Piano Works

The architect Renzo Piano makes high design for our local culture of kitsch

The Italian architect Renzo Piano designs jewel-box buildings. High levels of invention in the realm of engineering--from the ferro-cement ceiling louvers of The Menil Collection in Houston to the glass-sheathed earthquake-proof tower, the Maison Hermès, in Tokyo--do not so much belie the precious quality of his projects as constitute it. Piano uses the repeatable module, the mass-produced prefabricated unit, in a way that defies its centrality in mass production. We know well the power of mass production in architecture as we see it all around us. There is the legendary prototype of the repeatable in architecture: the cookie-cutter suburb Levittown on Long Island built after WWII, upscale tract homes--aka "McMansions"--that go up today in slash-and-burn fashion where once stood your grandmother's ranch house, and the less iconic but all too present big-box discount warehouse. Piano transforms this one-thing-after-another logic into a world of radical invention and in so doing makes difference out of repetition.

So befits the arts district of Dallas, but what about the rest of the city?

The Nasher Sculpture Center, designed by Piano, is one of a handful of high-architecture buildings on Flora Street in the arts district. So with projects already standing by I.M. Pei and Piano and the Performing Arts Center collectively designed by Rem Koolhaas and Sir Norman Foster to come, Flora Street promises to be a vision of tony urban culture. Situated along Central Expressway, the row, with all its architectural toots and whistles, will function something like a disingenuous roof comb. Unlike the literal representation of the Mayan roof comb, elaborately carved walls set atop temples that were part of the overall representation of spiritual power, the heraldic boxes along the highway will be a metaphor for a hip and progressive urban agglomeration. It will announce a wholly avant-garde city of with-it habitués and connoisseurs. Though Dallas bears an extremely vibrant culture of contemporary art, a city where all of its citizens are open-minded lovers of new form it is not. Then again, disingenuousness, hiding behind gorgeous facades, is what Dallas does best. Does this twisted game of mimicry and appearance pose a newfound vanguardism? One might answer with a qualified "yes" when wearing rose-colored glasses.

The Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (1971-1977)
The Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (1971-1977)

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On Tour with Renzo Piano and Building Workshop: Selected Projects is on display through August 13 at the Nasher Sculpture Center, 214-242-5100.

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On Tour with Renzo Piano and Building Workshop: Selected Projects, an exhibition devoted to the architect's life work now showing at the Nasher Sculpture Center, poses none of these questions. In keeping with traditional museology and yesterday's art history, it is a show based on the idea of the super-genius of one man, Renzo Piano. It is an exhibition driven primarily by hero worship. This is not to say that Piano isn't an incredibly gifted designer worthy of such recognition. It is, rather, to state the obvious. There is nothing new here in terms of exhibition design or provocation. No one has thought to ask about the question of greater urban formation, the role that the designs of such a notable architect might play in geographies of urban sprawl or what it means to have a golden ghetto of high architectural form when there are ugly hard-knock ghettoes not far away in the city. No one has considered that the city is not just made up of mortar, macadam, steel and concrete, but that citizens too play a part and that the city and its citizens are inherently connected. To be fair, however, it is a show devoted to architecture and all of its built and conceptual details. That is indeed a rarity in Dallas. No radical thought here but plenty of good, pretty form.

What is remarkable about this exhibition is its ability to communicate cogently a vast array of data--information that is visual, aural and, because of the spatiality of architecture, tactile. The show takes up two floors, with interactive "project tables" set up in the front-room gallery upstairs and in the main room downstairs. Architectural models, oversized architectural joints and ribbing, and images of biomorphic form and paintings printed on Plexiglas hang overhead. On long tables one finds spiral notebooks of sketches, photographs and plans, slides placed under glass for viewing with a monocle, variously scaled models, small and large prototypes of ceiling and wall modules, a small library of books, and videos on small monitors with headphones. For what this exhibition lacks in intellectual provocation it makes up for in beauty. And, perhaps verging on a type of provocation entirely its own, it is a kind of beauty specific to architecture. It is beauty, yes, that is formal, but to be more precise, it is a beauty of complex information. The show elucidates well the intricacies that make architecture distinct from all other media of art.

As winner of the Pritzker Prize in 1998 and, perhaps less notably, declared by Time in May 2006 to be one of the world's "100 most influential people," Piano has accolades to prove his value. But the power of Piano's invention and talent is laid bare on the tables. The upstairs gallery is devoted to the work that has made him internationally renowned. Even if this show does not overtly discuss the role of urbanism in his work, the urban prowess of his projects speaks for itself. There is, for example, the Pompidou Center in Paris, an early project from the 1970s that Piano designed with the English architect Richard Rogers. A museum for contemporary art designed in "high-tech" style, the Center wears its entrails on the outside. Instead of winding through the building in classical fashion, museum-goers ascend upward on escalators in transparent tubes tacked to the outside of the building. Though a "parody of technology," the building reinvents essential technologies of architecture, propagating, for example, a new type of circulation that doubles as urban view-maker. In riding through the tubes up the side of the building, one experiences some of the most intense perspectives of Paris. Then there is the large stone plaza out front--one of the most successful public spaces in the world.

Maquettes of Piano's more recent projects, the New York Times Tower, London Bridge Tower and Maison Hermès, are on view downstairs. Along the back wall there are his most overtly utopian designs. Old and new have been coupled, with the Fiat Flying Carpet, a green car frame (1978-'80), and the worm-like demountable plastic IBM Traveling Pavilion (1983-'86), next to the bubbly and undulating landscape-cum-architecture project for the Renovation and Expansion of the Californian Academy of Science in San Francisco (2000-present).

Consistent in all of his designs, from 1966 to the present, is the innovative manipulation of the repeatable module. Back in the day of the architectural avant-garde, in the 1960s when Archigram, Archizoom and Super Studio flaunted their stuff, this was the ticket to a better tomorrow. Varying the repeatable unit in new ways, making a megastructure that was demountable and thus impermanent, for example, promised a mode of revolutionary living. Though his work has changed over the years, gaining refinement while losing gritty derring-do, it is this revolutionary possibility, a point-of-view shielded if not enabled by rose-colored glasses, which flickers at the heart of Piano's design.

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