The eminent curator Norman Rosenthal had his say on the Shard this week. To Rosenthal, it is the most beautiful building put up in London since St Paul’s and its critics – he quotes me and Simon Jenkins – are hidebound stick-in-the-muds who just do not appreciate the genius of Renzo Piano.I am sorry to disappoint Rosenthal but I’ve seen plenty of Renzo Piano’s works around the world. I like and admire them. I know enough about him to wonder why he has abandoned his own delicate sense of scale and space in his assault on London. Why has he departed so violently from the civilised standards I associate with his architecture?
In Houston, Texas, the Menil Foundation is a lovely example of Piano’s architectural talent. I went there in stifling summer heat. This low-slung art gallery is like an idealised, airy ranch house set among continually watered green lawns. White and calm outside, it creates a soothing, contemplative, space inside. It contrasts beautifully with the characterless forest of glass towers at the heart of Houston. It is an environmentally radical building that seeks to renew the neighbourhood around it.
In Genoa, Italy, another of my favourite buildings by Renzo Piano can be found in the riviera city’s old harbour. It is the most beautiful aquarium in the world, a wonderful succession of spaces next to the sea. It’s not much from the outside, but sharks and octopuses have never been given such a graceful home by their human captors. Aquariums are usually dark and claustrophobic. This one is light and spacious and creates a rich, thought-provoking encounter between humanity and nature.
It is part of a project by Piano – who is Genoese – to revive a derelict waterfront by restoring old buildings and adding his own, which also include a biosphere and an octopus-like branching viewing tower. In short, Renzo Piano has done wonders for his own city.
But wait. Where is the awe-inspiring skyscraper in the heart of Genoa? Where is the towering glass spike next door to the medieval houses of the Doria dynasty?
Piano’s innovative buildings in Genoa are totally, intentionally, invisible from the city’s densely built and atmospheric medieval and baroque heart. You have to walk through all the narrow streets of black-and-white palaces, right down to the harbour front, to find his works. Far from a modernist who has contempt for the past, Piano is revealed in Genoa – and Houston – as an architect who builds with sympathy for the fabric and atmosphere of cities.
The idea that Genoa would let him build something as out-of-scale and arrogant as the Shard in the heart of its historical district is absurd. Why would a city spit on itself in that way?
Why indeed. Piano on his home turf builds for people, not for power. London let him break his own rules, with consequences that are here to stay.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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