Renzo Piano's Centro Botín, Santander
Renzo Piano's Centro Botín, Santander © Enrico Cano/Renzo Piano Building Workshop

Renzo Piano’s glass-topped studio is, perhaps, the most beautiful architects’ office in the world. Piano modestly describes it as “just a roof” — which, in way, is all it is. But then again, not really.

Built into a steep hillside on the edge of his native Genoa, the space spills down the slope and all the glass roof needs to do is follow it down the gradient, like a mountain greenhouse. Of course, you need to get up there too. For that, there’s a short journey in a glass box, a funicular which trundles smoothly up the hill away from the sparkling sea. The components are simple: a greenhouse roof, a glass box, a rusty track and, of course, the dramatic landscape. Put together they become a seductive, theatrical and exquisitely engineered experience.

Renzo Piano's Punta Nave Office, Genoa
Renzo Piano's Punta Nave Office, Genoa © Fregoso and Basalto/Renzo Piano Building Workshop Architects/Fondazione Renzo Piano

And that’s a good description of what, at his best, Piano has been doing for the past 50 years or so. From the pop-art-high-tech Pompidou Centre in Paris to the New York Times Tower, the Shard in London and the Whitney Museum in New York, Piano has consistently created urban landmarks, buildings that define skylines and, no matter how controversial or huge, eventually melt into civic-psychic images.

The title of the Royal Academy’s exhibition, The Art of Making Buildings, also gives a nod to Piano’s other studio, the Paris office in the Marais which has, as its shopfront, windows on to a building workshop. It is a place of craft and model-making, with tools self-consciously hanging on the walls and superbly fine models in the hallways. It is there to present an image of architecture as making, a notion inherent in the practice’s name, the Renzo Piano Building Workshop.

Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre, Nouméa
Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre, Nouméa © Sergio Grazia/ADCK/RPBW

Piano comes from a family of builders and he is always conscious of the traces of human hands in even the most high-tech, precision-engineered structures. But the bland title of his RA show betrays an intention to have it both ways. Is architecture art? Is it a profession? Is the making the art? Or is it, as the Parisian office window suggests, craft? Or even engineering?

Piano brought the last aspect up when he suggested he would design a replacement for the Morandi bridge which collapsed outside Genoa last month. He is part of a generation of Italian architects who were influenced as much by engineers as by other architects and who were able to create expressive, sculptural structures that blurred the edges between the disciplines. The Pompidou Centre (designed with Richard Rogers and opened in 1977), with its garishly coloured exoskeleton and gleefully exposed tubes and ducts, illustrates that perfectly — but so does the Botín Foundation in Santander, opened last year, a building that wallows in its industrial, nautical and engineering metaphors. There is also some material in the show on Piano’s yachts, beautiful, aerodynamic things which he famously designs, builds and tunes and which surely influence his architecture.

Renzo Piano at his workshop in Paris
Renzo Piano at his workshop in Paris © Francois Mori/AP/REX/Shutterstock

The Art of Making Buildings traces Piano’s trajectory from his early, finely engineered structures such as his inventive mobile pavilions via megastructures such as Osaka’s Kansai Airport and London’s Shard through to blockbusters such as the new Whitney Museum. The exhibition does what might be expected with original drawings, deft models and what look like reverse-engineered presentation pieces made for display rather than construction. It makes it all look a little easy. Exquisitely simple concept sketch; nice model; photo of the finished building — and then, finally, a slotting into a Piano-ville model, a fantasia of a city made solely of Piano buildings.

There is, perhaps inevitably, little sense of how Piano so brilliantly manipulates circulation and how he understands context (or occasionally fails to understand it: I’m thinking here of London’s St Giles development). But more than this — and perhaps more surprisingly, given the venue — there is a failure to address what exactly it is that has made Piano the default architect of the big-money, big-ticket art world. His Menil Collection in Houston is often cited as one of the most revered art spaces but it would be impossible from what is shown here to understand why. Since then he has built major museums in Oslo, New York, Dallas, Atlanta, Bern, Chicago, Los Angeles . . . the list can seem endless. Why did his work become such a benchmark and his galleries so successful? There is no answer here.

Sketch by Renzo Piano of the Shard, London
Sketch by Renzo Piano of the Shard, London © RPBW

Nevertheless, the spaces are used well; the models are, at their best, superb; the RA’s new galleries look terrific and there are subtle touches in the curation. These include gentle sounds of the spaces being displayed, audible only as you move closer to the models, as well as some engaging, slightly tatty original drawings from the 1970s which now look very low tech indeed.

Yet despite the wealth of buildings and the film of the architect eloquently and charmingly explaining his architecture, the show feels a little distant, aloof. Perhaps the work is too familiar, perhaps the sense of struggle is lacking. Piano’s architecture is cool and clear. Just look at the way the New York Times Tower or the Shard fade out towards the top, as if they are attempting to lose themselves in the clouds, to dematerialise.

It’s always difficult in a gallery setting to deal with the material conjunction of city streets and new surfaces, the contamination of architecture by everyday life: it takes too many steps, too many translations. It is a useful survey but perhaps a city with one of the architect’s best and one of his worst schemes can get a more complete picture of his brilliance, of the way he persuades clients and the ways in which he can fall short, by simply standing at the windswept, imperfect but vital bases of the structures themselves.

To January 20, royalacademy.org.uk

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