A Maestro at the Helm

The Renzo Piano Building Workshop (or RPBW), with offices in Genoa, Italy, Paris, France and New York City, New York was founded in 1981 by the renowned architectural maestro that bears its name: Renzo Piano. Like its namesake, the firm is a powerhouse in the field, employing over 120 talented architects who have completed over 140 major projects together, including such landmark achievements as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center in Greece, and The Shard in London, to name a very few.  

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RPBW at the Royal Academy for the Arts_©RPBW

At RPBW, the legacy of creative excellence starts at the top, with the most notable of its working partners, Mr Piano, setting an astonishingly high bar in professional achievement – with such architectural triumphs as the Center Pompidou in Paris on his resume before he even founded his workshop. A recipient of the coveted Pritzker Prize in 1998, Renzo Piano was compared to Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci by the jurists who selected him, for “redefining modern and postmodern architecture.” On top of that, in 2006, he was named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people on Earth, and since 2013, he has sat as an honorary Senator for Life in Italy. The employees of the RPBW strive to follow in these illustrious footsteps with each new project they take on – the Piano name is quite the responsibility! 

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RPBW at the Royal Academy for the Arts_©RPBW

A Proper Italian Workshop 

As per their website, “RPBW is, first of all, a studio, or even better, a proper Italian workshop. A place for research, experimentation, and collective production…a building site for ideas.” In addition to its 12 partners and 120+ architects, the Workshop employs at least 30 other multidisciplinary support staff with expertise in interior design, model making, 3D visualization, archival research, urban planning and more. Employees describe the work environment as one of collaboration and creative freedom to explore, balanced by the rigour to execute at the highest level. “The Architect’s charisma is balanced by the team’s energy. [It is a] place where people create and discuss, where they engineer models as if they were shaping arguments with their hands.” Or, as partner Bernard Plattner puts it, “our method is the absence of protocol. there is nobody who instructs you to do things this way or that way, methodology is just absorbed by everyone who works here.” 

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RPBW at the Royal Academy for the Arts_©David Parry

A Love of Light

It is perhaps no surprise that Renzo Piano spent part of his early career in the 1960s working with the virtuoso of light, Louis Kahn. A love of light and its infinitely malleable applications to the spatial and material realm of physical construction likewise suffuses the work of the Workshop that bears his name. This love of light (and lightness) is evident in the 25 major international museums that the Workshop has designed, from the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, California to the Harvard museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts; the designers at RPBW strive to find unique ways to sculpt light in order to accentuate and illuminate curated collections without overshadowing them.

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Harvard Art Museums by RPBW_©Nic Lehoux

Transparency and “weightlessness” are likewise key design principles in most of the Workshop’s creations; especially in urban spaces, this is intended to create a sense of lift to neighbourhoods – to “defy gravity” and give the appearance that buildings are floating over the street – which likewise allows for the space near the ground to remain a vital public realm, an environment in which people, light, and air can still circulate.  The RPBW’s new residential building at 565 Broome Street in Manhattan is a fine example of this. The two towers of glass at the core of the design avoid the overly corporate feeling of many glass skyscrapers by using rounded edges and smaller mullions to create a sleek and soaring feeling, a playfulness that elevates the neighbourhood around it. At the base, an open street design allows for a permeable pedestrian experience. 

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565 Broome Soho Residential Building in Manhattan by RPBW_©Zucchetti Rubineteria

A Love of Life

In 2018, when the city of Genoa was struck by an earthquake that collapsed the Ponte Morandi, a bridge where 43 people were tragically killed, Renzo Piano and the RPBW stepped in to provide architectural services to design a replacement – free of charge. This speaks to a second central tenet of the RPBW philosophy: making architecture that serves the people who use it, that incorporates their concerns and needs into the design and actualization. A people-centric attitude in all things is stressed; for instance, in many of their international projects, local styles, materials, and construction methods are used to show respect for the people who will be using the structures the most. As Renzo Piano puts it, “Creativity is a miracle that exists only when you know how to share it.” 

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Plan for replacement of collapsed Genoa Bridge_©RPBW

A Gateway to Tomorrow

From its inception, the RPBW has strived to produce immaculate buildings that form a bridge between the modern and the postmodern, between public spaces and the private experience of individuals, between natural environments and materials and between technological engineering and innovation. In other words, they have been charting a course between the rich legacy of design that came before them and the future of architecture that they are helping to forge.

Take as a case in point the Science Gateway they are currently constructing at the entrance to CERN in Geneva, Switzerland – among the most advanced particle accelerators and scientific research laboratories in the world. The RPBW contribution to this ultra-futuristic technological achievement is an inviting space for the public to come and learn about what is going on inside – something that welcomes and educates, without intimidating and alienating. In Sparta, Greece, they are building an environmentally sustainable hospital with a humanitarian mission. In projects such as these, we see the marriage of all of RPBW’s main philosophical beliefs – a love of light, a valuation of life, and a sense of responsibility to the people their iconic buildings will be serving.

CERN Science Wateway_©RPBW

References

  • Renzo Piano (2022) Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renzo_Piano (Accessed: November 6, 2022). 
  • Mafi, N. (2019) Exclusive Tour through Renzo Piano’s first-ever residential build in New York City, Architectural Digest. Architectural Digest. Available at: https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/exclusive-tour-renzo-piano-first-residential-new-york-city (Accessed: November 6, 2022). 
  • RPBW Architects – Renzo Piano Building Workshop (no date). Available at: http://www.rpbw.com/ (Accessed: October 26, 2022). 

Images

  • Pin-Up. Piano Non Forte: The Work of Renzo Piano Building Workshop at the Royal Academy. ©RPBW [online] Available at: https://archive.pinupmagazine.org/articles/renzo-piano-exhibition-royal-academy-review#23
  • Silman. Harvard Art Museums. ©RPBW [online] Available at: https://www.silman.com/work/projects/view/harvard-art-museums/
  • Zuccheti. 565 Broome Soho Residence New York [online] Available at: https://www.zucchettikos.it/us/corporate/contracts/565-broome-ny#tab1
  • Replacement for collapsed Genoa Bridge. RPBW Architects – Renzo Piano Building Workshop [online] Available at: http://www.rpbw.com/
  • CERN Science Wateway. RPBW Architects – Renzo Piano Building Workshop ©RPBW [online] Available at: http://www.rpbw.com/
Author

G. C. Reyes is a classically trained artist and architecture student from Miami, Florida currently working in New Jersey. She enjoys 3D printing and design and thinking about the architecture of the future. Some of her favorite artists include Louis Kahn, Steven Holl, Marina Abramovich, and Leonard Cohen.

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