In the classical surroundings of Mayfair with its stone buildings, the bright red structure pointing skywards could be a sculpture or a piece of engineering; its colour as shocking in this location as the original was, albeit finished in white, in Paris in the 1970’s.
Standing outside the Royal Academy, this full size replica of one of the cantilevered rocking beams of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, acts as a sentinel, announcing the exhibition inside on Renzo Piano’s ‘art of making buildings’. Radical in its day for having its services and structure on display on the outside, rather than disguised behind a façade, the Pompidou Centre marked a stepped change in architecture and in the careers of Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, who have since gone their separate ways, but many of the elements of subsequent projects by both architects can be traced back to this seminal building.
Inside, in a sculptural niche on the staircase, stands another piece of engineering – a 1/10th scale model from the 1990′s of one of the wooden pavilion structures of the Jean-Marie Tijbaou Cultural Centre in Noumea, leading up to models, drawings, videos and photographs from the Pompidou Centre onwards, taking us on a journey through many of Renzo Piano’s well-known projects, each displayed on and around a table as if in the architect’s studio itself, in more or less chronological order, the most fascinating things being the initial sketches and models at the point of concept of buildings such as the Menil Collection in Houston, the Whitney Museum and the New York Times Building in New York, Kansai International Airport Terminal in Osaka, the Centro Botin in Santander, the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Noumea and the Shard in London – which when built was the tallest building in Europe.
Innovative, highly engineered and beautifully-detailed structures, combining engineering, art and architecture, and, like all great architecture, often looking deceptively simple, the exhibition has as its centrepiece a model city, a counterpoint to the great model of London in the Building Centre in Store Street, but here showing Renzo Piano’s buildings as if he were the Sir Christopher Wren of his day, behind which Renzo Piano explains not only his projects but his philosophy on how they should connect into, and be part of, the cities and communities in which they sit and, as with the Shard at London Bridge and the Whitney Museum in New York, be a catalyst for regeneration.
Renzo Piano is still busy in London; the Shard and Place buildings have a new residential neighbour under construction opposite the newly-opened Science Gallery at King’s College London, and we await the development of his Cube at Paddington Square, as a catalyst to the long-awaited regeneration of this area of London.