A Renzo Piano Moratorium, Anyone?

Harvard Art Museums

A few weeks ago I wrote about the new Harvard Art Museums, designed by Renzo Piano. My assessment was that the building was nondescript on the outside but successful on the inside, with lots of light and perspectives that frame certain works against interesting exterior views. Now I see that the new Whitney Museum in Manhattan is also a Renzo Piano design. Reading about it in the newest New Yorker I learned that writer Peter Schjeldahl was pretty unexcited about the exterior, too, saying that
the building is a lurching aggregate of shapes in striated steel cladding and glass, with outdoor stairways that connect terraces on three floors. It’s so confusing that, pretty soon, I gave up looking at it.
I'm actually more concerned about the fact that, as the article states, Piano has now designed thirteen museums in the United States, and twenty-four worldwide. So much for novelty and originality and unique civic identity. How did we get here? Two reasons, I think.

The first is institutional conservatism and caution. With Piano, you know what you are getting, which is important when the funders are putting up big bucks. But then you end up in a situation akin to the way major symphony orchestras rely on tried and true warhorses, lest the patrons have a less than engaging experience after their substantial cash outlay. Now we find ourselves in an era of postmodern conformity, where Piano designs are nearly as ubiquitous as the neoclassical designs that used to dominate. It always has been and always will be that most innovation happens closer to the ground, where the costs are lower -- as with today's "pop up" movement.

The other factor, I suggest, is that we're now in a Frank Gehry backlash, which is fine with me. Gehry became our foremost "starchitect" with his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Give him credit for exploding us big time out of the box; right angles can be hard to come by in his buildings. But I've been a skeptic, some graceful curves notwithstanding. For his worst buildings I imagine that his design method consists of crumpling up a piece of paper and then handing it to his battery of computer geniuses to come up with a workable design.

To clarify, both Piano and Gehry have been innovators, but so much replication renders the innovative mundane.


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