Technology and Renzo Piano

The following is an edited version of Chapter 4 of my Aurora Place – Renzo Piano, Sydney (2001)

Aurora Place, Sydney - Renzo Piano Building Workshop (Martin van der Wal photograph)

Architects make use of the tools their time offers them.[1] Architecture is born of its own time and has to be capable of expressing this.[2]

In the sense that architecture is a precise, craft-like assemblage of constituent elements carefully fabricated in response to real world needs, Renzo Piano is, as he puts it a homo faber in the Renaissance sense.[3] Homo faber (he who makes) also refers broadly to a ‘metalworker or fabricator’ – leading early Modern inventors such as Gutenberg and Brunelleschi made technological advances on the back trade training as metalworkers. Piano differentiates between himself and his architect contemporaries by characterizing his activity as a kind of scientific building. A study of the work of a creative fabricator like Piano thus entails a consideration of technology.

Filippo Brunelleschi and the centering for Florence Cathedral Dame

Technology, the intentional bringing to bear of rational thought upon the world of objects, is a central theme in modern architecture where it is perhaps better seen as the bringing to bear of not only rational, but poetic thought to the construction of buildings. Until the end of the 20th century technology in architecture was little discussed outside of the stylistic discussion around “Hi-Tech” architecture where the theoretical development of ideas lagged behind architectural stylistic expression. In response to the extensive range of techno-morphological solutions engendered through the 20th century, a strand of architectural discourse has been developed around what might be called the art of building construction. At the outset historian/critics like Kenneth Frampton (Studies in Tectonic Culture, 1996) and Gevork Hartoonian (Ontology of Construction, 1994) brought terms like ‘fabrication” and ‘tectonics’ into play. Before discussing Renzo Piano, it is important to place the discussion of technology in a greater context than the disciplinary framework of architecture.

In the second half of the 19th century, instead of talking about the art of building construction, theorists were more interested architecture’s ‘visual furnishing” capacity. We can see in this in John Ruskin proclaiming that architecture is:

“… the art that so disposes and adorns the edifices raised by man … that the sight of them may contribute to his mental health, power and pleasure…”

Ruskin made a distinction between architecture and building which doesn’t apply today saying that to build is:

“… to put together and adjust the several pieces of any edifice or receptacle of a considerable size”[4]

Ruskin cited a church, a house, a ship and a coach building as examples of this art of building or edification as he called it. Merely to construct something is not architecture, he said, but building. Architecture obtains where one:

“… impresses on it’s form certain characters venerable or beautiful, but otherwise unnecessary.”

For this late Victorian aesthete technology was of little consequence, although he did concede a need for an intrinsic relationship between ornament and structure to exist. Interestingly, in the first sign of contemporary pre-occupations, Ruskin’s contemporary Viollet-le-Duc, argued for the appearance of a building to reflect its construction. Gevork Hartoonian[5] believes these two dictums are actually different expressions of the same idea. By the mid 20th century a large literature of positive and negative views on the influence of technology in advanced capitalist societies had accumulated. Accordingly, technology was seen either as a positive instrument that enables a realization of purposeful, rational ends[6] or it is a driven, dystopian presence that ineluctably manipulates human existence. In his declamation of the dystopian view Renzo Piano reveals himself to be an adherent of the positive view:

I find the distrust of advanced technology still more ludicrous, especially when it culminates in the fiercely academic tones used in the condemnation or acclaim of high technology. Architects should work with the tools that their time offers them. Refusing to deal with contemporary material culture is futile, perhaps even a bit masochistic. Let us put it this way: technology is like a bus. If it helps you to get where you want to go you take it. If it’s going in a different direction, don’t.[7]

Martin Heidegger (Copyright Dr Hermann Heidegger)

One object for these remarks may be the philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) who was a well known protagonist of the negative view of technology. In his famous 1954 essay on technology Heidegger begins with a stern warning for us to be wary of the commonly held view that we control technology:

“… we remain un-free and chained to technology.” Further, we are actually “… delivered over to technology in the worst possible way, if we regard it as something neutral.”[8]

Heidegger worried about the potential for usto be en-framed by technology and reduced to a sort of human stockpile for technological purposes. He also explores the meaning of the word technology, tracing it to the Greek technikon meaning that which belongs to techne. With pertinance to Piano and the fabricatore idea, Heidegger also makes two observations about techne. First, the word is applicable not only to the talents and skills of the craftsman but also to the world of the intellect and of the fine arts. Secondly, Heidegger says:

“…  techne belongs to the bringing-forth, to poesis; it is something poetic.”[9]

At this juncture Gevork Hartoonian enters the discussion calling techne “…the art of making” that not only privileges craftsmanship and fabrication, but assigns them a cultural value that acknowledges the presence of intellectual capital. Thus the difference between techne and technology is that the latter:

‘… draws only from its own reserves of physics  and mechanics, while techne precedes practical knowledge and resides, in part, in poetics.”[10]

Aurora Place - Renzo Piano Building Workshop (Martin van der Wal photograph)

The Renzo Piano Building Workshop’s (RPBW) use of techne and a mastery of technological building production at Aurora Place in Sydney are notable. A tectonic ordering system, where separate elements are given a precise form based on their place and fit within the constructional assemblage, is observable. For example curtain wall ‘sails and fins’ have architectural forms derived from an interplay of technology and constraint, specifically between the glass sheets and their skeletal steel support, moving from the visually substantial to the visually light.

Aurora Place, Sydney - Renzo Piano Building Workshop (Martin van der Wal photograph)

A gradual dematerializing of the glazing occurs where cantilevered structural framing is pushed to the limit of lightness and appears to feather off towards the extreme edges with an ever decreasing means of support. This continues until there is nothing but a naked sheet of glass hanging in space.

Aurora Place - Renzo Piano Building Workshop (Martin van der Wal photograph)

The conspicuous sense of order here and in other RPBW projects is something that emerges from an interconnected set of rules that govern the parts and the whole. Individual pieces of an assembly conform completely to the rules and the whole work is built with an economy of technical means that is specific to the project and thematically connected to a set of RPBW precedents. In 1987 Piano put it this way:

It all makes possible the realisation of an architecture which is an expression of language. This language is examined, invented and tried out systematically reinventing materials and certain processes, uses or functions, which are coerced or turned inside out. It is not an easy task, but it is the only possible way to try and create a language which is an authentic expression of our century. I am aspiring to the same professional dignity which, perhaps, the architect or designer enjoyed in the 16th century; the architect as machinatore who invents who invents and designs something and the instruments to make it and then builds it down to the last detail.[11]

Thus, technology in architecture is palpable technology, not hidden or virtual but rich in formal realities. It is more common to conceal technology in a building than to reveal it, and scant few who do reveal it do so poetically. The technology that constitutes the figurative aspect of the architecture at Aurora Place is derived from construction, factory production and engineering, three great form-giving agencies of 20th century Modernism. In Piano’s architecture technology is pervasive but not randomly or imprecisely used. In Aurora Place there is a powerful experiential dimension to the presence of technology, that, in other hands, could easily be oppressive or dull. In Heideggerian terms Piano’s architecture contains a ‘bringing forth’ not just of technology but of techne and poesis, the important knowing that precedes fabrication and the poetry that accompanies it. Piano believes that architecture is a science that requires courage and a taste for adventure. He says that to practice architecture one needs to ‘… tackle reality with curiosity and hope to be able to understand it and change it…’ (Pritzker Prize acceptance speech). He sees an important sustaining quality in craftsmanship, fabrication and science. At the same time as seeing a noble dimension to the place of craft of architecture, he turns his gaze to historical models of the scientist such as Brunelleschi and Galileo the homo faber and machinatore for inspiration. For this architect though, to make such an interpretation of technology is not capricious but self-defining. Piano’s atavistic appeal to historical models may even reflect a desire to disassociate his contemporary practice from the negative instrumentalism of technology that disturbed Martin Heidegger. Averting our attention to historical models also reminds us of the techno-eschatological dimension to Western culture[12] that goes back a millennium and has registered a presence in utopian and ‘visionary’ architecture. In Piano’s case this is not to suggest a religious aspect to his architectural vision, but simply to posit the thought that his work is partially informed by notions of transcendence.

[1] Piano, Renzo(1997)Renzo Piano Logbook p.248
[2] Logbook p.249
[3] Piano, Renzo (1998) “The Architect and the President,” Pritzker Prize acceptance speech.
[4] Ruskin, John (1900) The Seven Lamps of Architecture – Everyman Edition, 1940
[5] Hartoonian, Gevork (1994) Ontology of Construction p.2
[6] Miller, David (1987) Material Culture and Mass Consumption p.117
[7] Piano, Logbook p.248
[8] Heidegger, Martin (1993) Basic Writings – The Question Concerning Technology p.311
[9] Basic Writings p.318
[10] Ontology p.40
[11] Lampugnani, Vittorio M. (1987) Domus 820 – interview with Renzo PIano
[12] Nobel, David F (1997) The Religion of Technology: the Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention

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