A brave new world rises from a sprawling model island that seems to levitate off the spotless floor of the Royal Academy
s new architecture galleries. As part of the inaugural exhibition Renzo Piano: The Art of Making Buildings, curated by the RAs Kate Goodwin, it collages over 100 projects conjured by one of the world`s most prolific living architects.
Unfurling at the island
s base is a model of Kansai International Airport complete with its own airplanes. It feeds out into a starchitecture superhighway hosting both the hamster cage-like Pompidou—the building that catapulted Piano, then 34, to fame—alongside the New York Times building and the split-tip Shard. Nestled into the islands undulating hills, valleys, and dramatic steppes are the less hyped projects: a much-jeered addition to a Corbusier-designed monastery in France rubs elbows with the donut-like San Nicola Stadium in Bari, Italy.
The variation of scale is striking: while a private residence in Colorado is the size of a peppercorn, a Piano-designed cruise ship moored on the northwest coast of the island outsizes all but a few buildings. In the background plays a short film by Thomas Riedelsheimer that presents Piano at his charming, articulate best self as he delivers an inspiring hot take on the role of architecture and the current crisis of urbanity. As abstract as this room may be, it is the most successful moment of Renzo Piano: The Art of Making Buildings—offering both a transparent, engaging presentation of his mind-bogglingly expansive practice, and the devout cult of personality that enables such a pervasive presence.
For those familiar to Piano and his work, there are no new surprises or discoveries to be found within this exhibition. For visitors who are less in the know, the streamlined presentation of 16 of Piano
s most revered projects is more opaque, and risks misleading its audience. Each project gets its own pristine white table set-up, complete with drawings, plans, models, letters, and scribbled post-it notes ostensibly lending a sense of intimacy to the mammoth building or masterplan. Unfortunately, the scale of the project is often left ambiguous, or in the case of Pianos Centro Botín building, omitted entirely.
While it is stimulating to touch a pearlescent ceramic tile that comprises the Centro Botín, or get an up-close view of the Menil Collection
s magical light-emitting louvres, or sense the crushing weight of one of the Pompidous gargantuan gerberettes as it hovers over your head, there is no indication of how it feels to experience these buildings; no sense of concern over the awesome and at times overbearing impact of such structures as they bear down on the street. The curatorial hand feels literally overbearing at times, in the architectural bits and bobs that loom over every table like astronauts. Yet it also fails to offer an overarching idea that bridges together all of his work, other than suggesting what`s obvious: Piano is an intelligent and daring thinker with an indelible influence upon the built world.
As the first major survey of Piano
s work in London in nearly 30 years, The Art of Making Buildings feels like a missed opportunity for the discipline, and those headlining it, to disprove architectures hermetic and superficial tendencies. "Architecture is the art of making a place for people,” declares Piano in the exhibition
s short film, but in a move that echoes the architects capacity to valorize an idealized form of beauty over lived experience, the exhibition turns a blind eye to the concept of an architecture beyond the art of building.