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2008 November: Piece by Piece

Renzo Piano’s new Californian Academy of Sciences, in San Francisco, creates harmony between nature and the manmade

In 1969 Renzo Piano staged an exhibition at London’s Architectural Association, Architectural Experiment. His early work drew sharp but prophetic criticism from Monica Pidgeon, editor of Architectural Design. In a review entitled ‘Piece by Piece’, she suggested that the various pieces produced by this young architect might well, one day, amount to something far more substantial.

Almost 40 years on, Piano recalls this prophecy fondly. The observation has become his ‘natural legacy’ recognising his predisposition to break a design problem into component parts, each addressed in order to optimise specific technical performance, while contributing something less measurable (yet equally important) to the building’s overall character.


Early work, he says, was all about the component, most explicitly pieced together at Beaubourg (AR May 1977). By Piano’s own admission, however, the Menil Collection a decade later (AR March 1987) was the first building that genuinely reached a harmonious level of resolution. Since then, learning from nature, he has finessed and mastered the art of how to make buildings holistic entities that are greater than the sum of their component parts.

Piano’s latest project extends his interest in how to build organically (in the fullest sense of the word), learning from lessons of nature and avoiding the sort of mimicry that can lead designers astray, with a treelike structure here or a contrived form there: ‘stupid shapes’, says Piano, ‘produced by pressing stupid buttons on stupid computers’. Here, with trademark finesse, he has very eloquently translated the language of the Academy’s former Beaux Arts ensemble, through the creation of a lightweight temple of knowledge.

The new California Academy of Sciences replaces a curious precinct of 12 buildings (built between 1916 and 1976) that were damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. (The institution was victim of the same fate as that experienced by the de Young Museum that sits opposite, AR October 2005.) Compressed into a rectangular footprint around an external piazza, the Academy’s original buildings were consistent in expression with the formal landscape in which they sat.


In replacing them (unlike Herzog & de Meuron who did everything they could to break the static symmetry of the old museum they replaced with their elongated, twisted and distorted copper box), Piano showed more respect for the conservative undercurrent that still exists in many American institutions. This conservatism stems, he says, from a tendency that ‘a culture without roots builds them by evoking the past’, reverting to the use of Classical motifs to bring dignity and trustworthiness to their (relatively) youthful organisations.

As such Piano’s building, in plan at least, replicates that which existed before. In section, however, the architect loosens up, permitting the spherical Planetarium Dome and the Rainforest Biosphere to breach and distort the strict horizontal datum he established as sacrosanct in memory of the original 36-foot high buildings.

With the two main volumes rising high, a wave of disturbance flows through the roof plane, sweeping down to its lowest point in Piano’s stunning new piazza, with its web-like steel and glass structure. Through this measured playfulness, Piano has added just enough theatricality and character to what is an extremely serious institution, avoiding vulgar visitor attraction gimmickry, while creating a building that both he and his nine-year-old son see more as a ‘funny gentle monster’.


Piano won the commission after ‘loitering’ around the Academy for a couple of days (this time with his daughter), when invited by the client to pitch for the job. Unlike others who flew in with plans, sections, models and movies, Piano had no preconceptions. Instead he spent time in the Academy and gardens, where he observed the nature of the place and the nature of the client. After doing so, he rolled up his sleeves and produced the definitive sketch that posed the definitive question: ‘Can we cut a piece of native Californian habitat out of the ground, elevate it and put the building underneath?’ The answer was, of course, yes. But how was it to be achieved?

Working with the client body, first led by scientist John Patrick Kociolek (expert in diatoms) and subsequently by educationalist Greg Farrington, Piano and his team had access to all the expert consultants they could possibly need. A collaboration ensued. Running a controlled experiment on a nearby site with the same microclimate as Golden Gate Park, 20 to 25 native species were grown in unirrigated organic baskets. Eventually, five species were identified and selected that could flourish in these conditions, bringing with them butterflies and birds. As a result, the roof surface hosts about 1.7 million plants, growing in 50 000, 6-inch deep, biodegradable coconut husk trays.

This elevated habitat is intended to be the first exhibit that visitors encounter, rising up through a distinctive red lift tower (circulation is colour-coded throughout) to a (disappointingly small) viewing deck. From here, however, despite the frustration of being hemmed in, the full wonder of the one-hectare roof is revealed in all its surreal glory.


If visited at dusk, or as Piano says ‘at the Magritte time, when the day goes away’, visitors may be lucky enough to witness the funny gentle monster coming to life, as its circular rooflights glow and flare like nostrils, acting as the creature’s ‘eyes and mouths’; a phrase on the front page of Man Quatidien. the French children’s newspaper (proudly waved in Piano’s hand before his son returns from school), under the headline: ‘Everything in this Museum is Ecological’.

As Piano frequently asserts, however, this building is not just about the roof. Nor is it just about how to create an informative and exhilarating visitor attraction. It plays host to hundreds of Academy scientists who work in naturally ventilated laboratories and offices along the south face. It also plays host to 38 000 live animals and over 20 million research specimens, all of which need very specific conditions in which to survive. Combining a hard-working institution with a science museum-cum-fun palace-cum-zoo, shows Piano’s expertise and apparently effortless design resolution at its best, synthesising potentially conflicting ideas with finesse, grace and charm.

As a visitor attraction it is welcoming and clear, easy to navigate and extremely well connected with its natural setting. It is daylit and bright. As a research centre it is functional and adaptable, and will no doubt attract many more of the world’s leading scientists (and specimens). And as a form of organism in itself, it is efficient and sustainable, recently being given LEED Platinum status; no easy task for such a large and heavily controlled building.


As a piece of architecture it is readable on many levels. As a piece of restoration, it successfully incorporates a number of existing fragments into a balanced whole, including African Hall, North American (California) Hall and the entrance to the Steinhart Aquarium. As a piece of sophisticated engineering it delicately resists any threat from future earthquakes. All this occurs through architectural expression that will surely appeal to those from all architectural faiths and none.

There are moments of theatrical delight - diving deep into the watery basement to witness the world’s deepest living coral reef display, or rising beyond the canopy of its internal rainforest onto the world’s largest living roof - all arranged and contained in a refined, classical High-Tech envelope.

Now 72, Piano is clearly still enjoying his work, enthused by the opportunity to teach a new generation about how architecture can responsibly and authentically learn from nature, capturing its essence without resort to pointless mimicry or meaningless forms. Returning to his son’s paper, he can barely contain his excitement. ‘This will touch the imagination of the next generation, teaching them not just to answer necessity, but also to explore a language of architecture that expresses our emotional needs.’

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