The Incredible Lightness of Being Renzo Piano

The maverick Genoese architect has built an international reputation with daring projects that span the globe

Since 1977, when Renzo Piano and British partner Richard Rogers shocked the architectural establishment with the Georges Pompidou Center, that parody of high-tech design moored in the 18th-century heart of Paris, the indefatigable Italian architect has relished his role as maverick.

Since the Pompidou project, Piano has crisscrossed the architectural map, forging an international reputation with innovative commercial, museum and public-works projects in New Caledonia, Japan, the United States, Germany, Italy and France. Winner of the 1998 Pritzker Architecture Prize, the versatile Piano has also designed subway stations, bridges, a prototype car, cruise ships and a ferro-cement sailboat.

With offices in Paris, Genoa and Berlin, Piano's 100-person architectural firm juggles as many as a dozen world-class projects at a time. In addition to a 38-story office tower for Sydney, Australia, that will be enveloped by a massive translucent "sail," current projects include a performing arts complex in Rome, a pilgrimage church in southern Italy, a combination store and artisans' studio for the luxury-goods maker Hermès in Tokyo, and a proposed new museum for Harvard University.

Piano is also overseeing one of the most politically and symbolically charged building ventures in postwar Europe — Berlin's Potsdamer Platz. Spanning an area the size of 100 football fields, this high-rise complex of offices, residences, shops, theaters and cinemas is intended to recapture the prewar vibrancy of the city's central district.

Concentrating on open-plan designs and natural lighting effects, Piano has experimented with wood, stone, glass, terra-cotta and other traditional building materials in thoroughly modern and unexpected ways, gaining international recognition for his innovative, hands-on style, playful shock effects and dedication to lightness.

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