Renzo’s Charm Offensive

Renzo Piano was in San Francisco to unveil the schematic design for his newest project—and he poured on the charm as only the Italian architect can.

Too many architects give lectures packed with dense metaphors that can make listeners claustrophobic. Not Renzo Piano. The Italian designer with a studio carved into the Genoa cliffs uses rhetoric splashed by the open sea. “Architecture is about exploration, landing on a new island every time,” Piano, a sailor in his spare hours, told an overflow crowd at the California Academy of Sciences on July 10. “As an architect, you are always looking for Atlantis.”

Piano was in San Francisco to unveil the schematic design for his newest project, a new home for the 149-year-old natural history museum and research institute. And to pour on the charm at events like this—helping win public support for a 370,000 square foot structure in oft-contested Golden Gate Park, directly across from the future site of the controversial De Young Museum by Swiss architects Herzog and De Meuron.

The speech at the academy drew students and socialites, professional planners and architectural students. Not only did they fill the hall where Piano spoke, there was a full house in the academy’s planetarium, hooked up for video access to such Renzo-isms as “architecture is a bouillabaisse, but a great bouillabaisse,” and “I have a great respect for rationalization, but it doesn’t sing.”

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Inevitably, the first question sought Piano’s opinion of the De Young. With its mesh skin and 160-foot tower, the Herzog and De Meuron design sparked a furor in San Francisco; by contrast, Piano’s academy is low and spare, the one assertive gesture is a four-acre undulating roof draped in native plants and grasses. “Architecturally speaking, the stories these two buildings tell are so different they have to be different,” Piano responded with a shrug. “I honestly think that will be a great building. Those architects know what they’re doing.”

His answer to the same question earlier in the day came with a sly—and of course charming—grin. “The best thing about the De Young,” he said at the press conference introducing the design, “is that you can go up and see our building.”

John King is the urban design writer for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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