“And like Mies, Piano does not believe in inventing a new architecture every Monday morning.”

PianoIt’s hard to imagine a visiting star whose sensibility is more in tune with Chicago’s vaunted architectural traditions than Italy’s Renzo Piano (left). Building courses through his veins. Like that late master of steel and glass, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who was the son of a stonemason, Piano has a rich appreciation for materials—and a passion for building well.

The son and grandson of builders, he has been known to carry a tape measure in his pocket so he can instantly redesign details in his global array of projects, which run the gamut from skyscrapers and museums to soccer stadiums and shopping centers.

And like Mies, Piano does not believe in inventing a new architecture every Monday morning. “Making new shapes is not that difficult,” he said in a telephone interview last week from his Paris office. “It is much more difficult to make a new shape that makes sense.”

PompidouA winner of architecture’s highest honor, the Pritzker Architecture Prize, Piano, now 71, burst upon the scene in 1977 with the Pompidou Center in Paris (left), a museum and cultural center co-designed with British architect Richard Rogers.

That high-tech extravaganza, its exterior girdled with exposed structural members and glass-tubed escalators, proved enormously popular, drawing crowds to its sloping outdoor plaza to watch fire-breathing performers.

Since then, Piano has taken a quieter, but hardly self-effacing, approach, as the leader of the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, which also has offices in Genoa, Italy.

His art museums have been a particular strength, forgoing virtuoso displays of self-expression as he seeks instead to create the best conditions for looking at art and to relate these buildings to their surroundings and to nature.

Such a challenge formed the essence of his task in designing the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing, which sits across Monroe Street from Millennium Park. Yet, given the proximity to the park, the wing has a populist streak that harks back to the Pompidou Center.

Piano has joined the wing and the park with a 620-foot-long pedestrian bridge, which is scheduled to be finished in time for the wing’s May 16 opening. It will lead to a restaurant and sculpture garden atop the wing. Both will offer striking views of the park and the downtown skyline. “The bridge and the roof make a little piazza flying above the ground,” he said.

Above all, Piano wants the wing to offer museumgoers a different experience from the Art Institute’s 1893 Beaux-Arts building on Michigan Avenue, which he compares to a castle or a palace. The wing, he said, “is about inviting people to get in without any intimidation.”

Blair Kamin, May 01, 2009



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