It's just two days before its official reopening, and the new California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco looks like the old MGM lot back when they used to shoot five pictures at one time. Caterers hauling pumpkins are brushing past construction workers sweeping out the man-made rain forest. Divers in wet suits are hauling themselves out of the coral-reef tank. And Renzo Piano, the Italian architect who is very good at finding order in chaotic situations, looks pleased.
He should be. Future historians may look back on the first decade or so of 21st century American architecture as the Age of Piano. In the past five years, Piano, whose practice is based in Genoa, Italy, has completed six major projects in the U.S. while working on five or six more. In addition to the Academy, museums in Dallas, Atlanta and Los Angeles carry his stamp. So do an agile reconfiguration of the Morgan Library in New York City and a 52-story headquarters for the New York Times. Still to come are an addition to the Art Institute of Chicago; new buildings for the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; a makeover of the Harvard University Art Museum; and a satellite facility in Manhattan for the Whitney Museum of American Art. It's Renzo Piano's world. We're just living in it.
In particular, Piano has become the go-to guy for any institution about to undertake a tricky expansion. "I'm not looking for trouble," he says, laughing. "But I never find myself in an easy space, where they say to me, 'O.K., here's a piece of land--go do it.'?" At 71, he's well known for the clarity of his problem-solving in complicated spaces. "Today," he says, "the discussion of architecture is based too often on how funny you can be with making new shapes. We all know that making new shapes is not very difficult. What is more difficult is to make new shapes that make sense."
This would not have been the position most people would have predicted for Piano in 1977, when he became suddenly famous for one of the funniest buildings of all time. The Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, which he co-designed with the British architect Richard Rogers, is a museum that's been disemboweled, its brightly colored ventilation tubes, pipes and escalator draped along the exterior in a riot of externalized intestines.
After the Pompidou became a hit with tourists, Piano might have been expected to go on to a career-length succession of wild and crazy schemes. But lurking within him was a closet classicist. That became obvious in 1987 with the opening of his Menil Collection in Houston--another startling building, but this one startling in its simplicity. A subdued, low-rise museum, the Menil is a machine for delivering light, which it coaxes indoors in just the right amounts through an ingenious roof system of louvers.
What the Menil made clear was that light was going to be one of Piano's chief materials. His best buildings are elegant variations on the idea of transparency. His Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, just five adjacent bays with travertine walls, is one of the most gratifying art-exhibition spaces in the world. But not everything Piano touches turns out as nicely. In pre-construction models, his New York Times headquarters looked delicate almost to the point of evanescent--quite a trick for a Manhattan skyscraper. But in the execution, the ceramic rods Piano devised to screen the glass walls are bulky, and the battleship gray exterior looks anything but weightless.
With the California Academy, a combination research institute, natural-history museum, planetarium and aquarium, Piano is back in stride. What he has produced is a fascinating hybrid of classicism and a romantic view of nature that stretches back to the 18th century. The original museum, a complex of 11 buildings constructed over decades in Golden Gate Park, was badly damaged by the earthquake that hit the Bay Area in 1989. While keeping some of the original Beaux Arts structure, Piano has wrapped it in a finely detailed package of glass and steel.
But what appears from the outside as a serene Cartesian box gives way inside to something ever more complicated. On either side of the building's interior "piazza" are two giant spheres, both sliced at the bottom. One is an opaque steel ball that encloses the 290-seat planetarium. The other, a glass globe, holds a multistory re-creation of a rain forest. This globe in turn sits against a wide glass wall that looks onto the cultivated woodlands of Golden Gate Park, mingling views of rain forest and parkland until this very rational building seems just about overtaken by the natural world. "As in music," says Piano, "in architecture you always need a kind of precision, clarity, but with one condition--that you have the freedom then to destroy the whole thing."
And on its roof the Academy really is overtaken by nature. It's topped with a 2.5-acre (1 hectare) field of native California plants, a "green roof" that aids in heating and cooling efficiency. The roof comes with its own topography of seven grassy humps, including two perforated by circular skylights. It's a surreal terrain, full of dreamlike, fertile swells. If Antoni Gaudí had been a hobbit, he might have designed something just like it.
What all this means is that the Academy doesn't contain the world of nature; it's penetrated by it. That's a good metaphor for the cooperative dealings with the environment that Piano wants his building to symbolize. He sees the project as a step toward developing what he calls "the aesthetics of sustainability," a new vocabulary of forms for a future in which green buildings will be the norm. "The 19th century was about new kinds of construction," he says. "Steel and so forth. And the 20th century created a language for that. Now architects must develop an aesthetic for our discovery about the fragility of nature." And as they do, one of the places they'll study most closely is this inspired academy--not a temple on a hill but a hill on a temple.
Steady Art Beat Richard Lacayo blogs daily about art and architecture at time.com/lookingaround