Monday, October 26, 2015

Renzo Piano: Parasitic and Pure Version

The last time I was in New York, I was surprised to see all the street life at the new Whitney Museum. The architect, Renzo Piano, was hired for this job because he can create icons that draw attention to themselves - but he is completely incompetent at urban place making, so I was surprised to see that he helped create this lively urban place.

Then I walked around the building, and I realized that this liveliness is parasitic on the older urban fabric surrounding it. It is in the old Meatpacking District, now a very popular neighborhood, and at the end of the High Line, which is a major tourist attraction.  When people finish walking on the High Line and come down to ground level, they are likely to want something to eat and drink - and maybe also a souvenir - accounting for all the vendors on this street.

But when you walk to the far side of the Whitney, the street life disappears.  You have a typical avant-gardist icon - a weird shape that attracts attention, but not a good place to be that attracts people.

 You can see Piano's work in its pure, non-parasitic form by looking his design for NeMo (National Center for Science and Technology) in Amsterdam.  Viewed from the distance, the building is a striking icon, rising out of the water like the prow of a ship.

But it looks so striking from a distance because it is out in the water, separated from the very lively streets of Amsterdam that are nearby. When you actually walk out to approach it, you pass through a bleak, empty plaza, totally devoid of life.

And when you finally get there, you see the Renzo Piano Cafe, with outdoor seating that is just barely unused - an appropriately sterile monument to Renzo Piano, and a striking contrast to the busy sidewalk cafes that you passed on the streets as you were walking here, where you couldn't find an empty seat.

Why is it that we choose to build flashy icons like this rather than attractive places like the nearby streets of Amsterdam? It is a combination of corporate branding and of the sensationalism that pervades our popular culture.