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In 2018, the architectural exhibition of the Renzo Piano: The Art of Making Buildingswas hosted by The Royal Academy of Arts in London. (RA, 2018)  It is a comprehensive exhibition about Renzo Piano’s career in the last 30 years. (RA, 2018) The exhibition was curated closely and intensively with Renzo Piano himself and his Building Workshop over about two years and he spent so much time and thought into it. (Goodwin, 2018) 16 key and influential pieces of Piano’s projects were spotlighted and displayed thoughtfully in three exhibition rooms. Each project was demonstrated by a series of sketches, design drawings, photography, models, full-scale sectional models, letters and articles to tell people about the unique challenges and solutions that had been discovered to overcome through the design process. (Goodwin, 2018; Sarah, 2018) Those materials and models were chosen by Piano himself from the old archives in his Building Workshops. (Goodwin, 2018)  The exhibition also includes a new film where Piano talks about his design approach and beliefs about architecture and people. Moreover, the key focus of the exhibition is a specially made sculptural installation which brought together nearly 100 of Piano’s projects. (RA, 2018)


Renzo Piano described that architecture is an adventure and life journey with “full of discovery”, and the passion and ambition in life and making architecture can be clearly found throughout his projects. He has a strong interest in the relationship between technical sciences and art, and has great concerns of the responsibility of architecture as functional social art to make ‘a place for people’ rather than to ‘seduce people’. (Piano, 2018) The process in which concept ideas are tested out and refined are done through a series of back-and-forth physical experimentations, research and discussion is a fundamental and crucial concept for him. The film in the exhibition tell people how much Renzo Piano fascinated with sailing and boat design. The quote from him, “a boat takes two years to build and two to tune, the tuning achieved through knowledge gained from handling, feel and intuition rather than intellect.” (Piano, 2018) So, Piano applied it to his design approach and emphasized ‘piece by piece’ working method. (Buchanan, 1993) In his Building Workshop which is “they test ideas in scale models and full-size mock-ups of sections of buildings, in order to discover how a proposal- whether the whole composition or a technical detail- might look, feel and behave.” (Goodwin,2018)Thestart point of design has always been the use of physical models (Buchanan, 1993) and he works very closely with engineers to continually push the boundaries of design and technology, and craft his architecture with the pursuit of beauty and poetry together to serve a civic purpose. (Goodwin, 2018) 


Therefore, the exhibition aimed to provide insight into Piano’s essential design process, and how he develops form and material to achieve engineering precision for poetic elegance and beauty, and more importantly, to show Piano’s vision and spirit in his architecture profession. (Goodwin, 2018) When John Tusa (the Chairman of RIBA) asked Piano in the interview what does he hoped audiences and visitors will take away from this exhibition and how to understand his architecture better, Piano’s response was: “I think probably this mix of the beauty, the poetry of construction, the art of making buildings. When pieces come together in the space, and then they hold, there is something there that’s clever, well-crafted, but at the same time it’s beautiful. And also, that all this is not done for pleasure. It’s done for making a better world, because it’s about people, it’s about creating a place for people, to stay together, to share values.” (Piano,2018)

These 16 projects range from the “prehistory” periods as what Piano called, the Pompidou Center, and until right up to the most recent two projects which are currently on site. (Goodwin, 2018) It includes the influence of his Genoese background, his rise when partnered with Richard Rogers, and his most recent experiments. (RA, 2018) Also, these projects were purposely selected from the range all across the world with different typologies like the airports, hospitals, museums, schools and culture centers with his intention that all those projects are public buildings. (Goodwin, 2018) Piano explained the reason within the speech in the exhibition by stating: “This is simply because I love making public building, and public building are for people, to stay together, it is about society. The mad idea that architecture can do someway change the world.” (Piano, 2018) Since Piano’s work is about humanist empathy, technical refinement and beauty, the following part will examine two specific projects among those 16 projects in the exhibition, the Center Kanak and the Shard in London. Because Piano pays a great consideration and exploration on structure, material and environment throughout his design process, it would be reasonable to review those architectural key terms from those two projects and look at how the two diverse projects share similar architectural values and language of Piano with different design contexts and considerations. These architectural key terms are interrelated and interweaved to fulfill his vision and intention. At the same time, this helps to review how well the architectural language and design approaches have been presented and expressed in this exhibition, from the spatial arrangement to the exhibition method.


The Kanak Center is situated in the city of New Caledonia at the eastern coast of Australia. (Blaser,1998) The project task was to create symbolic language to devote to the Kanak people and their civilization. (Blaser, 1998) This project shows how Piano makes space for people as he emphasized its social purpose for people, including the Kanak people, their future generation and the visitors and his response to this specific program with its strong cultural context with the tropical environment; how he evokes the beauty and spiritual quality within his architecture to what he tried to pursue, and how he synthetically considered the environment, structure, material and culture with various strategies. Moreover, this project also highlights how he experimented and tested out his designs “piece by piece” through his design process.


In terms of the site, the Kanak Center is situated on a small promontory and is integrated into the natural line of the ridge with both façades facing towards the sea. (Anatxu, 1998) The total building area is 7650 square meters (over 82,000 square feet) and is distributed into ten hut pavilions, lined up side by side with diversity of dimensions and functions, and the highest one is 28 meters. (Anatxu, 1998) Those theme spaces were categorized into three zones and like three smaller villages with different uses and purposes: Zone 1: a permanent exhibition, temporary exhibition space, an auditorium and an open-air amphitheater; Zone 2: research space, a conference room and a library; Zone 3: activity spaces for dance, music, sculpture and painting. (Sean, 2013) 


Piano purposely abandoned the idea of the monolithic structure as he wrote that “the center is not and could not be enclosed within a monumental structure,” and utilized the site to reflect Kanak culture, emphasizing on spatial sensitivity and interaction with nature. (Piano, 2000) One of the reasons for arranging those pavilions in a row spread out on the promontory was to set out the volumes like houses in a traditional village layout to reflect the local culture. (Hockney, 2018) The curve axis is comprised of the main covered but not enclosed circulation pathway, office spaces and other indoor functional spaces, and is punctuated by in-between space which are communal garden spaces and outdoor spaces with the views towards nature. This pathway also connects the pavilions to each other, so that this series of open and enclosed spaces create a continued conversation with the nature and the ocean. (Sean, 2013) This arrangement makes the entrance of each pavilion located between this axis pathway and the edges of each volume; however, this is also a consideration from the symbolic custom in local culture. (Anatxu, 1998)  In traditional Kannak culture, only people with high reputation or social status can enter the structures from front entrance directly because of this cultural consideration. The circulation walkway was designed with the indirect approach from this axis corridor to the individual volume. (Anatxu, 1998)


The orientation of the complex is crucial and has been considered a lot in this site, and it also determined the layout of the volume. This is because one of the tasks for Piano was to utilize the site and local climate to reflect the close relationship between the Kanak and nature. (Anatxu, 1998) Therefore, Piano designed the pavilion to face the ocean, where the prevailing winds comes from the east, allowing the wind to be channeled through the louvers into the indoor space and in-between spaces of those volumes to ensure the comfort. (Anatxu, 1998) However, there are two layouts to achieve the village arrangement: one is a peripheral layout that houses have a center communal space, and the second one is the linear arrangement where all the houses face the geographic importance like a river with the same orientation. (Sean, 2013)The initial design was based on the peripheral layout, but after Piano tested it out, it didn’t work for his natural ventilation strategy unless he orientated each of them to the prevailing wind for his environmental control system, so he chose the layout that the volumes arranged along the main pathway. (Sean, 2013)


The construction and form of the huts are the expressions of how the Kanak people lived harmoniously with nature. (Anatxu, 1998) So, in terms of the structure, Piano wanted to respect and reflect the Kanak civilization within his structure strategy. Piano provided the visual link based not only on aesthetics, but also on functionality in which the structural form related to environmental strategies, as he wrote: “so the continuity of the village in time is not based on the duration of the individual building, but on the preservation of a topology and a scheme of construction.” (Piano, 1997) Piano took the dynamic and essential construction element of local construction together with modern language, but avoided imitative pastiche and overly literal references. (Sean, 2013; Piano, 1997)


The visual, dominant feature of the complex is the structural form which links the project together. The structure is comprised of the giant curve wooden struts and steel connections and they are visually integrated. The contouring of those vertical ribs allows for the transition between the vertical and horizontal elements, as well as the curve and straight elements in which all the structural elements are connected to those main struts as they are anchored in the concrete foundation. (Sean, 2013) The material of the structs is iroko, a material from Africa that has been used for both laminated construction with galvanized steel panels and as staves in the thin layer of cladding. (Blaser, 1998) Iroko is structurally very strong and durable, and is immune to molds and insects without preservative treatments. (Sean, 2013) Therefore, the wooden struts that form the curve structure can shed the wind and bear the load well in this site context. (Anatxu, 1998) The double skin structure system contains the outer struts with installed louvers and the inner struts have window protection and also for regulating the light, and created this unique and unified structural language. This structure is like clothing that provides protection from nature but doesn’t lose the intimacy with nature; the louvers and windows also control the comport and regulate how people feel and sense the space. This is unlike the conventional way that the structure been hidden into the façade or to have some kind of indication about the structure from the outside through façade decoration details. 


Although this language is part of the local structure, but Piano utilized this character to emphasize on the volume of the space, and to keep this unified rhythm to ensure the interaction with nature. Moreover, the internal space exposes the inner struts and the structure elements with some have been paneled on for functional use, but even the internal wood paneling walls indicated the horizontal and vertical structural elements that are behind. Piano left all the tectonic structure visible so that people can easily understand visually from outside and inside how the building stands up. Various dimensions of structure elements were carefully joined and showed in contrast with the massive size of the volumes. The clarity of layered structure provides this logic of how different loads transfer to each structural element and feel the tension or compression between them. Every structural part is essential with the necessity of its being there. (Shingu, 2018)


The achievement of the structural elegance and clarity can be reflected on the scale models of the pavilion for this project which is exhibited in the Royal Academy of Arts. It clearly shows how this complex structure been joined together, and the relationship between each structural element, as well as the scale of each structural component. This is always the Piano working method in design process to build a scale model and to develop ideas of form and rhythm, and to give deeper understanding about engineering, proportion and human scale. As Piano said, “Sometimes the individual piece is so small and is produced so many times that is becomes an organism and yet it is still recognizable, this clever ways avoids the obstacles posed by real scale in the environment,” and “the only two ways of avoiding errors are: investigate the component parts and build a mental hologram.” (Piano, p105) 


In terms of environment, it can certainly be argued that the design of the Kanak culture is shaped and influenced by both the natural environment and the cultural environment, and they are also related since the Kanak’s culture and spirit is intimately linked to the natural environment. In terms of the cultural environment, the task of this project is to create a symbol that evoked the Kanak culture and its roots to both the public and their future generations. (Anatxu, 1998) Therefore, Piano utilized some of the traditional construction features and custom into the form, the general layout, the spatial arrangement and the use of material to create this cultural linkage. For example, the great slope of the roof which became the wall in the local structure to ensure the rainwater quickly drain into the earth from the roof, is also for reducing the heat gain and the curve shape to reduce the load on the structure from the wind. (Anatxu, 1998) He used these features as part of environment strategies, but he also did some modification to suit the function for modern public use of the building and for rationality use of the material. For instance, in tradition Kanak structures, the skin of the building is weaved into the structure by the grass and the rattan, so Piano used the wooden louvers instead, but still operated with the same environmental concern to regulate the light and wind through the internal space.


The diagonally cut cylinders form to ensure there is sufficient light and heat gain coming into the space and the work was integrated with the roof system to keep the spaces cool and fresh. (Guthrie, 2018) The double roof system was a dominant environmental strategy for natural ventilation and by providing this smart environmental control system to cope with the change of local temperature and weather in a sustainable way. The louvres were installed from the bottom of both the outer and inner walls, and based on the current speed of wind, the two layers of louvers are opened and closed by a computer. (Anatxu, 1998) This strategy had been tested by the scaled model to determine the accuracy of the idea and to make it convince for the client as well. Here is the quote from Alistair Guthrie, who is Piano’s colleague and was working on this project, “the client was unsure that this wind-driven comfort control would be sufficient in the climate, but with extensive hour by hour analysis of the weather and its interaction with the building we proved that it would be comfortable for 95% of the hottest month of the year, which alleviated their concerns.” (Guthrie,2018)


The fascinating aspect of this environmental strategy with this structure is that people can actually hear the wind passing through the opening space at the top of the pavilion and it produces a special whistling sound. (Guthrie,2018) This way, people can actually imagine how the invisible wind interacts with the structure themselves, and to hear, quoting from Piano, “the voice of the Kanak.” (Piano, 1998) Clearly, Piano pursued this building with those sensory and imagined experiences as part of his architectural language, just as his architect friend Susumu Shingu remembered that Piano had asked him: “Can you make the invisible air visible?” (Shingu, 2018) Visually, the Kanak center is well blended into the site by the form and the layout, but also by the horizontal and vertical wooden structural elements. The gradient density of the louver like the surrounding trees with less visibility near the bottom and there is more visibility at the top with more light passing through, together with the anchoring system make the wooden structure feel like its naturally growing out of the ground. People can see the sketches and the section in the exhibition that Piano drew the pines tree by horizontal lines as well, to emphasize that the structure visually has this surrounding reference. 


This also characterize the materiality of the building complex. The nine-story height pine trees and the vertical structural elements make people feel that part of the structures are blended in and integrated with the nature. (Guthrie,2018) The use of wood, the proportion of the structure, the light reflection on the volumes and the gradient density of the louvres make the feeling of the structure relatively light and look like it’s almost disappearing to the sky and blending in with the trees. This open-structure system from both inside and outside offer a breathable and lively perception like a living organism. For the internal space, the light and shade which is cast by the louvers and natural light makes the space lively and more dynamic, and even makes the space lighter in contrast with the conventional walls. This lightness can be seen from the models and the sketches and can achieved by various methods. This sensation of lightness with the connection with sky and the horizon can be found throughout his design and build which is ensured by the processes his making. (Rogers, 2018)


Compared to the Kanak Center that is located in the natural environment with a cultural mission, the design project for the Shard was under a complex challenge in the urban context. Although with such different design briefs and various consideration like economic, cultural and social factors, Renzo Piano still took the social response and his ideal to make a place for people and society. A quote from Piano himself for regarding this project, “the project was born, as always, from a combination of many different approaches- scientific, historical, formal artistic and expressive-focused in the vision of the city and the future.” He did what he always did on a project where ideas were generated through a synthesis of research and developed through making series of physical models. (Goodwin, 2018) In order to achieve that, he took a great consideration in terms of the site, environment, structure and materials in the Shard.  


In terms of the site, the Shard is located in Southwark where there are lots of cultural and historic significance around the site location in the dense urban fabric. (Piano, 2016)  For instance, the Tate modern, the London Bridge and the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre are the cultural hubs in south central London, where are lots of abandoned factories and warehouses located where the re-urbanization was expected to be after the construction of the Shard. (Sooke, 2018) Moreover, the skyline of London was seriously concerned by the English Heritage for the preservation of London’s landscape.(Sooke, 2018) Therefore, Piano faced the challenge of  the present use and also the future of the city. He avoids spreading out the volume and covering more land on the site with lot of traffic and generating pollution. Instead, he placed a major public transport hub under the Shard as one of his environmental approaches. (Sooke, 2018) As he says: “The first thing to defend is land. There is a nostalgic, almost romantic idea that it is more ecological to make a small building – forget it, this is the worst way to consume land. This is the reason that cities grow. It is more socially correct to intensify the city and free up space on the ground. The city is fragile and vulnerable, so we have to be careful.” (Piano, 2016) Therefore, instead of affecting problematic growth for the city focal point, the Shard tried to help tackling on the urban issue. So, the ground floor opens up to the public as circulation for people to use public transport and space is left for commercial and retail uses to activate the neighbor. (Sooke, 2018)



In terms of the environment, this contrasts with the Kanak center where the natural and cultural environment shaped the design and the volume was spread out to create the interaction with the environment. The spatial layout of the Shard was arranged vertically due to the limited urban use of land, but it create another live environment within the building. It is called by Piano as “a true vertical city”. (Piano, 2016) It was designed to be a mixed-use building from the office use of space to the top of the observatory. However, Piano purposely did not want the building to be left unused outside office hours, so he placed the shops, galleries, restaurant and hotels in a different section and created the hierarchy of uses within the tower that thousands of people work and live in there to create a vibrant city environment within the building all day.(Sooke, 2018)  In terms of the environmental impact, Piano took great efforts to achieve efficient energy use as much as possible in this large volume and high-energy usage skyscraper. He used the most efficient technologies for sustainability with less 30 percent energy use compared to conventional skyscrapers. (Piano, 2016) By using insulating materials, recycling techniques, the natural ventilation of the double skin façade system and by using the exchangers to redistribute the excess heat within the building. (Piano, 2016) The idea of building it like a crystal was part of the environmental strategy, the triple-glazing together with a sunscreen can automatically shade the section of the building under the system detection, but also to gain natural heat when it needed.(Sooke, 2018)



In terms of the structure, the form of the sharp spire is inspired by the church spire in London.  (Sarah, 2018) The structural engineering was commissioned by WSP and to achieve the vision of both the developer and Piano. (Mawer, 2016) The foundation and the structural stiffness are very changing due to the surrounding railway, utilities, other infrastructures and other safety factors. (Mawer, 2016) Various tests were carried out including both physical and digital testing, problems arose that needed appropriate solutions. For instance, the wind tunnel testing, the forces at the base model and other structural models to ensure the dimensions of the structure elements, and the method for the construction could be constructed safely and efficiently (Mawer, 2016) The tower was built around the super-strong concrete core to provide the stability of the building. In order to achieve the tower vanishing to the sky as Piano designed, the density of the structure reduced gradually and replaced by the steel mast. (Mawer, 2016) There were lots of economic and technical considerations for the structure, but it beautifully fulfilled the design and vision of Piano. 


 In terms of the materiality, the luminosity of the glazing provides this spiritual feeling as the light reflects out and passes through the building, and it looks like “a sailing ship floating over the rooftops of London towards the sunset.”  (Sarah, 2018) It can be argued that the shape of the site, the hierarchy of uses, the cultural reference and the environmental strategies all suggest the crystal spire form. But the obsessions with lightness, beauty and poetic gesture obviously reflect on the Shard. In the exhibition, there are some small models which are used to study the form and feature of the façade to understand how to achieve the facets of glazing overlapping the volume of the Shard to create these elegant lines integrated with the lightweight appearance. 


Moreover, the top of the tower is kept open as the observatory, and people from the street can clearly see the structure elements within the glazing with the sun light passing through. It is like incomplete shape rather than a complete mass with solidity. The model of the transparent top part of the tower was also hanging down from the ceiling in the exhibition and floating in the space. Visitors could see the structural and functional part of the tower made by wood and covered with the plastic sheets, and could see Piano’s point. “The spire concept is, something disappears into the clouds – it belongs to our imaginations”, and “It's also about – and this may be a bit poetic – breathing fresh air. You don't go up only to show muscle. You can do that if you are stupid, but if you are not then you go up and look for fresh air to breathe. You cannot do that by taking possession of the sky with a big, aggressive building.”   (Piano, 2016)

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In the exhibition, the folding chairs were placed around each table and provided the workshop feeling that encourages people to sit down and review each project from the sketches of ideas. Moreover, to those developing models and articles about the context, and to give people a comprehensive information and in-depth understanding about the similarity of the design approaches and working process with different challenges and considerations within each project. In terms of the general exhibition strategies, the visitor can review and understand the characters of design not only from the exhibits, but also from the presenting method which interrelated to reveal Piano’s architectural characters and ideology. The sensation of weightlessness and lightness can be reflected on those models of structural elements that are hanging from the ceiling and defy gravity. (Alastair, 2018) Those structural models are the essential structural strategy in each project that Piano integrated to the design thinking. Although people can feel the weight of the structure, by hung them and being light-footed, it can evoke a sense of agility. (Goodwin, 2018) Additionally, the 16 tables that displayed each of the 16 projects used the same idea of being weightless. The white tops were supported by slender black stands with thin cross bracings, so it certainly provides some kind of light and floating feelings from the viewer.


The natural light coming from the ceiling has a very powerful result that provides the shadow to those mock-ups and models of skeletal structural systems with some kind of sculptural effect to show the elegance of shapes together with the refinement of hi-tech techniques. People can imagine the structure component on the actual building with the natural light. Moreover, the sectional models of the top observatory of the Shad was hanging and floating in the space which allow people to see the light passing through the model, to see the reflection he emphasized, imaging the beauty and spiritual feeling within the structure. The soundtrack in this exhibition which contains the natural sounds of running water, bird singing and orchestra tuning up that helped to evoke the sensory experience and interaction with nature that Piano pursued within his design. (Alastair, 2018)


The central island, a scale model of more than one hundred of his work, and the models of the buildings were made of white plastic feel like a utopian city of Renzo Piano. It was built by the Building Workshop over two years. (Frearson, 2018) Most of them are located along the central axis which across the whole island as an urban context with the Airport Terminal at the end, with the coastal line area and the natural forest spreading out from the urban context. The buildings are all one to a thousand scale, so people can look and compare the scale and how the buildings look under a different context within the same hologram. (Goodwin, 2018) The film in front of the island which was commissioned by the RCA shows the inside of the Building Workshop, the building sites, and some personal moments in his life with Piano’s own speech about his work. (Goodwin, 2018) 



Therefore, by various materials, way of presenting and illuminating his working process with the Building Workshop, Piano’s exhibition offers a great depth and context for people to dive into his work and into his vision as an architect. Visitors can definitely see his working method as a “piece by piece “making, his design language and his life which also reflect on his design and building projects. What’s more inspiring is his spirit and the responsibility as an architect. Piano says, “To be creative you just have to decide” and” To be creative, you jump!”

Renzo Piano exhibition film

This 17-minute, dual-screen film installation was commissioned especially for the exhibition.

© Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2018. A film by Thomas Riedelsheimer

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1.Renzo Piano: The Art of Making Buildings-by Royal Academy of Arts, 2018

2. Article: Renzo Piano, Royal Academy, review:  designed to make your spirit soar but plummets back to earth by Alastair          Sooke, 11 September 2018 -The Telegraph

3.Renzo Piano Before Renzo Piano- Masters and Beginnings by Lorenzo Ciccarelli, 2017 P24-36, p41-57

4.Renzo Piano building workshop by Buchanan, 1993

5.Werner Blaser/Renzo Piano– centre Kanak

6.The Shard, by Kenneth Powell, Thames & Husdon Limited, 2015

7. Renzo Piano Building Workshop Complete Works 1966-Todayby Philip Jodidio, Taschen, 2014, p406-408, p532-541

8. Renzo Piano sustainable architectures, Anatxu Zabalbeascoa,1998, p4-15

9.The architect’s studio, Michael Juul holm, 2003, p7-19, p47-63

10.Renzo Piano building workshop2007-2017, by AV monographs 2017 p52-p57














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4. Renzo Piano: The Art of Making Buildings-by Royal Academy of Arts, 2018

5.Renzo Piano Building Workshop Complete Works 1966-Todayby Philip Jodidio, Taschen, 2014, p406-408, p532-541





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