Renzo Piano: Light and Lightness

The following is an edited version of Chapter 5 of my Aurora Place – Renzo Piano, Sydney (2001)

RPBW: Aurora Place 2001, detail (Martin van der Wal)

I love working with light elements. I love transparency, I love natural light.[1]

To construct an interpretive framework for Renzo Piano’s architecture it is salutary to consider the duality of light and lightness – not just the quality of light in the visual sense but the idea of “lightness” in a tactile or structural sense. For Piano and the Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) light is as important a theme as any that defines the work. In Piano’s architecture light and the aesthetic sense of lightness are deployed to make visible or “bring forth” social, cultural and tectonic truths; to articulate a particular spatiality; to assemble transparencies and layering; and to de-materialise substantive elements.

We live in an age where certitude of knowledge, wisdom and truth are attained primarily though our sense of vision. In the absence of these aptitudes we risk being seen as “blind” or “in the dark”. Vision has been the most privileged of the senses at least since the Renaissance so that now certitude comes where, for something to be proven, it must be seen. We customarily refer to the antecedent epoch as the Dark Age and a crucial phase of subsequent period we call the Enlightenment. For us, the printed page codifies knowledge and asserts a claim to authority as the site of accurate reference and the place to see what is, or what has happened. Since the emergence of the printed book in the second half of the 15th century, Western culture has almost stopped listening in the sense that there can also be an oral dimension to culture. Culture has become ocular-centric.[2]

In architecture, the very image of modernity is substantially derived from the interaction of light and human vision articulated through the tectonic manipulation of enclosing elements, openings, glazing and interior spaces. The materiality of architecture now largely consists of glass and the other, which is often that which supports the glass. Openness or open planning of interior spaces generously illuminated with natural light and divisions or boundaries between spaces that are not solid but dependent on transparency and light, are sacred parts of modern architecture’s appeal for authority.[3] The architecture of glass and light was an important desideratum of the modernist pioneers in the first half of the last century.

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Buck-Morss, Susan (1991)The Dialectics of Seeing; Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project."

Although the social and cultural implications of such a striving are little discussed now, they were then. Walter Benjamin, the cultural critic said: “The twentieth century, with its porosity, transparency, light and free air made an end to living in the old sense.[4]” He appraised the Parisian arcades as a case of prescient modernism and planned (but never completed) an extended cultural analysis of the theme of modernity that the historic glass roofed arcades invoked for him. Benjamin regretted though that things made of glass seemed to lack what he called “aura” meaning that they appeared prosaic and insubstantial compared to the subtlety of things wholly or partially concealed. However, he was sympathetic to the progressive vision of glass architecture that he found in Paul Scheerbart’s extraordinary 1914 essay Glass Architecture which prophesised an architecture of glass and steel that a century later we find in the work of contemporary architects like Renzo Piano:

If we want our culture to rise to a higher level, we are obliged, for better or for worse, to change our architecture. And this only becomes possible if we take away the closed character of the rooms in which we live. We can only do that by introducing glass architecture, which lets in the light of the sun, the moon, and the stars, not merely through a few windows, but through every possible wall, which will be made entirely of glass – of coloured glass. The new environment which we thus create must bring us a new culture.[5]

Bruno Taut with Paul Scheerbart: Glass Pavilion, Werkbund Exhition 1914

Scheerbart’s manifesto for a different architecture included visions for double glass walls for heating and cooling, glass bricks, lighting between double walls, light columns and light towers, movable partitions and  the end of the window as well as the loggia and the balcony, ghostly illuminations, the crystal room illuminated by translucent floors and airports as glass palaces. Most of these uncanny predictions have now come to pass in the glass architecture of contemporary architects like Renzo Piano.

This is not to argue for Piano as the glass architect incarnate, but to place his work in a progressive mainstream that is nine decades old. In Piano’s case though it is hard to separate light and transparency from light construction and what he calls “immateriality” – they are congruent and part of his conception of space in architecture. For example, in his Logbook he outlined something of the scope of the light/lightness duality in his   architecture:

I have spoken of immaterial elements. These are such things as light, transparency, vibration, texture and colour: elements that interact with the form of the space (in some cases they are a consequence of it) but are not just a function of it. I started out, in an ingenuous, even rather primitive way, from lightness.

RPBW: Aurora Place 2001, detail (Martin van der Wal)

Anyone can build using a lot of material… Taking weight away from things, however, teaches you to make the shape of structures do the work, to understand the limits of strength of components and to replace rigidity with flexibility…

When you are looking for lightness, you find something else that is precious and that is very important on the plane of poetic language: transparency. By taking things away you also remove the opacity from material.

Lightness is an instrument and transparency is a poetic quality: this is a very important difference.[6]

RPBW: Aurora Place 2001, construction picture (Martin van der Wal)

Piano is perturbed by what he calls the ancestral association of the house with shelter, protection and solidity – the “circumscribed concept of space”. He argues for a different conception of architectural space proposing what he calls a “less suffocating idea of architectural space”. There is evidence of this at Aurora Place in the facades of the office tower. Here the cantilever of the façade over the vertical and horizontal enclosing perimeter of the building, fabricates a “sail” metaphor in response to the larger space of Sydney’s harbour, but the glass also undergoes a “… transition to nothing[7]” through the intensity of the dot screen frit coating reducing towards the edges. The same visual fading or dematerialising treatment occurs in other projects, for example in the enveloping wood screens around each “hut” at the Tjibaou Cultural Centre in New Caledonia. Piano, writing in his Logbook says there is a “…logical and poetical continuity” about “working with light in the quest for lightness and transparency. Natural light [often diffused from above] is a constant feature of my work.”

RPBW: Aurora Place 2001, glass canopy (Martin van der Wal)

However it is an idea liable to misinterpretation: in his 1998 Pritzker Prize address Piano, returned again to the potential risk of there being a “misunderstanding” about his idea of transparency:

My insistence on transparency is often misunderstood and interpreted as insensitivity to the ‘space’ of architecture. Of course space is made up of volumes; high and low volumes, compressions and expansions, calm and tension, horizontal planes and inclined planes. They are all elements intended to stir the emotions, but they are not the only ones. I believe that it is a very important to work with the immaterial elements of space. I think this is one of the main currents in my architecture.

RPBW: Aurora Place 2001, office tower (Martin van der Wal)

At Aurora Place the offices are not transparent in the sense that they are fully sheathed in clear glass, instead the glass fritting design is arranged to create a regular pattern of clear glass “windows” in the otherwise smooth glass façade. From inside and out this looks like a window pattern of more traditional orientation, even though the whole assemblage is made from the one material – glass.

With all its permutations and combinations, Piano’s layered approach to light, lightness, immateriality, transparency and interiority is sufficiently flexible to do many things, often simultaneously. The interior/exterior boundary or edge is an important juncture in his architectural system where light is filtered and manipulated, vision is controlled and selectively permitted free reign, space is arranged and shaped by light and intimacy is permitted. Light is the common element and vision is instrumental in the bringing forth of a particular architectural aesthetic.


[1] Renzo Piano interviewed on The News hour With Jim Lehrer, 19 June, 1998.

[2] Levin, David and Michael, Ed. (1993)

[3] See for example Mawer, Simon (2009) The Glass Room for an evocation of Mies van der Rohe’s Tugendhat House, 1928-30

[4] Quoted in Buck-Morss, Susan (1991])The Dialectics of Seeing; Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project.

[5] Sharp, D, ed. (1972) Glass Architecture by Paul Scheerbart and Alpine Architecture by Bruno Taut.

[6] Piano, R (1997) Renzo Piano Logbook, p 253

[7] Olaf de Noyer (RPBW), conversation with author, 22/8/00

One thought on “Renzo Piano: Light and Lightness

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