An invitation to join a voyage with the Italian navy was too good to pass up for Pritzker Prize-winning Italian architect Renzo Piano.
In “Atlantis: A Journey in Search of Beauty,” Piano and his son Carlo embark on a peregrination around the globe. Their goal is lofty: to find Atlantis, the famed sunken city and the embodiment of Platonic perfection. To be sure, Atlantis is merely a pretext. They are actually visiting some of the highlights from Renzo’s celebrated career. This voyage takes them from Japan, where Renzo modeled the iconic Kansai International Airport on an artificial island, to San Francisco, where he designed the California Academy of Sciences. It is a long journey, but they also have much to discuss.
The book takes the form of an extended conversation between father and son. Most of the time, they are responding to each other, but sometimes each man’s thoughts wander off on their own. They are connected by their shared love of sailing, the sea, and cities. Carlo, who is a journalist, writes beautifully about the voyage and the places they visit. Renzo chimes in with stories from his long career. The product is an inspiring meditation on beauty, architecture, and the essence of modern cities.
One noticeable feature of Renzo’s buildings is their transparency: Airy, accessible plazas are a centerpiece of his work. “I start with the piazza, always. Empty space comes before crowded space,” he writes. According to him, a building exists to serve – it is only beautiful if it can serve a noble civic cause.
When he was commissioned to build an extension to the Morgan Library in New York, he moved the collection of paintings and manuscripts to underground vaults to turn the building into a large, open atrium.
The New York Times Co. had just started building a skyscraper for its offices when the 9/11 attacks happened. Suddenly, skyscrapers no longer seemed like a good idea. Renzo, however, wanted the new building to respond with a gesture of resilience and undeterred openness. Not only would the skyscraper rise tall, but it would also be transparent and have huge lobbies open to the public.
In his career as an architect, Renzo has often found himself veering toward ethnography. An architect, he believes, should understand the intimate relationship between the soil and people living on it. When he found himself tasked to design a cultural center for the Kanak people in the French-controlled South Pacific island of New Caledonia, he reached out to anthropologists for help. For him, the profession of an architect transcends mere masonry or engineering. One needs to be receptive to inspiration from almost anywhere. He writes, “At nine A.M., you are a pragmatic constructor, an avid world explorer. At eleven, you turn into a designer, drawn to the complexities of cities and the fragility of Earth. At three P.M., a humanist, curious about everything: art, music, people, communities. The next day you begin all over again.”
A voyage like this also presents an opportunity for Renzo to look back on his life. He tells Carlo how, being born in a family of builders, he always felt destined to build – but he had to take a leap of imagination to venture into architecture. He also had to overcome debilitating public outrage and criticism in his early career. One of his first major buildings was the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, affectionately called Beaubourg. The building, which is reminiscent of a construction site, was considered a blemish on the Paris cityscape when it opened in 1978. Renzo was criticized for being too academic and experimental. But he had actually found the inspiration in the construction sites his father used to work in. “I didn’t build Beaubourg because I’d skimmed a few books, but because my father was a constructor,” he tells Carlo. Over time, public opinion shifted in favor of Beaubourg. Today, he is grateful he had the courage to take those bold risks.
Coming of age right as reconstruction was starting up after World War II, Renzo found the power to heal cities through architecture. His buildings have attracted both awe and ire. Is he happy with all his work? Not really. There are some designs he believes could have been executed better. But he is not someone who is weighed down by regrets or nostalgia.
“You live for what you have yet to do and what you haven’t even begun to imagine,” he says. In a letter to his team on his 80th birthday, he is as indomitable as ever. “I’m not retiring because it takes a lifetime to build all this. It’s too wonderful a profession to leave behind,” he writes.
Renzo is not stopping because he hasn’t found Atlantis yet. He understands that Atlantis is a myth, an emblem of unattainable beauty. But it is a myth he takes seriously and tries to emulate. Just look at the way the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York looks like it’s floating in midair or The Shard in London reaches up to the clouds. They look and feel otherworldly. Almost like Atlantis.