Socialist Worker

Towering architectural feats? Piano fails to hit the right note

Architect Renzo Piano has made a successful career out of designing buildings that ordinary people are largely excluded from using, argues Glyn Robbins

Issue No. 2622

Renzo Pianos the Shard

Renzo Piano's the Shard

From Jeremy Iron’s audio introduction about the work of his yachting friend, this exhibition is a love-in for the cultural establishment.

The Italian architect Renzo Piano has designed some striking buildings, including the Pompidou centre in Paris (with Richard Rogers) and The Shard in London.

His work has been described as “revolutionary” and this detailed retrospective makes the case that Piano’s objective has been “the creation of truly civic buildings”.

But as with much of the architectural profession itself, the exhibition ignores the social context and consequences of buildings that ultimately become representations of wealth and power.

Piano’s philosophy echoes that of other architects who seek to humanise design and develop a harmonious relationship between buildings, their environments and their users.

This outlook is partly presented as a reaction against the impersonal, monolithic “brutalism” associated—often mistakenly—with modernist architecture.

We are told “diversity is a value, not a problem”.

But this type of language has been appropriated by the development industry.

Public space is increasingly governed by private interests, negating the kind of social fluidity Piano espouses.

His idealism is contradicted by the reality of buildings that deepen social inequality, such as The Shard.

Whatever its aesthetic qualities or intended purpose, the 95-storey tower symbolises how architects collaborate with developers who use lofty concepts as cover for big profits.

The exhibition extols The Shard’s supposedly unique “mixed use” character.

But it ignores the fact some of the luxury apartments were on sale for £50 million and have stood empty for years.

It stands in the London borough of Southwark, where 18,000 people are on the housing waiting list.

There’s an argument that Piano and other “starchitects” aren’t responsible for how the buildings they design are used.

But this goes to the heart of the morally corrupt, cynical development industry that is doing huge damage to working class communities.

The Piano exhibition perpetuates the view of design as a benign social abstraction in which architects are neutral from the social processes which shape—and are shaped by—their work.

At a time when 80 London council estates are threatened with demolition, a more critical view is needed than the one that is on show at the Royal Academy.

Renzo Piano: The Art of Making Buildings. Royal Academy of Arts, London W1J OBD. Until 20 January 2019

Head to Croydon, south London, to see artist Subvertiser’s latest work. Shopfronts have been turned into fake tax return collection points. It’s part of a festival organised by the Rise Gallery.

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