Hubert Burda Media

I am the City

He's 76 this year but Renzo Piano displays no signs of stopping. He chats about his two latest projects in London and Oslo.

I am the City

There seems to be no stopping the dynamic Italian architect Renzo Piano. In the past few months, he has handed over the keys of two of his completed projects. The dramatic glass pinnacle The Shard in London, and the water-and-light inspired Astrup and Fearnley Museum in Oslo show that he is still growing as an architect and can pull what the client wants out of the hat.
For almost 40 years, the sprightly 76-year-old has been creating skylines and cityscapes across European capitals, a task that started in the mid-1970s when he designed, along with Richard Rogers, what was then the highly controversial Pompidou Centre in Paris. It's no different in Oslo, where the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art sits on the waterfront, or where The Shard fingers the London skyline.
But even highly garlanded architects are not immune to criticism. What is now set to become a London landmark has had its fair share of critics and has encountered individuals who were hell-bent to stop its construction. “People need to have trust in these projects by established architects,” says Piano. “I knew from the start it was going to work and be beautiful and that this was the place in London to build it,” he adds with sterling determination.
He admits that he had his fingers crossed in his pocket during the official public hearing into its planning — something that could have stopped the construction entirely. What helped get the green light and gave points in his favour was the building's design, which referenced London's church spires and historic ship masts.
“This building was not made with the intention to be aggressive or powerful,” says Piano. “I wanted this structure to stand tall, while explaining to the world why it should be here. Its size and scale are celebrating a shift in the urban planning idea that growth in a city should not happen by building more and more out on the periphery,” he says. If a city has to grow, it should grow from the inside. “I'm not an advocate of tall buildings for their own sake, but I am an advocate of intensifying the city from its core,” he explains with conviction.
Dominating the skyline across the Thames from the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, the iconic towering glass pinnacle is set to become an important London landmark. “It's not difficult to create a new shape, even children can do that. What's difficult is to make a new form that makes sense,” he shares. The Shard achieves something truly sculptural as the giant sides fold and overlap each other creating fissures and niches. Set at an angle, the glass panels reflect the city's sky and surrounding urban landscape, fragmenting the building's scale and turning it, says Piano, into “a mirror of London”.
The Shard may be able to accommodate tens of thousands of people, yet surprisingly it has just 48 parking spaces. Piano is a great advocate of public transport and would like to see cars remain out of the city centre. This is aided by the fact that the glass tower sits right by London Bridge station, a major transport hub which can easily bring people in and out of the area. “It's another big shift to tell people to leave the car at home and use London's excellent public transport,” he explains. “I love that it's in the most crowded place in London and pierces the sky with its vertical tenacity,” he adds proudly.
Piano insisted from the outset that the building have three separate functions: Office space, a hotel and residential apartments. He was also firmly behind incorporating a public viewing platform at the top. That spectacular glassed-in pinnacle opened February 1 last year. Visitors with a head for heights can pre-book tickets at $44 to soar up 310m to the vertiginous viewing platforms on the uppermost three floors. On a clear day the view goes on for about 60km.
In spring this year, the luxury Shangri-La Hotel will open its doors. Occupying floors 34 to 52, the hotel will provide, apart from luxurious accommodations with views to die for, a high-end gym, gourmet restaurants, bars and a swimming pool. Above that, for those who can afford the $59 to $98 million price tags, are luxury apartments.
Much of the multi-billion dollar budget for the project has been footed by the Qatar royal family who have many property and financial interests in London, including emblematic Harrods, the American embassy building in Grosvenor Square, One Hyde Park, Chelsea Barracks, the Olympic village, Song Bird Estates and sizeable chunks of Barclays and the London Stock Exchange. Two of the duplex apartments at The Shard have been reserved for use by members of the Qatari royal family when they are in London.
Piano's other newly completed building, which opened its doors in October 2012, sings with style. Sitting on Oslo's waterfront the art museum, with graceful, glass sail-like arches, fulfils its purpose as an anchor to the cultural precinct in the city's budding new arts district. “I immediately saw the possibilities when I visited the site back in 2009,” says Piano.
“The waterfront setting and the promise of other cultural activities to come prompted me to create something, which would give the Tjuvhomen peninsula, where the museum is located, a new sense of purpose. I was inspired by the light and the water,” adds the mellifluously spoken architect. Filled with docks and wharves, the whole area, which for centuries had a highly notorious reputation as a den for thieves, has been gentrified with luxury apartments, shopping strips, art galleries, restaurant promenades and classy office blocks.
For Piano, the contemporary gallery space housing the collection of the shipping company it's named after is all about public accessibility. “I want people and culture to connect here in an informal and easy way,” he explains. Although the Oslo project is a smaller scale one, he finds similarities to his mammoth Parisian work the Pompidou Centre. “The two buildings inspire the public to go inside and discover art,” he reveals. “I wanted my architecture to work as a magnet to attract people and provide a place where they can lose their heads for a while.”
Piano is no newcomer to designing museums. He has worked on 17 to date and all are as elegant and commanding as the Italian himself. “Light is what allows you to be radical when creating a space for art,” says Piano. Whereas The Shard is a mirror tilted to the sky, the Astrup and Fearnley Museum's huge glass roof makes use of natural daylight and sees visitors raising their heads to look out.
Taking his inspiration from the city-side fiord and waterfront activity around it, the structure features rugged aspen-wood siding, thin steel columns with cable riggings that recall sails, and a curved roof that brings to mind a thrown fishing net. “I see Astrup and Fearnley as completing an important cycle for me,” he confides. “I feel as if I have returned to where I started. The Pompidou Centre in Paris was a rebellion against the idea of a traditional art gallery. We were raising hell then,” he grins. “We didn't want to make a boring and lifeless mausoleum to art. Instead, we created a place which drew people into the building so they could discover art for themselves, and here in Oslo I've returned to that same idea.”
At its western end, the museum opens out onto a picturesque pebble beach where families can play together and enjoy life as nature and architecture merge. Taking its inspiration from the horizontal, as opposed to the vertical, the building is split into three separate pavilions all connected by walkways spanning the water. “I chose wood for the exterior so the building can grow into itself,” say Piano. “Some buildings look better with age.”
Inside the three pavilions, there are ten architectural spaces that use natural light to divide the space as well as group the works, including a good selection of contemporary art from Andy Warhol to Damien Hirst and Cindy Sherman.
Piano says that his buildings are like his children. “I don't really care if they are beautiful, just that they are happy,” Looking at the demure museum and the tall and boastful tower, they are, without any doubt, both.