The sky soon reveals itself in all its glory. Unpredictable and ever-changing, as only London skies can be. Renzo is certain that on that morning in July the sky will be ready to be captured by the 11,000 glass panels covering 72 stories of his new creation, “The Shard”, as it is aptly called, a shard of the future thrust high in the heart of the English capital, not far from London Bridge. It is there that the architect is heading for its inauguration. He is well acquainted with the streets of London, as many years have passed since he opened a studio there with Richard Rogers, but one thing that Renzo never ceases to do is to set aside a special place in each city that he visits. The city is a place for exchanging goods, space and size, but above all a place which intertwines people and (his)stories. According to Renzo, the city invites constant reflection on life, beginning with his home city of Genoa, which he had to leave like every good Genoan. Each city that welcomes him leaves its mark. Milan during the student riot years prompted him to get on, both professionally and socially, in Paris he met great architects, such as Jean Provè, and he would return there later to leave his mark, and finally swinging London, which TIME magazine voted city of the decade in 1966 and which at that time provided excellent opportunities for Renzo. While the streets unfold through the taxi window, the same streets he had walked fifty years earlier and taught at the Architectural Association School and shared a practice with his friend Rogers, before he became the great Renzo Piano, he has a memory of a winter morning in the late 1960s. This may have been triggered by a glimpse of a street through the cab window, or else something brought on by his excitement each time he presents a new work to the world, that day being “The Shard”, even if he is now a celebrity architect.
He was a young man again, leaving home early to go to lessons. He wore a full beard, which apart from being part of the standard stereotype intellectual look of the time, also protected him from the cold weather in London, as did his polo-neck sweater. When he finished teaching he raced to his office by bus, which he preferred to the tube as he liked staying on the surface. He wanted to see how the city was designed, its skyline, streets and people, so as to draw inspiration. That day he had a new skyline in mind, a dream which he wanted to share with Rogers, as he had heard that there was a competition in Paris whose jury of experts was presided over by his friend Jean Prouvè, and this was a chance that couldn’t be missed. After all, Paris was the perfect city from which to draw inspiration and the ideal place to develop a new idea of space, which was what the two young architects worked on daily.
It was 1969, and Georges Pompidou, newly elected President of the French Republic, had started to pursue his national and international renovation policies, unlike his predecessor, Charles De Gaulle. His wife, Claude, a highly educated woman, also persuaded him to call for national cultural programmes, and so an international competition to build a multicultural complex in the heart of Paris, the “Beaubourg”, was announced. Forty-nine countries entered, with 680 projects plus 1, the one which would attract the jury’s, as well as the President’s, attention.
It is not surprising that such a bizarre project should be produced by two iconoclastic architects, but what was surprising, thought Renzo, is the fact that they were allowed to go ahead with it. In fact, they were awarded the project. Five floors of pipes, ducts, escalators, glass, lifts, steel frameworks, fountains, gardens, a sort of vertical square with colour-coded walkways (green, blue, yellow, grey and red). The final result was a cultural centre that begged questions, rather than answering them. The creation of the Beaubourg coincided with the rise of the great Renzo Piano.
While the taxi finally pulls up at its location, Renzo smiles to himself when he remembers how the strange construction was equally loved and hated by the Parisians. Above all, he remembers when a lady, on a wet day outside the Centre, had been struggling with her umbrella in the wind. Renzo and Rogers had gone to help her, and seeking to impress her told her they were the designers of the Centre. At that she furled her umbrella and started hitting them with it, accusing them of creating a horrible mess in the heart of Paris. Well, everybody is entitled to their point of view.
Renzo pays his fare and glances at his watch. There is some time left before the press conference, and he doesn’t want these memories to fade away just yet, so he decides to have a little time to himself and relax with one of his pipes by the River Thames, gazing on his glass shard of the future that has redesigned the London skyline. After all, it is thanks to the air and shifting skies that he came up with his international masterpieces. It is difficult to keep track of his seventy-odd works, from Potsdamer Platz in Berlin to the cultural centre in New Caledonia, from Osaka airport to the Schiele Museum in Bern, from the ancient port in Genoa to the new headquarters of the Sole24ore newspaper and the one for the New York Times, not to mention so many other cities. Cityscapes beside his ideal dreamscapes. The important thing for him is to travel, to listen to the places, people and lightness of matter and spirit. One thing he has learned, which is that transparency always wins. Ethical and creative transparency.
While smoke from his pipe spirals upwards to mingle with the clouds that reflect light onto “The Shard”, he straightens his red tie and is on his way.