PIANO LESSONS  -  Wednesday May 26th, 2010
“Architecture is a dangerous profession. If we are wrong, we are wrong for a long, long time.” So saying Renzo Piano began his short speech to a small audience gathered in the central courtyard of his first UK building (and the most colourful, by percentage of facade, ever built in London): Central St. Giles.

Personally, while I find his eye for detailing impeccable, I am not a fan of his work in general. Although he expresses himself with a frank charm, I find his approach to architecture strangely… archaic. His description of how the building came to be – starting with the destruction of an old Ministry of Defence brick fortress, followed by nine years of searching for the right way to create ‘an urban meeting place’ – was part architect-as-master-builder, part architect-as-social-engineer.

“London has a texture that is medieval, no two facades point in the same direction.” he argued, describing the condition of the city. “It has a magic feeling. It is made of piazzas and streets and passages… it is always mixed in its use.” I definitely agree London is medieval, but I’ve never stumbled into one of its piazzas. It is a grubby and run-down city, a city that takes time to learn to love, with none of the allure (or homogeneity) of Rome or Paris. The only people I’ve ever heard use the word “magic” in London are Spanish tourists describing the hit musical ‘Mama-Mia: the songs of Abba’.

“I think the city is a place of surprise.” Piano continued. There was something terribly trite about this Italian, who “wanted to tell the truth, and be completely honest” about the building. The corporate sterility of the courtyard and the transplanted oak jarred with this old-world charisma and sincerity about materiality. “Every building must bear the mark of the hand”… It didn’t help the talk was called ‘Piano Lessons’. Jeez. Talk about Cheese Louise.

“Architecture is the art of making shelter. But it also the art of answering desires and dreams.” Cue whoosing wind and wind chimes. Then he suddenly changed pitch, and the smile fell from his face. “I want to confess everything. Some people think you begin with the idea. But there is always something missing from a project. I don’t mean I am a perfectionist, I am talking about the real struggle. We want to be good, but this takes a lot of energy. We [architects] must be stubborn. But we must also be right, so we must be good listeners… I don’t think schools really teach you that. Maybe the parents, but mostly we learn this in life. You must fight –” he gestured to the developers sitting in the front row “but we’re not really fighting, we are struggling” The project team smiled knowingly at each other. “This is what I call the responsibility of the architect… No one can be so arrogant as to know exactly what to do in this job, you must struggle.” He broke off to look at a large printed render mounted on card “This is the problem with scale and proportion. Many people know how to make these horrible renders, that always lie! They can make perfect models, but if they are not careful they will end up with buildings that are just large models.”

He closed with a metaphor: “Being an architect is like conquering the wild west. First you must get a caravan, and then there is a big river, and then the horse gets tired, and then you are attacked by Indians… And then you make it there in the end. And you think, sometimes those Indians look bad, but they’re really good guys.” The audience sat bemuzed, thoroughly puzzled by this last remark.

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