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Innovators interview: Renzo Piano

Video: Renzo Piano is the subject of this month’s Innovators interview from the top of The Shard in London, produced in partnership with Hunter Douglas

AR Innovators – Renzo Piano from The Architectural Review

Rob Gregory Thank you for giving us some time here on the 14th floor of the Shard in London, for our latest Innovators interview. Before we talk about innovation in more detail, I wonder if you could talk about what architecture means to you generally. We have spoken before and we discussed the idea of it being the noble act of building, and the responsibility that comes with that…

Renzo Piano Architecture is a dangerous discipline because if you are wrong, you are wrong for a long time. If someone writes a bad book, you don’t read it, but architecture is more lasting and profound. This is the reason why, in the case of the Shard, I thought it was right to go through a complicated process of approval and public enquiries. It made me as a designer more sure of what I was doing, adding value to the building in terms of the public realm, in terms of sustainability, in terms of all the possible criticisms. And this debate is only useful when it is irritating. It doesn’t work when it is polite. It only works when people apply pressure, and that is what we did here. It is true for any kind of project, even small, because it is about relationships. You build relationships. You build things that have a long life, so you have to be absolutely sure that what you do is correct, otherwise it is wrong for a long time.

RG You have talked about buildings having good stories and bad stories in the past, mentioning your experience with the Pompidou with some bad stories that emerged at that time.

RP There is always a good story and a bad story. When we designed the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the bad story going around was that the building was going to kill culture in France because it was siphoning all the energy and money from the government in the centre of Paris to make a monument to culture. The true story was that the building actually changed the relationship between a cultural building and the public. It became a place for people and began to show that culture could be non-intimidating and can actually switch on curiosity in people. Accessibility to culture was and still is very important. 

RG So what were the bad stories and the good stories in relation to the Shard?

RP The good story is that Ken Livingstone (then Mayor of London) wanted to intensify life in Southwark without increasing traffic. He wanted to show that you can make a big building without car parks, which is what we have done here with only 48 car spaces. And he wanted to create a building that will become public, because you mix functions.

This building is like a little vertical city. You go from transportation on the ground floor, then some commercial activity, but not too much. Then you have offices. Then restaurants and public spaces. Then you have hotels. Then you have living spaces. Then you have the viewing gallery. And this makes the building accessible, to be used and loved by the city. The good story is to show that cities may be intensified in a sustainable way, not by building out in the green belt, not by explosion, but by implosion, by building on brownfield sites, by intensifying the use of land. So this fundamental to the issue that cities should grow, but only in a sustainable way and not by creating a new periphery. The good story is also that you can make buildings that create a dense mix of life, 24 hours a day. This is why many towers are not loved, because they are mysterious and selfish, because they close down at 6pm and are completely separated from the city. It’s about intensifying cities.

 If you look at the bad story, of course you can see this as a gigantic building. You can see it as the outcome of power and money. But in terms of what is going to last? I think what is going to last here is proof that you can make an interesting building that is an intense place of exchange, that also doesn’t dominate the skyline in an aggressive or arrogant way. Because the Shard will have a light, sharp, crystalline presence, like a spire. It will play with the humour of the weather, reflecting the sky, changing over time.

RG And as a type of city, does the building have a special place for you? Is there one place within the building that will be particularly special?

RP I think the great quality of this building is its luminosity. Before I was talking about the views from outside, reflecting the sky, but it is also luminous from inside. Natural light penetrates right into the interior because of the glazing system.  If you ask me where the most spatially interesting place will be, I think of course the public viewing gallery. You will be able to go up and become part of the building. Buildings are loved if they are accessible. Buildings are not loved if they are selfish and cut off from life. We think we will have something like one million visitors per year. London is an interesting city when seen from above; you see how organic it is. It is the mirror of millions of lives.

RG In the past you have said in relation to innovation you love the word impossible – when a client says ‘that’s impossible’ to you, it’s a challenge you grasp. I wonder if there were any impossible moments in relation to this building?

RP The word impossible is the one you can hear all the time. Usually people use it as technical blackmail, to say that something is impossible. But the game is not to make things that are impossible, possible. But to make things that are possible, but difficult. The point is not just to do new things. But to do new things that make sense. And sometimes you have to break the rules. In this building I think energy saving is part of that. Apparently the first reaction is that a tall or big building is the opposite of sustainable, because it is big and consumes a lot of energy. Yes - but it also creates a lot of space. So this is one point.

Another point is functional, to prove that you can make a vertical city where there is life 24 hours a day and you can reach by public transport. The greatness of city depends on this. So multifaceted, so complex, so rich, so kaleidoscopic –  that was a challenge. The other challenge is more poetic, about expression. Making a tall building like this in a city like London is not a joke. It is a very important responsibility. When you are at ground level on St Thomas Street, the building is almost invisible, which is poetic. I heard the word ‘impossible’ mentioned in relation to this building in many different languages and applied to many different things; technological, constructional and social. But this is what challenged me.

RG There was an exhibition in 1969 at the Architectural Association that you presented called Architectural Experiments, and Monica Pigeon made the observation that your work was often to do with lots of little pieces. She called her review Piece by Piece, and she said that one day perhaps your architecture would see those things coming together. Your buildings do seem to be less now about single components and I wonder if you could talk about how that may have shifted over the years.

RP Monica Pigeon was so seminal in this city for a long time. And she made a good remark – it is true. I always built architecture piece by piece. But of course the logic was a bit oversimplified. But it is true that I started a bit like a builder. I was a builder and my job was to make good buildings for human beings. And you do this piece by piece because you try to break down the building into pieces so that you can take the piece and design and manipulate it and then put the pieces together. When you grow up you start to understand that architecture is not only about construction but also about society about people, culture and community. So you start complicating things and you still make it piece by piece, because this is the way you build up your experience and then of course you also understand - probably you always understood in some way - that architecture is about a sense of lightness, about expression, language and poetry.

This building is made by pieces, with the most important being the window. The piece disappears into the organism. In the beginning it was an oversimplification, which I enjoyed. Now of course I understand that architecture is more complicated, in relation to overall shape, presence in the sky and relationship with the city, where context become important. But still, I love the idea of breaking the building into pieces. Because if you make pieces and the pieces make the building, that piece you can test, mock up, make a model, a prototype. Architecture is dangerous because if you are wrong, you don’t realise you are wrong until it is done. So by breaking down the building into pieces you can take the piece and study it, like industrial design, to produce a little masterpiece of precision. You test the piece, you design and you build the piece, then your imagination can go from the piece to the whole.

RG So has there been an incremental increase in confidence, to not rely on the assembly of pieces for the language, but deriving a unified language in itself?

RP The problem with architecture is that you learn over a long time. You have to learn how to play with all those different angles to attack architecture, as a builder, as a poet, as a militant. An architect should live for a long time, because for the first 50 or 60 years you have to learn. It’s not true that you start like a builder and end like a poet; you mix all those things together all of the time. So it’s about complexity, it’s about not being happy with just one result, but by continuing to search.

RG Perhaps we can finish by discussing the two different facades you have made in London and maybe your attitude to colour and your attitude to sustainability. Central St Giles recalls the colour and the flamboyance of the Pompidou Centre. This building is far quieter, but perhaps has a more technical facade?

RP They are completely different, because St Giles for me is in the middle of an old part of the city with a complicated shape. I always thought that London is full of colour, even though some people love to say that London is grey. The Shard is different because the context is the sky. Somebody asked how this building can be sustainable? It is sustainable, because the glass is a double skin, with single glazing outside, double glazing inside and a blind in between, so solar radiation penetration is minimal, because when the sun shows up, the blinds come down. Also, light comes deep into the building, saving on artificial lighting and air conditioning. That is why the building is so efficient, as we invested a lot in the skin. And this is what I call modernity, the idea of putting emerging technology into the design in such a way that you can perform a miracle. We put in almost two years of designing, re-designing, testing, making prototypes.

Of course, beyond this there is a pragmatic concern about the consumption of energy, as well as a poetic concern about how the building is in dialogue with the city. But the two things come together. So in some way I like the idea that you accept that logic and you understand that the earth is fragile and that you have to save energy, but in poetic terms, you actually celebrate this fragility by making buildings that add a sense of lightness and a sense of belonging to the natural environment.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Renzo Piano is probably one of, if not the greatest living architect today and I am sure The Shard building will be another example of exemplary design, however, I can't help thinking that its in the wrong city and certainly in the wrong part of London as its siting in the local context is so alien. Some further consideration and perhaps adaptation of the viewing corridors of St. Paul's Cathedral needs to be undertaken to ensure tall buildings are placed in the appropriate part of (the City of) London or perhaps not at all.

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