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Architect Piano pushes on with Shard of Glass

July 14, 2005

By Caroline Brothers

BERN, Switzerland (Reuters) – Despite criticism and years
of red-tape, Italian architect Renzo Piano, designer of some of
the world’s most iconic landmarks, is forging ahead with a
London skyscraper known as the “Shard of Glass.”

In a recent interview before the opening of another work –
a museum for the work of modernist artist Paul Klee in the
shape of three waves in the Swiss city of Bern — Piano said
architects should not shy from taking risks.

“We have beaten Prince Charles, English Heritage and the
nostalgics,” Piano, regarded as one of the world’s finest
architects for his visionary and poetic designs, said of
critics of his design for a colossal glass wedge over London’s
skyline.

“It’s taking time, but we are doing it,” he said of the
much-delayed building that will contain a hotel, restaurants,
and a viewing platform 787 feet in the air. The 72-story
building at London’s Tower Bridge, commissioned by developer
Irvine Sellar in 2000, is due for completion by 2010.

The Genoa-born Piano, 67, shot to fame in 1977 with Paris’
“inside-out” Pompidou Center co-designed with iconoclastic
British architect Richard Rogers. The distinctive building has
its pipes on the outside — air conditioning ducts are blue,
its water pipes are green and the electricity lines are yellow.

Piano, however, would not be drawn on his differences with
Britain’s Prince Charles, whose conservationist views have
thrust him into headline-grabbing conflict with avant-garde
architects such as himself, Rogers and Briton Norman Foster.

THE QUEEN AGREES

“In the analysis he is not bad, but he is very bad in his
response — and I can tell you that his mother agrees with me,”
Piano said. “You can’t be nasty about modern medicine and as a
consequence propose returning to the remedies of the 17th
century. It’s just not possible.”

If his futuristic designs have sometimes brought
controversy, Piano has never shied from taking artistic risks.

As well as the ground-breaking Pompidou Center, and an
extraordinary cultural center for the Kanak people in New
Caledonia, Piano designed the Kansai International Airport for
the Japanese city of Osaka on an artificial island in the sea.

It has been dubbed one of the most extraordinary
engineering feats of the 20th century.

“We take risks all the time — you have to take risks,
otherwise you become paralyzed,” said Piano. “And that is very
bad, because then you lose your freedom.”

The man who has also designed an experimental car for Fiat
and a traveling pavilion for the world’s largest computer
company, IBM, says architects must keep reinventing themselves.

“It is true that there is a certain tendency in
architecture to design things that are always the same,” he
said.

“That is very bad news. (The design) loses its power and
flattens out and the self-referential aspect becomes almost
more important, whereas in our field, as in cinema, the
essential thing is the freedom with which you interpret a
situation.”

His Zentrum Paul Klee, which has just opened, is anything
but self-referential. The asymmetrical glass and steel waves
that emerge from the hillside “like a dinosaur without its
spines” constitute something of a unique architectural feat.

The vault of its highest arch is 46 feet high, flattening
to a technically challenging 14 feet-9 inches under the
hillside. The entire building follows a barely perceptible
curve that matches the sweep of a motorway nearby.

“I am quite impatient for the grass to grow, like in a ruin
by Piranesi,” said Piano, referring to the 18th century artist
who depicted the splendors of ancient Rome overgrown by plants.

He was concerned that the still-green wheat and the poppy
flowers that surround his Paul Klee complex were not yet tall
enough to convey the same merger with nature.

THE DESIGN WAS ALREADY THERE

Though inspired by Klee as a teacher of the interwar
Bauhaus school of architecture and design, Piano found the idea
for the center’s three waves in the lie of the land itself.

“I remember it perfectly just like it was yesterday, this
terrain with the movement of the hills and the tracks from
working the land — all that was already here,” he said.

“I’ve never done a job without walking around the place
with my hands in my pockets trying to understand … even when
we did the competition for the Kanaks in the middle of nowhere
in the Pacific Ocean,” he said.

“You have to make sure you listen, and discern the little
interior voice, the ‘genius loci’ — the genie of the place.”

Piano said his understanding of Klee, whose colorful,
poetic and abstract works make him one of the pillars of
modernism, changed as the building took shape.

“I knew Klee chiefly as a teacher of the Bauhaus … But
(as the project developed) I started to understand a bit better
his true career which was in painting. That is where he is
deepest, in painting, in his daily work.” ($1=1.275 Swiss
Francs)




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