“Light is one of the most important materials of architecture,” Renzo Piano said at a talk at Harvard University in 2009. Light and transparency—one of the ways he makes light part of his architecture—are primary themes for the suave, celebrated Italian architect.
“Transparency is still a very important quality of urban life,” he said at that Harvard talk. “Urbanity comes because the buildings talk to the street.”
These notions are evident in his designs for the newly renovated and expanded Harvard Art Museums between Quincy and Prescott streets in Cambridge. On Tuesday the university announced plans to reopen the complex on Nov. 16.
Since the project began with the closing of the institution’s Fogg Museum and Busch-Reisinger museums in 2008, he’s taken the iconic Italian Renaissance-style courtyard at the heart of the 1927 Fogg, which has been protected with listing on the National Register of Historic Places since the 1980s, and extended it upward and crowned it with a futuristic-looking, steel and glass pyramid that floods the five-story-tall space with sun.
Piano first made his mark as a post-modern punk with his designs for Paris’s Pompidou Centre in the 1970s, which seemed to expose all the guts of the museum by putting them on the building’s exterior. On a tour of the Harvard museum Tuesday, this impulse continues to be evident in exposed supports of the atrium ceiling. And the winter gardens that dramatically jut out from the new wing’s exterior. And how prominent he makes a new main visitor stairway, which improves circulation through the building.
But Piano has become the go-to guy for a kind of handsome, exquisitely upholstered, sensual, couture architecture, as seen in his 2012 expansion of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. And here. One example: See how he twists the Alaskan yellow cedar that clads the Harvard Art Museums’ new exterior, giving what is basically a big minimalist shoebox a bit of the subdued flair of a finely tailored suit.
Greg Cook is co-founder of WBUR’s ARTery. Follow him on Twitter @AestheticResear. Friend him on Facebook. Check out his public speaking skills when he moderates “In-Sight Evening: Preparing for the New Harvard Art Museums, Part IV,” a talk at Harvard’s Sackler Museum in Cambridge at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 9.
This article was originally published on March 12, 2014.