At first glance, the NEMO science museum appears to be a gradual structure overlooking the Oosterdok, with a view of the historical center of Amsterdam. However, this majestic boat-like structure serves a lot more than a single function; it is a public museum, a singular viewpoint into the city, an urban landmark and an incredible addition to the city’s exclusive skyline.
While the exterior of the building is what mostly comes to mind when thinking about it, it’s the relationship between the interiors and its exterior counterpart that brings about a fascinating culmination of contextual spaces. It serves as a specimen of architectural study, a study of contextual structures and their interrelationships. NEMO is Renzo Piano’s one of finest examples of the creation of complex interior spaces and his flair for experimentation in architectural design. This article will use NEMO to explore the core principles of Renzo Piano’s work, his building philosophy and signature characteristics.
The City and the Structure | NEMO Science Museum
Amsterdam is one of the most iconic cities known for its picturesque views, intricate canal systems and rich artistic heritage. From their cityscapes, colours, and proportions, one can see how the built environment exemplifies specific architectural history and heritage traits. The exclusively designed gable roofs, standardised storeyed structures and their colour patterns are some of the telling attributes of the city’s builtscape. In this pre-existing situation, the NEMO science museum makes a grand yet gradual entry towering over a road tunnel that descends underwater.
As a testament to Renzo Piano’s way of design, the National Center for Science and Technology (NEMO Science Museum) emerges from the pedestrian walkway, continuing over to the roof through a staircase towards the highest point of the structure. The striking relationship between the city and the building is that the structure forms a canvas for the public to inhabit while serving a fundamentally different function. The space taken by the roads in the tunnel beneath for vehicles is replaced by the public square on the roof of the building, creating a continuous pedestrian space for people.
Renzo, in his writings, described Amsterdam as a one-dimensional city that lacks a piazza or a high point from which the city could be viewed (NEMO – Science museum – Data, photos & plans, 2020). There are a few points to infer from his records and the completed design. He seeks to build for the city, keeping in mind its needs and exceptionalism. Secondly, he makes a conscious decision to include the building as an integral part of the city. While the Menil Collection design by Renzo in Houston was praised for the structural leaves of the ceiling that create constantly changing moods of lighting due to its contextual surroundings (Buchanan, Piano and Workshop, 1993), it is also significant to note that contextual architecture also has another facet; the physical manifestation of the structure and its relationship with the city. It is fulfilled in this instance by the boat-like form of the building and the piazza on the terrace. This quality of designing a building to become a part of the city by introducing viewpoints can also be seen in London’s Shard and Paris’ Pompidou Center.
Interrelationship between the Inside and the Outside
The ‘exploratorium’ – the interiors are a series of galleries stacked diagonally following the slope of the building interlinked with stairs. Interconnected galleries were interactive and offered glimpses of the spaces they carried, inviting viewers to explore them further. The staircases connecting the levels were connected by top-lit wells (Buchanan, 1993, p. 134). Observe also that the interiors follow the form of the exterior, creating a similar sequence of spaces meant for totally different purposes, but they seem almost like parallel living spaces with light wells interspersed – a distinctive characteristic of Renzo’s work. The lightwells serve as a bridge between the outside and the inside of the building, providing lighting based on the contextual changes of the environment.
In the Renzo Piano Workshop (Buchanan, 1993), it is recorded that the interiors were developed to fit the already designed exterior and the structural volume. Additionally, this process serves as an antithesis to the Menil Collection and the Genoa Exposition aquarium, where the external form was the result of the internal arrangement (Buchanan, 1993, p. 135). While the functions of all the three buildings in the discussion here are similar (to display), the subject of the exhibition, the context and the design processes are different. It is clear here that Piano’s architecture does not depend on the building’s forming process or the planning process. Rather, it is the result of participatory efforts. The design process is shaped by various stakeholders as much as Renzo himself and therefore holds a distinct design strategy for each building. Renzo has himself mentioned that the key to this type of design is the ‘art of listening’ (Buchanan, Piano and Workshop, 1993).
Materiality – Tailor-made pieces, transparency and lightness | NEMO Science Museum
Piano described the interior as a ‘noble factory’ with grey walls and exposed pipes and cables (NEMO – Science museum – Data, photos & plans, 2020). Its exteriors were copper panels clad over a gradual structure that curved at its end. The copper has now turned green and gives a unique character to the building (Buchanan, 1993, p. 138). The intent was to create interiors that are introverted and exteriors that are extroverted. The proposed excerpts of wood cladding behind the copper panels were meant to give it a Scandinavian feel (Buchanan, 1993, p. 138).
Firstly, the materials are used in such a way that they form pieces and parts that form the building. These pieces are customised and functional. For example, since the exterior volume of the building was designed first, the copper cladding panels on the outside are designed individually to fit the gradual slope of the building and the final curve at the end. Moreover, every element of this building, the walls, floors inside and the roof on top, serve individual purposes and are therefore crafted to form an integrated visual structure. Secondly, the colour palette, the theme created by top-lit wells, and the exposed services convey lightness and transparency, a regular trait in many of the buildings Renzo designed.
There is an invaluable takeaway that could be assimilated from reading about all of his works. Architecture as a creative process evolves through time. Renzo Piano used his design philosophy of ‘building to context’ as a principle to determine the characteristic features of the building. Therefore, the design process for the Menil collection was different from that of NEMO. Creativity has a larger scope to expand and evolve to create new spaces if the design process is based on architectural principles and guiding philosophy. This always results in fresh and innovative standards of design than a rigid style with stipulated features.
- NEMO – Science museum – Data, photos & plans (2020) WikiArquitectura. Available at: https://en.wikiarquitectura.com/building/nemo-science-museum/ (Accessed: March 25, 2022).
- Buchanan, P. (1993) Renzo Piano Building Workshop – Volume 3. Phaidon Incorporated Limited.
- Buchanan, P., Piano, R. and Workshop, R. P. B. (1993) Renzo Piano Building Workshop: Complete Works.