of his Italian homeland. Judges for the Pritzker Architecture Prize credit Piano with redefining modern and postmodern architecture.

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