In the 1960s, Renzo Piano met Louis I. Kahn at the home of French structural designer Robert Le Ricolais on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Piano, the son of a builder from Genoa, was working as an assistant to Le Ricolais, who taught in the university’s architecture department. At the time, Kahn was designing the Olivetti-Underwood Factory in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and needed someone to help him with drawings for the lighting of the open-plan factory. Within a week, Piano was installed making sketches for the project. Piano would work for Kahn intermittently for a few years before opening his own firm with Richard Rogers, with whom he won the competition to design Paris’s iconic Centre Pompidou.
It was during the time that Piano worked for him that Kahn’s firm began construction of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas (Kahn completed the building in 1972), a fact that became newly salient two years ago, when the Kimbell opened its Renzo Piano Pavilion, a freestanding glass, concrete, and wood addition. In the intervening years, Piano had established himself as a prodigious museum architect. With his latest museum project, the 200,000-square-foot Whitney Museum opening in downtown Manhattan this month, the much smaller Kimbell expansion offers insights into Piano’s approach to museum buildings, and the degree to which his vision was shaped by his early apprenticeship with Kahn.
For Piano, the pavilion at the Kimbell was bracketed by two other U.S. museum expansions: a new wing for Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and the consolidation of Harvard Art Museums. They, too, exemplify his evolving vision and—most obviously in their light-filled volumes and urban views through glass walls—the lessons he learned from Kahn.
The new wing Piano created for the Gardner, with its airy glass and oxidized-copper entrance, plant-filled greenhouse, public space, café, and tiered auditorium for concerts and lectures, also houses a contemporary-art gallery that adds a new dimension to the offerings in the Gardner’s original Venetian-style 1903 palazzo. At Harvard, where Piano’s task was to bring together under one roof the university’s three major art museums, he created a series of spectacular galleries surrounding a glass-roofed atrium that extends the original arcaded courtyard upward to five levels.
At the Kimbell, Piano’s mandate was similar to the one he would later have at the Whitney: to enable the museum to mount loan exhibitions without placing its superb permanent collection in storage. He needed to design gallery spaces compatible with art from different eras, to accommodate the museum’s diverse collection. He created, for instance, custom display areas for the museum’s holdings of African, pre-Columbian, and Asian art.
More than anything else, it is his focus on light when designing the Kimbell pavilion that brings to mind Piano’s history with Kahn. In his 1975 book Light Is the Theme, Kahn poetically describes his own use of natural light in the Kimbell, an approach that echoes his 1955 Trenton Bath House, in New Jersey, where sunlight slanting through clerestory bands and the central oculus in each pyramidal rooftop creates a luminous effect.
In the cycloid vaults of Kahn’s Kimbell building, sunlight falling through slots running the length of their apexes is cast back upward by gull wing–shaped aluminum reflectors, imbuing the curved ceilings with a silvery glow that contrasts with the galleries’ warm beige travertine walls. With eyebrow-shaped lunettes at the ends, and light slots along the bottom edges of each vault, the Kimbell is the Bath House squared.
Walking through Piano’s just-completed Whitney building recently, I thought not only of the Kimbell’s travertine stairs, which lead from the east entrance to the main floor and are washed with soft light from the galleries’ vaults, but also of Kahn’s Yale University Art Gallery and Yale Center for British Art, where natural light illuminates the stairwells, marking important transitional passages in the architecture.
With its slanted steel walls and sharp angles, the new Whitney reflects that section of the West Village where the city grid dissolves into a labyrinth of angular streets. Piano’s Whitney is the first major cultural institution on New York’s bustling waterfront with river views through glass walls, and yet Piano was insistent on designing the open terraces and outside performance spaces to overlook only the cityscape to the east, rather than the noisy traffic along the West Side Highway. This may have been a practical choice, but his implicit preference for the urban view recalls Kahn’s decision to have his Yale University Art Gallery face New Haven’s Chapel Street.
As acute as his understanding of the conversation between a building and its surroundings is Piano’s sensitivity to the conversation between two buildings. In the past, visitors arriving by car at Kahn’s Kimbell Museum entered through the lower floor at the rear of the building, without experiencing the glorious porticos, gushing pools, and symmetrical plantation of 52 yaupon holly trees out front. Now the majority of visitors—those who leave their cars parked in the museum’s new underground garage—emerge via glass elevator or grand stairway to a view of the Kahn building’s facade, with all its marvelous detail, across a 65-yard expanse of lawn and trees; Piano’s new pavilion is at their backs.
Piano describes the distance between Kahn’s building and his own as “the right distance for a conversation, not too close and not too far away.” This also means his pavilion can be treated as a separate entity—spacious, airy, and full of light from ingenious sources.
Comparable to Kahn’s Kimbell in size and proportion, Piano’s pavilion consists of two separate, parallel buildings connected by two glass passageways, with the rear section underground, bermed over by a luscious green lawn of a roof. Like the Kahn building, the front section of the pavilion is divided into three spaces, with a gracious central glass-walled entrance lobby and café with white-oak floors that incorporate narrow slits as ventilation outlets.
In the south gallery one marvels at the soft light and silvery sheen of the smooth-as-silk concrete walls, constructed from architectural concrete mixed with titanium: without repeating Kahn’s specific effect—that glow of dispersed light—Piano found an equivalent using contemporary materials. Running high overhead the length of the gallery, each of the roof’s eight sections consists of three layers to regulate daylight: mechanical aluminum louvers above shade the sun’s rays and function as photovoltaic cells; next, fritted glass diffuses light; and, finally, light is distributed evenly below through silky scrims stretched between pairs of laminated Douglas-fir beams. A gap between these ceiling elements and the wall creates a clerestory band of light not unlike Kahn’s, and light also filters in through a glass wall at the gallery’s end.
Outside the building, the wooden beams overhang a gallery supported by square white columns, an assemblage that resembles a classical colonnade but also suggests something of Japanese design. In the same way that Kahn extended his vaults into porticoes, Piano has created a starkly decorative exterior by converting his utilitarian materials into a canopy that also serves to shade light.
What has long set Piano apart from other museum starchitects is the particular quality of his buildings’ relationship with the art on display inside them: respectful, almost deferential. Inside his pavilion at the Kimbell, the south gallery is fitted out with moveable wall panels that were arranged for the opening to display, for example, in one line of vision, Velázquez’s Portrait of Don Pedro de Barberana and Poussin’s The Sacrament of Ordination (Christ Presenting the Keys to Saint Peter).
In the smaller north gallery, African tribal objects and pre-Columbian artifacts can be appreciated in light modulated through scrims on the far glass wall; Asian art requiring no outside illumination is at home in the underground west gallery in the rear pavilion. Here, a single medium-size window admitting light from above a grassy slope has made particularly alluring a standing bronze Bodhisattva Maitreya from the eighth century.
The view across the gallery floor at the Whitney, above the spacious entrance lobby, evokes infinity: visitors can see from one end to the other, and glimpse the city beyond. Rather than distracting from the art—in this case, the Whitney’s top-notch and until-now underserved permanent collection—this openness brings a greater clarity to the experience of it by drawing the visitor more slowly through the space. Although his buildings constitute a draw on their own, Piano listens and looks well before designing a form that will not only be compatible with the art it contains but will also enhance its surrounding environment.
Paula Deitz is editor of the Hudson Review and the author of Of Gardens: Selected Essays (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 80 under the title “Light and Space Artist.”