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Renzo Piano: Work in Progress

by Marc Petitjean, Director
First Run/Icarus Films, Brooklyn, New York, 1999
Video-DVD, 52 mins., col.
Sales, video-DVD: $390; rental, video: $75
Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com

Reviewed by Nameera Ahmed


"In a sense the process of construction is never complete. I believe that buildings, like cities, are factories of the infinite and the unfinished." Renzo Piano [1]

Resting on this ideology of Renzo Piano, the film Renzo Piano: Work In Progress showcases not only Piano’s finished projects, but portrays the process out of which his architectural masterpieces are born, almost acting as his audio-visual logbook. By taking the viewer to Piano’s building sites, through his two offices in Paris and Genoa and inside the brain-storming sessions with clients, it seeks to provide a window into the architecture of this contemporary giant. Renzo Piano follows four of Piano’s current projects at their different stages of progress: the Paul Klee Museum in Bern, the reconstruction of the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, the NOLA Cultural and Commercial Centre in Naples, and the Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church in Foggia, Italy. By examining them, the filmmaker subtly reveals the artist and his philosophy behind his monumental projects.

The film starts in the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Paris, with a voice over by Piano. We see a young man carrying a maquette and, then, we find ourselves in a meeting for the Paul Klee Museum Project, Bern in its initial stages. "The museum would first appear as a movement": Piano is presenting his design concept that has been inspired by the topographical movement of the surrounding hills. Being site-specific, a lot of the concept in Piano’s design is developed from the surrounding terrain while also giving importance to the morphology and structure. He studies the organic rhythmic patterns of his terrain well, unifying his design with them.

We arrive in Genoa, Piano’s hometown, where he tells us he "especially remember(s) the building sites." They are part of Piano’s memories, where he grew up with his father. "My origins are those of a handyman, a craftsman. My father was a builder as (was) my grandfather." Even though he makes his past live on with him, his approach to architecture and space is not totally nostalgic but contemporaneous. "Architecture is not alone…it is always the result of a combination of things that live together…art, science, technology, sociology, anthropology, all are mixed together, kind of like a stew."

Punta Nave, Near Genoa: the viewer is taken up on an inclined plane, corresponding to a hill. Here we arrive at the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Genoa, where his designers are preparing for an exhibition of Piano’s own works at the Pompidou Centre, which aims to present "not merely models of the finished building. On the contrary, they present the process and especially its sources." At the Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, one finds a sudden burst of excited activity: Piano is at the inauguration of the new neighbourhood, amongst a group of people. Up to now, we have been following Piano through his different designing and building processes; this scene brings them to fruition.

His other ‘finished’ pieces are showcased through intertitles as we get an idea of the extent of his projects: the San Nicola Stadium, Bari; Kansai Airport, Osaka; International City, Lyon; Beyeler Foundation Museum, Basel; Tijibaou Centre, Noumea; Potsdamer Platz, Berlin; Paul Klee Museum Project, Bern; G. Pompidou Centre, Paris; De Menil Museum, Houston, partly exhibiting the vastness of his monumental and technologically sophisticated portfolio.

The film comes closest to the observational mode of documentary where there is unobtrusive camera-work following the action. Piano does not engage directly with the camera, rather the camera observes him, travelling with him on his jet and in Father Gerardo’s car, with whom Piano is working on the Padre Pio Church. Unlike the voice-over tradition of the expository mode, where the narrative voice dictates its own truth with a ‘voice-of-God’ narration, Renzo Piano forms the narrative through Piano’s own voice representing his world. The non-diegetic music employed is composed of unobtrusive musical elements that may resemble the environment noises in a workplace or remind us of the hammering of a craftsman. Rhythmic percussions reflect the ‘process’ of Piano’s current work, representing the acoustics of his architecture. In effect, they build a soundscape that helps us to stay within the architectural world of Piano.

Even though this ‘working’ portrait of Renzo Piano gives us an idea of the extent of Piano’s work, it remains wanting in the kind of creative treatment that would do justice to, and reflect the genius of, Piano in a more exciting way for the viewer.

[1] Piano, Renzo. The Renzo Piano Logbook. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1997.



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