Italian-born architect Renzo Piano has designed some of the best-loved public spaces across the world. From well-traveled airports to world-renowned museums and skyscrapers, Piano’s flair for modern, sleek, and functional design has earned countless awards and accolades. The prolific architect’s career has already spanned more than five decades, and his firm, the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, remains one of the most sought after in the industry to this day.
Who is Renzo Piano?
Born in the Mediterranean city of Genoa, Italy in 1937, Renzo Piano was introduced to the world of building at an early age. The family masonry firm, Fratelli Piano, enjoyed sustained success following World War II, and was eventually taken over by Renzo’s older brother, Ermanno. As a young boy, Renzo spent many afternoons visiting construction sites with his father, where he obsessed over both form and function and fantasized about a future designing lightweight structures.
Renzo graduated from the Milan Polytechnic School of Architecture in 1964, and began apprenticing in the family business and studying under several established architects and engineers shortly thereafter. He completed his first major building, the IPE Factory, in his hometown of Genoa in 1968.
Shortly after completing the IPE Factory, the young architect won his first international commission to design the Pavilion of Italian Industry for Expo ‘70 in Osaka, Japan. The bold, industrial design of the Expo ‘70 Pavilion brought Piano his first taste of international acclaim, and eventually caught the eye of British architect Richard Rogers. In 1971, the two architects founded their own firm, Piano and Rogers, setting into motion one of the most prolific careers in modern architecture.
A Virtual Tour of Iconic Renzo Piano Buildings
Renzo Piano would become best-known for his high-tech public spaces, but his interest in modern technology and design was evident throughout all of his works. His early obsession with lightweight structures graduated to a more sophisticated and contextual industrial style, and he often prided himself on successfully integrating his work into the surrounding landscape. While Piano drew on styles like Postmodernism, the architect’s style was undeniably his own, and no one trend would come to define him. We’ve distilled Piano’s most remarkable architectural achievements down to ten of the most noteworthy examples. Take a (virtual) tour below.
1. Centre Pompidou
Year Opened: 1977
Location: Paris, France
Often thought of as the building that launched Renzo Piano’s career, the Centre Pompidou in Paris began with an architecture contest in 1969. Then President of France, Georges Pompidou, aimed to create a new cultural center for art, literature, and tourism in the heart of Paris. After receiving more than 600 submissions, the Piano/Rogers design shocked the architectural world when it was chosen as the winner of the contest. Relatively unknown at the time, the duo’s submission was one of the first major examples of an “inside-out” design, exposing the building’s infrastructure on the exterior. Formally opened in 1977, the Centre Pompidou has since welcomed over 180 million visitors and is still one of the best-known Renzo Piano works in existence today.
2. The Menil Collection
Year Opened: 1987
Location: Houston, Texas
While understated in comparison to the Centre Pompidou, the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas served as Piano’s United States debut. After ending his collaboration with Richard Rogers in 1977, Piano began a new partnership with Irish engineer Peter Rice, who had also worked on the Centre Pompidou. The duo was commissioned by Dominique de Menil, an oil heiress and art power-broker, to create a minimalist design for the Houston museum that would house the family’s personal collection. Unlike the Centre Pompidou, the Menil Collection design sought to coexist seamlessly with its’ surroundings, using primarily natural light to illuminate the more than 30,000 square feet of gallery space.
3. Kansai International Airport
Year Opened: 1994
Location: Osaka, Japan
The design for the Kansai International Airport was a prime example of Piano’s obsession with both function and form. Built on an artificial island located about 30 miles off the coast of Osaka, Japan, the airport became known for featuring a 1.1 mile-long terminal—still the longest airport terminal in the world. The design was meant to resemble a glider, and it features a striking, wave-like roof covering the departure level. In an area known for earthquakes, Piano said the lightweight, modern design of the airport was born out of necessity.
4. Nemo Science Museum
Year Opened: 1997
Location: Amsterdam, Netherlands
Piano’s striking, copper-green design helped the NEMO Science Museum to become one of the most recognizable buildings in Amsterdam. Situated on top of a tunnel on the city’s eastern docks, the building appears to rise dramatically out of the water. Piano felt Amsterdam was lacking a piazza overlooking the city, and designed the rooftop of the building to afford visitors such a view. Since 2013, the NEMO rooftop has featured a fully-functioning garden and has become a tourist attraction of its own accord.
5. Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre
Year Opened: 1998
Location: Noumea, New Caledonia
While perhaps lesser known than some of his work in major cities, this cultural institution in New Caledonia was one of Renzo Piano’s most important designs. Following a submission contest in 1991, Piano was awarded the commission to design a center in honor of Jean-Marie Tjibaou, the recently assassinated leader of the island’s independence movement. Piano’s design was a tribute to the native Kanak culture of New Caledonia, using traditional local huts as the basis of the project. The building was also an example of sustainable modern architecture, using a passive ventilation system to circumvent the need for mechanical air conditioning.
6. Parco della Musica
Year Opened: 2002
Location: Rome, Italy
The Parco della Musica has become one of the most iconic music centers in the world, but the construction of the venue was particularly interesting. Shortly after digging began on the project in 1995, the remains of an ancient Roman villa were found among the debris. The villa was estimated to be over 2,500 years old, and Piano determined that he needed to incorporate the remains into the project. Construction was halted for a year, and the venue was reimagined as three separate music halls joined through a continuous lobby and centered around an open-air theater. As part of the updated design, Piano included a museum space to house the original artifacts. With a capacity of around 2,700 in the largest space, Parco della Musica quickly became a cultural institution following its opening in 2002.
7. Zentrum Paul Klee
Year Opened: 2005
Location: Bern, Switzerland
Paul Klee was a prolific Swiss-born artist who produced more than 10,000 paintings, drawings, and etchings throughout his career. When Klee’s daughter-in-law donated her personal collection to the city of Bern in 1997, Renzo Piano was contracted to design a museum in tribute to the late artist. Piano and his team used the location in Bern, Switzerland for inspiration, mimicking the curvature of the roadway and the profile of the Alps in the distance for the wavy design of the museum. With his design, Piano attempted to portray the same sense of peace and tranquility as the surrounding landscape, and the museum now houses over 4,000 works by the legendary artist.
8. The New York Times Building
Year Opened: 2007
Location: New York, New York
One of Piano’s more iconic modern works, the New York Times building in Manhattan was designed to express the cultural importance of the world-renowned newspaper. The building was commissioned through a contest in 2000, and the 52-storey skyscraper was formally announced in December of 2001. Piano’s sleek, see-through design was intended to portray the transparency of the newspaper and showcase the perpetual link between the Times and the city of New York. As of 2019, the tower was the 11th tallest building in New York City and housed offices for The New York Times and several other prominent organizations.
9. The Shard
Year Opened: 2012
Location: London, United Kingdom
Another one of Renzo Piano’s most famous modern works, The Shard has become a fixture of the London skyline. It’s been reported that during his initial meeting with the developer, Piano expressed his strong distaste for most tall buildings, and then quickly sketched his idea for The Shard’s spire-shaped design on a restaurant napkin. Since its completion in 2012, The Shard has stood as the tallest building in the United Kingdom, with its white glass design dramatically changing colors as the day passes; reflecting the sky surrounding it.
10. Whitney Museum of American Art
Year Opened: 2015
Location: New York, New York
Another modern institution of New York City, Piano designed the updated Whitney Museum of American Art in 2010. Formerly residing on the Upper East Side, the new building in the city’s meatpacking district boasted over 200,000 square feet and greatly expanded the museum’s available exhibition space. With a striking, blue-grey paneled design, Piano wanted the building to offer views of both the Hudson River and the dramatic industrial landscape surrounding it. Piano was equally inspired by the needs of the museum and the remarkable site of the new building, seeking to create a tranquil public gathering space alongside a busy, modern city.
Renzo Piano’s Architectural Works
Throughout his prolific career, Renzo Piano has received countless awards and accolades for his beautiful yet functional designs. He was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 1998, often considered the most prestigious achievement in architecture, and in 2006, he was selected as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine. There is no doubt Piano has already changed the face of modern architecture, and yet he still continues to produce some of the most admired work in the world. Long after the completion of his career, whenever that may be, his legacy will live on through his numerous iconic structures across the world.