Renzo Piano: An Architectural Genius | San Francisco


Out of the Box

Renzo Piano’s work defies traditional boundaries, bringing to San Francisco an award-winning and eco-friendly museum for the ages.

By Tiffany Carboni


San Francisco is famous for its international flair. From Chinatown to Russian Hill, The Mission up to Japantown—the City by the Bay was created by people from all over the planet.Hence, it was no surprise that when San Francisco’s renowned California Academy of Sciences set out to drastically transform itself, the board called upon internationally celebrated architect Renzo Piano to design one of the most innovative, eco- friendly and inspirational natural history museums the world has ever seen.
From the Beginning
Born into a builder’s family in Genoa, Italy, in 1937, Piano’s own design prowess quickly manifested while working alongside his father as a boy. When he announced to his father that he wanted to become an architect, the elder Piano was shocked. “For him,” Piano says, “being a builder was much more than being an architect. He asked me, ‘Why do you want to be just an architect?’ ”

The senior Piano put his initial confusion aside and watched proudly as his son set out to accomplish his dream. While studying at the school of architecture at Politecnico di Milano, Piano worked for Franco Albini, the award-winning neo- rationalist architect and designer known for his furniture design that merged traditional Italian artisanship with his own sense of modernism.

After graduating in 1964, Piano searched for his own style, though he couldn’t shake some of Albini’s modern influences. He began experimenting with light, mobile, temporary structures. In 1965, the young architect took a job in Philadelphia under Louis I. Kahn, who was as famous for his monumental-sized building designs as he was for his uncompromising character.

Piano returned to Europe in 1971, where he partnered with British architect Richard Rogers, who had earned fame for his Zip-Up house design, the prototype to today’s pre-fabricated homes. The Piano & Rogers Agency quickly became an acclaimed firm, winning awards for high-profile projects, such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Their design for this public library/modern art museum shocked the architectural establishment because of their use of a flexible container that allows all interior spaces to be rearranged at will, and exterior elements to be clipped on and off over the life span of the building.

Piano earned a reputation as a high-tech iconoclast capable of turning the architectural world upside down—he relished his role as a maverick.


The Renzo Piano Building Workshop

In 1981, in direct response to his father’s comment about his just being an architect, Piano set out on his own, establishing the Renzo Piano Building Workshop to join the collective efforts of about 150 architects, building engineers and other specialty staff in offices in Paris, Genoa and New York. Over the years, Piano and the staff have worked on numerous, and oftentimes award- winning, civic and residential projects around the globe. The long list includes the San Nicola football stadium in Italy, the Ushibuka Bridge in Japan, the National Center for Science and Technology in Amsterdam, and The New York Times building.

It was in his Genoa workshop where the legendary architect got a call from the California Academy of Sciences and began brainstorming his first project for San Francisco.


The California Academy of Sciences

Renzo Piano’s buildings are distinguished for their deep connection to their cultural context. His unusual combination of creativity and sensitivity to the environment made him an especially sought- after choice for the academy.

Originally founded in 1853 as the first scientific institution in the west, the academy has been located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park since 1916 in the form of 12 separate buildings, each hosting a different facet of the program. The new building, which reopened to great pomp and circumstance in 2008 (a celebration that hasn’t let up since), unifies the academy into a single, modern, one-of-a-kind landmark that is the only institution in the world to house an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum and world-class research and education programs under one roof.

It is considered one the world’s most innovative museum buildings and took nearly a decade of planning and the largest cultural fundraising effort in the city’s history. Thanks to Piano’s maverick approach, the ultra-green building ingeniously carries out the academy’s mission to explore, explain and protect the natural world.


Setting a New Standard for Sustainable Architecture

Not one to get stuck thinking inside any box, Piano set out to create a museum unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. “Museums are not usually transparent,” explains Piano. “They are opaque; they are closed. They are like a kingdom of darkness, and you are trapped inside. You don’t see where you are.”

Piano ripped that conventional thinking wide open using a careful selection of materials and a thoughtful arrangement of space. “Here,” he continues, “we have a natural history museum in the middle of a park, and those are two things that should belong to each other. They should be as connected as possible.”

The $370 million project took three years to construct. It is one of only a handful of pilot green building projects for the San Francisco Department of the Environment, which is part of a vanguard initiative to develop models for workable, sustainable public architecture. In compliance with the department’s mission, Piano was all too happy to design the 410,000-square- foot space to be the most eco-friendly museum in the world by optimizing its use of resources, minimizing its environmental impact and putting the environmentally sensitive components in full view for everyone to see.

To connect the park and make its lush, tree-lined surroundings part of the exhibition space, Piano used glass panels as the exterior walls. The glass he chose came from a German manufacturer known for its products’ low-iron content, a feature that commonly creates a green tint. Without the iron’s green cast, the windows provide exceptional clarity allowing the park’s seasonal colors to crisply show through.

And it’s not just an act for the public. The floor- to-ceiling glass walls provide enough sunlight to 90 percent of the building’s behind-the-scenes offices that electrical lighting isn’t required much of the day. In addition, the windows in the public spaces open and close as needed with an automated ventilation system that takes advantage of the nearby ocean’s air currents to regulate interior temperature.

To enhance the interior’s open, airy feeling, Piano designed slender central support columns carefully held together by cables to prevent them from bending. To emphasize the natural materials used, Piano left the concrete walls and floors untreated. He also used natural stone and steel, much of which was recycled from the demolition of the academy’s original 12 buildings as well other local buildings.

Recycled blue jeans make up for nearly 70 percent of the building’s insulation. On cold days when insulation can’t regulate the temperature enough, radiant heating warms the lower levels while hot air naturally rises to the upper levels. When the building’s interior gets too stuffy, skylights automatically open to vent out the uncomfortable air while louvers below draw in cool air. Additionally, numerous solar rooftop panels generate about 213,000 kilowatt-hours of energy per year providing up to 10 percent of the academy’s electricity needs and prevent the release of 405,000 pounds of greenhouse gas emission.

All of these green steps add up to a building that uses 30 percent less energy than the federal code allows. Before construction was anywhere near completion, Piano’s revolutionary design began receiving lots of attention for its eco- friendliness. In 2005, the year construction began, the academy was selected as the North American winner of the silver Holcim Award for sustainable construction.

On Oct. 7, 2008, only days after it opened to the public, the academy was awarded the highly coveted Platinum-level LEED certification by the U.S. Green Building Council. Today, the academy is the largest public Platinum-rated building in the world as well as being considered the “greenest” museum. “Through sustainable architecture and innovative design,” Piano says, “we have added a vital new element to Golden Gate Park and [continue to] express the academy’s dedication to environmental responsibility.”


The Roof is Alive

But Piano, being the nonconformist that he is, couldn’t stop with making just an environmentally responsible building; he insisted on topping that building with a one-of-a-kind, two-and-a-half- acre curvaceous living roof that mimics San Francisco’s seven-hill topography. The steep undulations creatively provide the necessary space for the domed planetarium, rainforest and aquarium exhibits. With its open-air observation deck, the roof is one of the museum’s most popular self-guided exhibits. It’s home to a variety of native California plants, wildflowers, birds, butterflies and other beneficial insects.

The roof provides superior insulation for the building throughout the year with its six inches of soil substrate, reduces the urban heat island effect that occurs within concrete-heavy cities, and prevents up to 3.6 million gallons of storm water runoff. Piano says, “We created a museum that is visually and functionally linked to its natural surroundings, metaphorically lifting up a piece of the park and putting a building underneath.”

Though he might be Italian by birth, Renzo Piano is San Francisco’s adopted son. While its citizens can’t have him all to themselves, they can’t wait to see what this globe trekker has in store for them next.