Renzo Piano's Light Touch

The architect may be 70 years old, but he's having a good year. His firm is currently working on 20 high profile, global projects

Architect Renzo Piano paces the streets of New York City's Meatpacking District. He is preparing to design an expansion to the Whitney Museum of American Art. Once seen as an extension to the museum's existing uptown space, residents' objections moved the project downtown, and in November last year, property was purchased at the entrance to the city's planned High Line park. Piano walks slowly, his hands in his pockets, looking at the scenery around him.

"Mentally I go fishing," he says. "I fish for emotion and inspiration from the place, from the people."

Piano's buildings also come out of contemporary culture and historical architecture. His list of "wonders of the world" includes few modern buildings. But while he is stimulated by the old, his attention to space and context keeps his own work modern and fresh. "Being an architect," he says, "is about memory and invention." Drawing on this sentiment, Piano blends tradition and innovation in his designs. For his Maison Hermès in Tokyo, a shop for the upscale fashion brand with offices above, Piano took inspiration from traditional glass structures such as the 1851 Crystal Palace in London, but used glass bricks for the facade to lend it a modern look. The lantern-like building helps the store stand out in a highly competitive, high-end shopping district.

The Inside-Out Building

Piano grew up in a family of builders. At age seven, he would tag along with his father and visit building sites in and around his home town of Genoa in Italy, and he became intrigued by the anatomy of buildings, the way they are built around a skeleton to form a complete structure. In the late 1950s, Piano moved to Florence to study architecture at university, and the city helped him consolidate his love of blending ancient with modern. Framing and structure are ideas that have stayed with him throughout his career, and many of his designs emphasize the skeletal interior of a building.

This is perhaps most apparent in the building that established him as a major player in the world of architecture. In 1971, after graduating and then working for renowned architect Louis Kahn for five years, Piano joined British architect Richard Rogers to create the Piano and Rogers Studio. The partnership resulted in the Centre Georges Pompidou—known in Paris as Beaubourg—finished in 1977.

It's a building turned inside-out. All the building's functions, including walkways and plumbing, are positioned on the outside, leaving the inside light and airy. Each function is designated by color: yellow for electricity; red for transport (elevators and walkways); blue for water; and green for air. The result is a colorful spiderweb of piping, with an open floor-plan inside.

"Reinventing the Campus"

Post-Pompidou, and after a partnership with Peter Rice, Piano established his own firm, the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, in the late 1980s. The firm currently employs 130 people and is working on about 20 projects. Its two main offices are in Paris and Genoa, and the practice recently opened a small office in New York. Piano himself, now 70, focuses on four projects at a time and still regularly travels among all three offices. This week he's working on the Whitney Museum and an expansion at Columbia University.

The project at Columbia includes a $1 billion-plus scheme to add 1.2 million square feet to the university. The proposed new buildings, which extend north along eight blocks starting at 125th Street and Broadway, will include a medical research center for neurology, a school of art, a business school building, and a meeting center. These academic facilities will be located above and below an open lobby that can be used as a gathering area.

Piano says the project "is about reinventing the campus of the 21st century" and includes public spaces such as a theater, a public library, and art galleries, so it's integrated with the surrounding community. It's a controversial project: Some members of the West Harlem neighborhood are unhappy that it proposes to take up 17 acres of space now occupied by small retailers. Other residents remain cautious. For now, construction is set to start as early as fall, 2008.

Changing Times

It's not the first time that Piano has attempted to reinvent a traditionally staid environment. The new New York Times Building in midtown Manhattan is covered with a curtain wall of white ceramic rods that are intended to reflect the color of the sky as it changes. The luminous building is a stark counterpoint to the old New York Times HQ, which operated out of a converted factory made of concrete and steel. Such use of light is central to all of Piano's designs, and many of them include floor-to-ceiling glass and open plans.

"In New York, all the buildings become red in the evening, blue after it rains. This building will be even more metamorphic," he says of the Times design. "The feeling of the building keeps changing. It takes on the color and the spirit of the moment."

Piano's fascination with light and lightness inform his chosen wonders of the world and his own designs. He says it's "instinct" to make light and transparency a moving force in all good architecture. From the "house of glass" (La Maison de Verre) in Paris to the Palm House in Kew Gardens in London to his very own Maison Hermés in Tokyo, light plays a central role in the elegance and ingenuity of his design. As he paces the street, looking at a brand new building site, it's what captures and inspires him.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.