What’s in a name? Unfortunately, in San Francisco, Renzo Piano is still mentioned pianissimo.
I was lucky enough to get inside the new Renzo Piano Museum last week, aka the California Academy of the Sciences, currently under construction in Golden Gate Park and due to open in 2008. Click here for photos. The new building is a staggering undertaking, very hard to distill for a newsletter. The dramatic building contains 400,000 square feet, and is far more complex in function than an art museum because it has to house living creatures and ecosystems and environments meant to be outdoors.
I’ve decided the angle to take is to congratulate the city of San Francisco for its recent acquisition of two formidable modern buildings, the new De Young Museum of Art by Herzog & De Meuron and now the equally original Piano building. They square face one another in Golden Gate Park and provide the city with world class architectural destinations. The Bay Area has been something of a backwater to modernism compared with Southern California, and these buildings will do a lot to change this. San Francisco has arrived it seems. Well, maybe not quite. Let me explain.
The San Francisco Chronicle did a front page feature on the Academy of Sciences building this past Sunday. But you had to read through more than 2,000 words and the captions for numerous photographs before finding out who the architect was. Piano’s name, one of the most famous in the field, was buried toward the end of the three page feature, but with no information about him. This is weird as well as sad. As long as the most influential paper in San Francisco considers the designer a minor footnote to a feature about a signature building, I don’t think architecture has arrived in San Francisco. Buildings are still taken for granted by writers, and perhaps by the public at large, as if they simply grow, planted not planned.
This oversight would be preposterous in other cities in the States or abroad. For example, on that same Sunday, the New York Times ran a feature in its Arts & Leisure section on the new Acropolis Museum in Athens. Architect Bernard Tschumi was noted in the opening paragraph and referenced throughout. He was even credited with the vision for a new museum so compelling that it can cause us to rethink the rightful place for the Elgin Marbles, original Parthenon friezes now in London and long sought by Greece.
What can explain the Chronicle’s parochialism and lack of respect for architects? At the heart of the problem, I’d guess, is the fact that San Francisco has never developed a journalistic tradition of covering architecture. This says as much about public interest as about the focus of critics and reporters, and would support my notion that architecture has not really arrived in the Bay Area. Is it a question of critical mass (pun at least partially intended)? Do we need ten buildings by high profile architects before we acknowledge the minds behind the designs?
Other local Institutions don’t suffer the same neglect. Music critics acknowledge the composers of new music performed by the SF Symphony, chamber groups and the opera, and draw attention to the directors and divas. Area star chefs names are household words, even the ranchers who raise organic beef. We can name the visionaries behind many Silicon Valley Companies. But if asked to identify the builder of the Golden Gate Bridge or the Transamerica pyramid, most of us would take the Fifth Amendment. (Those would be Joseph Strauss-–with noteworthy help from architect Irving Morrow and engineer Charles Ellis--and William Pereira, respectively). Can someone explain this discrepancy to me?
I’ll admit a bias toward Renzo Piano. The Pompidou Center that he designed with Richard and Sue Rogers in the early 70’s, woke me up to modern architecture. I have been lucky enough to visit and even stay at several of his buildings in recent years. And I was just in New York and visited his recent addition to the Morgan Library, another gem. For 40 years, Piano has been tackling unusual and diverse architectural problems with a lightness of touch and a classic modern grace. His excellent website gives an elegant and fast-paced visual summary of his work.
The new Academy of the Sciences building is quintessentially modern. By this I mean it employs current technologies and responds to current issues, in particular those of sustainability and the environment. The 2.5 acre living rooftop--the largest in the world--is just one example. The solar panels that grace the exterior and create beautiful patterns are another. Seeing it under construction gave me a special appreciation for the enormity and complexity of the process, and what it takes to envision something of this scale.
The Chronicle acknowledges the problem with a quote from the builders, Webcor: “The biggest challenge to building this place was visualizing what it would look like, with so many structures stacked on top of each other.” Is it asking too much to acknowledge the person who came up with the elegant solution? I did notice that the article referred to the inner courtyard as a piazza, so your Italian influence is there in print, in some form. At least the writer didn’t call it a pizza.
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