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Is Renzo Piano America's Default Architect?

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High Museum Expansion
Courtesy High Museum of Art

Nasher Sculpture Center
Courtesy Timothy Hursley

L.A. County Museum of Art Expansion
Courtesy LACMA

Chicago Art Institute Expansion
Courtesy Chicago Art Institute

Whitney Museum Expansion
Courtesy RPBW

American museums seem to be operating on a new architectural principle lately: If there’s any doubt about the design of your new addition, hire Renzo Piano.

In the past year, the Italian architect has received expansion commissions from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Last year, he completed the graceful Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas [record, January 2004, page 100], and his firm, Renzo Piano Building Workshop, is now working on the Morgan Library expansion in New York City (opening next spring); the High Museum Expansion in Atlanta (a 177,000-square-foot project opening this fall); the glass, steel, and limestone Chicago Art Institute north wing addition; the California Academy of Sciences expansion in San Francisco; and (though it’s in jeopardy) the expansion of Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is also rumored to be the favorite to design a new space for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

“It seems he’s the only game in town,” says Ken Carbone, of Carbone Smolan Agency in New York, which advises on museum projects throughout the country, including Piano’s work in Atlanta. Most museum leaders point out that Piano’s exalted status in their community is well-deserved. Directors point to several factors, first among them design, in which Piano creates intimate spaces that elegantly highlight the art inside. A good example is the Menil Collection (1987) in Houston, an intimate glass-and-concrete box whose pristine interiors are flooded with rich layers of light. Such work seems especially popular as the tide begins slowly to shift against flashy “destination” museums that often overwhelm the work inside.

Another factor is that Piano, known for working well with museum officers and coming in on budget with popular designs, has become a sure thing in a field that is often without certainties. James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, points out that museum after museum extols his work, charisma, and negotiating ability.

But some feel the choice of Piano is more about playing it safe with a familiar name. Carbone notes that some American architects are getting fed up with what could be called the “knee-jerk” choice of Piano (as well as the recent dominance of other foreign firms in the U.S. museum market, such as Herzog & de Meuron). “You’d like to think there’s somebody else out there,” he says, pointing to only a handful of American architects getting recent museum commissions, like Frank Gehry, FAIA, and Polshek Partnership. Richard Gluckman, who also submitted a design for the Whitney addition, claimed that the museum had promised him a chance to compete for the commission but changed its mind when Piano came into the picture.

While most admire his work, some architects wonder whether Piano’s multitude of U.S. projects will begin to look formulaic, which he says will never happen. “The differences between my buildings are immense,” he says, pointing to the LACMA project, which creates a new gardenway as a centerpiece, and the Whitney Museum, which opens up to the surrounding urban environment, as examples. “Some people like to make generalizations, but they’re not looking closely enough,” he adds. Piano also resents being regarded as a “safe choice.” “Making museums that work for art, that are simple, subtle, serene, doesn’t mean they are not ambitious buildings,” he says.

As for his grip on the U.S. museum market, Piano notes his close work with local firms like Fox & Fowle and Beyer Blinder Belle, and says he has no ambition to monopolize projects. “We are actually very reluctant. We take very little of what is offered to us. I never try to do more than I can.”

Sam Lubell