L'eleganza del Marmo

Renzo Piano and the use of stone and marble in his works

Italian architecture is a contemporary art that does not forget its traditions.

Who better than Renzo Piano in his versatility has been able to take Italian architecture all over the world.

His desire to experiment and his cultural knowledge has led him to work all over the world but with a continuous growth with the enhancement of contents that are becoming lighter and lighter with a combination of various materials.

However, in order to give a classical and natural touch that recalls Italian architecture, he makes a moderate but present use of stone, which can be marble, travertine or local stone.

Renzo Piano was born in Genoa in the first half of the last century into a family of builders where he had the opportunity to connect directly with costumers and immediately put into practice his architectural studies undertaken first in Florence and then in Milan. He then worked for five years in Franco Albini’s firm, one of the most important Italian architects and designers but also a urban planner and academic of the last century, often mentioned as a guideline in Renzo Piano’s interviews.

Afterwards he increased his knowledge between New York and London. In the latter town he taught at the Architectural Association School of Architecture for two years; here he met and became a great friend of Richard Rogers with whom, together with architect Gianfranco Franchini, they won the competition to build the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. This is a project in which the structural grid of the building characterises and highlights the advancement of modern and ironic provocative technology that links Renzo Piano’s name to high – tech.

The demystification of the Pompadour Museum leads to a request from international commissions for the restoration, design and innovation of museums, exhibition halls all over the world.

Today, the architecture firm Renzo Piano Building Workshop has three offices between Genoa (his hometown), Paris (where he still lives today) and New York and it boasts important projects all over the world.

In Renzo Piano’s works, however, there is great attention to the environment, to the climate effect, to energy saving and to the integration of his works into the context, modernising it without distorting the perspective to the human eye, despite he uses little natural materials such as stone, marble, travertine, and so on.

Among his works in which stone is used in a huge but always measured way we have:

  • THE SANCTUARY OF PADRE PIO in San Giovanni Rotondo in Italy

VALLETTA CITY GATE in Malta is an example of the ancient combined with the modern.

Seat of the Maltese Parliament, it is a palace inside the town in an area where the past is the master with the walls and the remains of the Royal Theatre built in 1866 but bombed – out in 1942. Renzo Piano had in front of him an ancient theatre to recover and a modern building to integrate with the old one.

The use of local stone, “Maltese marble” with its yellowish colour, has allowed this assembly operation between ancient and modern.

The facades of the parliament building, which are near the theatre (recovered and made safe as an open – air theatre again by Renzo Piano’s design), have a Maltese stone cladding but they are not simply slabs of cladding. They have an important energy function with light control to make the interiors bright but they are still protected from heat. Thus Maltese marble has an energy function between controlling the light and at the same time regulating the temperature of the environments.

In their position, these marble slabs integrate with the town and the palace looks like a huge mass of stone eroded by the wind.

LOS ANGELES COUNTRY MOSEUM and travertine from Tivoli

Abbreviated under the name LACMA, it is one of the largest encyclopedic museums in the United States of America, with millions of visitors every year who admire its more than 10 thousand works of art ranging from prehistoric to contemporary. But the museum also organises events, artistic performances, concerts, showings and everything that has to do with art.

For this reason, when Renzo Piano was called to modernise what was the museum that had been built in 1965 with 3 initial pavilions but then expanded over the years by another 3 buildings, he found himself putting together and giving a single soul to scattered buildings, by joining them with pedestrian connections between new public and exhibition spaces and creating a unique vision of the museum conceived as a great artistic laboratory, an art industry with high ceilings and wooden floors inside.

On the outside, on the other hand, it has been covered with Tivoli travertine chosen for its link with the ancient that stone represents but which integrates well with the contemporary that will become the history of tomorrow.

THE SANCTUARY OF PADRE PIO in San Giovanni Rotondo in Italy, a challenge for Renzo Piano

When the design of the new Sanctuary of Padre Pio in San Giovanni Rotondo was proposed to Renzo Piano, it was not easy for the architect.

Until then, he had never been involved in the construction of sacred or cult structures and above all of such a capacity. The friars, in fact, wanted a church able to host even 25 thousand pilgrims, but it was reduced to 10 thousand people during the project.

It was necessary to create a sanctuary that would integrate well with the natural environment between the mountains and the sea that is the Gargano without appearing like an eyesore.

So Renzo Piano designed the church as a huge snail shell using natural materials such as wood and preoxidised copper for the roof.

For the load-bearing part of the church and therefore the arches, he used stone blocks cut to the millimetre and glued together with an alloy that has steel fibres inside in order to absorb landslides when there are earthquakes, since the Gargano is an earthquake zone subject to continuous landslides.

The stone used for the arches, for the altar furniture, for the interior floors, is Apricena stone also called “Bronzetto” because of its beige, bronze, golden colour.

For the floor of the square in front of the church the same Apricena stone was used but with bush – hammering to make it non – slip.

But Renzo Piano’s projects are many today, and they reflect his continuous study because for him, doing architecture is:

“…building buildings for people: universities, museums, schools, concert halls. These are all places that become outpost against barbarization!”

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