Novel ideas go hand in hand with actual designs as the calling cards of the top echelon of architects today. Museums entrust this level of the profession not just to make buildings that work, but also often to make landmarks that reflect each institution’s quest for that fleeting cutting edge of culture. Other than Frank Gehry, who for better or worse has elevated his brand of intuitive genius to an art form, many top architects today want you to know that their designs are to be judged on an intellectual plane. As Zaha Hadid, who speaks of “the idea of explosion and fragmentation” and “fluid spatialities,” has said: “Every building must have a central idea.”
These ideas often defy logic. Elizabeth Diller, the renowned architect/artist, speaks of “productive nihilism” in projects “done through a form of subtraction, or obstruction, or interference in a world that we naturally sleepwalk through.” Wolfgang Prix, the celebrated deconstructivist, believes that “the new architecture has to create space for concepts and ideas that haven’t been thought of yet.” Some even suggest that their clients (or museum boards) not try to understand their ideas. Daniel Libeskind’s website once proclaimed, “Architecture is a spiritual domain, a realm that can not be visualized, an area of invisible presence since it deals with the unspeakable.”
In this atmosphere of incoherent, self-proclaimed brilliance, Renzo Piano stands out as an architect who expresses a sound, clear, and almost modest approach to his practice. As an architect who is passionate about construction (his is a family of builders), he has developed a practice that is in equal parts about designing and making. At this intersection of architecture and construction, Piano’s firm is able to achieve ingenious solutions to practical challenges inherent in his designs often relating to the mechanics of bringing light into architecture. In the early and much-heralded Menil Collection in Houston, he devised an elegant system of louvers that modulate daylight and make the galleries luminous. In Houston and throughout his extensive body of work, the architecture is mostly orthogonal. Structural and expressive elements are often one and the same. Piano’s columns and beams are fully exposed—not hidden behind finishes. The resulting simplicity of his buildings—the absence of what one critic has called “the crash-landed-and-about-to-explode look in modern architecture”—makes his work seem calm in an era fraught by willful showmanship. But this simplicity and directness have inherent limitations inasmuch as Piano’s work is often based on stock-in-trade formulas and misconceptions about how we experience architecture, which disclose a lack of connection with the essential strand of humanism that underlies great buildings.
One of the formulas that aligns with Piano’s approach is the widespread and institutionalized bias against designing to create a meaningful relationship between old and new. This attitude reflects the orthodoxy of preservation policy and practice first expounded in The Venice Charter of 1964 that called for new architecture to “bear a contemporary stamp.” As codified in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and adopted by many preservation agencies, not under Federal control, this approach evolved into a mandate where contrast trumps context. Piano, typically, respects this policy, here making a new building that is explicitly foreign to its context and barely acknowledges its neighbors.