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Modernity and Light Transform a World of Robber Barons and Scholars - Renzo Piano

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Modernity and Light Transform a World of Robber Barons and Scholars
10 April 2006
The New York Times

If some architects feel a twinge of envy at the mention of Renzo Piano, who can blame them? In the United States alone, the Italian architect is working on or has just finished major museum projects in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco. And two decades after its completion, the art world still speaks reverently of the serene, muted light in his Menil Collection building in Houston.

As if that weren't enough, Mr. Piano divides his time between Paris and Genoa and often spends summers sailing off the coast of Sardinia.

Such success has spawned jealous whispers that Mr. Piano is losing his edge. He is too polite to clients, some architects say, as if to imply that he is too quick to compromise -- and worst of all, too ''safe.''

His dazzling expansion of the Morgan Library and Museum collection, which opens to the public on April 29, may either stoke that envy or forever put it to rest. A sublime expression of the architect's preoccupation with light, the design transforms the world of robber barons and dust-coated scholars conjured by the old Morgan into a taut architectural composition bursting with civic hope.

His triumph at the site, where order is brought to a jumble of buildings collected over nearly a century, should temporarily allay complaints that New York's cultural institutions shrink from a high level of architectural innovation.

(Full disclosure: Mr. Piano, of course, is the architect of the future New York Times Company building rising on Eighth Avenue. I can only dream that the Times tower lives up to the standard set at the Morgan.)

The original library, designed by McKim, Mead & White in 1906, is a landmark of Beaux-Arts design, but it was never a very welcoming building. Its severe 36th Street Palladian facade, punctured by a dark entry porch, makes you think of top hats and smoke-filled rooms -- a dignified reliquary for a dying culture. Morgan's son, Jack, built a boxy annex in 1928 as part of a broad effort to expand the institution's profile; an undistinguished glass atrium by Voorsanger & Mills was added in 1991 to link the annex with a Morgan family brownstone at Madison and 37th Street.

Mr. Piano navigates this history with remarkable deftness. Blasting through 50 feet of bedrock, he adds book vaults and a 280-seat theater underground, minimizing the visual scale of his project. The Voorsanger addition is gone, replaced by a large glass-and-steel entry pavilion. Two more pavilions -- a gallery and offices -- are set on 36th and 37th Streets, completing three sides of a central light-drenched court.

The layout sets up a mesmerizing rhythm between new and old. The boxy pavilions are joined to the more massive stone buildings by vertical slots of glass. By creating a slight separation between each of the buildings Mr. Piano allows pedestrians a glimpse deep into the central court from side streets to the north and south. It's as if the Morgan complex has been gently pulled apart to let life flow through the interiors, hinting at the fragile balance between the city's chaotic energy and the scholar's interior life.

The layout of the pavilions can be read as a commentary on the old Morgan's pretensions. Built during an age of industrialization that was brutishly steamrolling toward the future, the blank marble facades of the old buildings were meant to cloak Morgan's money in the veneer of the past. But Mr. Piano's pavilions embrace industrial values without shame or hesitation. Their straightforward and stoic exterior facades, painted a creamy white that echoes the color of the stone buildings, imply that we're all grown-up sophisticated people, comfortable in our own skins.

To enter the building through its new Madison Avenue entrance, you slip first under the steel cube that houses the reading room, the full weight of the building bearing down upon you, before experiencing the psychic release of the soaring glass atrium. This is the soul of Mr. Piano's design, and its most spectacular and complex space.

The older buildings, all accessible from here, anchor three corners of the atrium. A towering window at the rear offers a view of prewar apartment buildings. Elevator landings that lead to the upper gallery and reading room project out overhead. The tops of a few corporate towers can be glimpsed in the distance.

It's not a very romantic view; Mr. Piano is not precious about New York's history. The Empire State Building spire blends in with the chipped brick facades and tinted glass surfaces that are part of our everyday lives: hard, gritty and sometimes glamorous. We're left with a subtly layered urban experience in which the Morgan's interior is part of a broader urban picture.

That effect is reinforced by Mr. Piano's dexterous use of materials. Unlike Yoshio Taniguchi's recently expanded Museum of Modern Art, conceived as a series of abstract floating planes, Mr. Piano's building is made of flesh and bones. The steel surfaces are not polished to an abstract finish; instead, the heavy joints between his welded steel plates are left exposed. I-beams rest solidly atop of slender cruciform columns; you can feel their weight.

And of course, there is the light. Ever since the completion of the Menil Collection building in 1987, Mr. Piano has been tinkering with the slight variations of light in his buildings. Here, he creates a dramatic interplay between vast public spaces bathed in natural light and vaultlike rooms that serve as galleries and reading rooms. The result is a space with the weight of history and the lightness of clouds.

The full force is felt once you circulate through the galleries and reading rooms, old and new. A new, perfect white cube of a gallery illuminated through a sheer fabric ceiling is a counterpart to the florid rooms of the old Morgan, whose marble rotunda has never looked more seductive -- or debauched. This is just as true of the brand-new third-floor reading room, whose simplicity is as comforting, in its way, as McKim, Mead & White's more ornate mahogany-paneled reading room.

These more intimate spaces are not just about bookish reflection. Within the ethereal atmosphere of Mr. Piano's light-filled world, they are places where the imagination can roam into darker territory. Think of the dormant figure in the famous plate from Goya's ''Caprichos'' series, ''The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.''

We're a long way from the Pompidou Center, the 1970's-era people's palace that Mr. Piano designed with Richard Rogers when the two were brash young newcomers. In its play of weight and airiness, the Morgan is closer in spirit to works like Henri Labrouste's design for the National Library in Paris, whose classical structuralism was intended as a slap at the Beaux-Arts Academy.

In the end, the Morgan expansion is the work of a master who has reached full maturity, and is thus at ease with contradiction.

Mr. Piano no longer has any interest in annihilating the past; nor does he worship it blindly. He appreciates its rare treasures while living solidly in the present. A result is a building that doesn't retreat from the city, but makes us fall in love with it all over again.
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