Piano has sought to “reshape” New York City through an Italian concept of urban planning. For Piano, North American cities lack the vibrance that can be experienced in Italian piazze: in his own words, Piano explains that “the piazze are the places where everything starts. They are the place in which people mix experiences and where diversity becomes value and opportunity.”1 For this reason, his buildings in the city are created with piazze, to carry out the goal of providing this open and culturally welcoming environment. In Italy, piazze serve an important function, they are a place where culture exchange takes place, where people can gather and children can play.
For this reason, Renzo Piano claims, “I start with the piazza, always”. But Piano’s insertion of Italian piazze into his projects is based on his knowledge of New York City. According to him, he got to “know” the city by listening to the spirit and the sounds of the city and its emphasis on street culture.
The New York Times Building:
The new headquarters for The New York Times were commissioned in 2000. For Piano, symbolism mattered greatly for this design. He wished the structure to embrace the spirit of the newspaper: the building design highlights transparency and accessibility in order to articulate the openness of the paper’s culture.
Interestingly, Piano began to work on the project only three days following the 9/11 attacks that saw the city’s Twin Towers destroyed. As Piano notes, during a time when the city was “filled with a sense of fear and everybody wanted to stop making tall buildings,” he decided to counter the city’s mood2. Inspired by the attacks, he decided to wrap the structure in glass in order to allow people inside the building a 360-degree view outwards, towards the streets and outside. Piano explains that this would give the building transparency rather than opacity. He explains: “When you see through, that means it’s more safe. You can see what happens so, opacity is unsafe, not transparency.”3
Piano’s design is also notable thanks to its commitments to sustainability and environmental protection. The shape of the tower draws in daylight to penetrate each floor in order to limit energy consumption. In order to place less pressure on the city’s power supply, the building incorporates a natural gas plant to power its daily operations4. The most striking feature is perhaps the building’s garden located on the ground floor, which provides a range of environmental benefits4. The garden contains native birch trees and moss indigenous to the State of New York. In addition to enhancing the work environment, the garden reduces stormwater runoff and heat.
Manhattanville Campus of Columbia University:
Piano’s team carried out the master plan for Columbia University’s new 17-acre Manhattanville Campus located in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The project was completed through successive phases, with each detailed specifically to meet the academic, research, recreational, residential and support needs for the University and for the city of New York.
For Piano, the concept stems out of the idea that a contemporary campus must foster a relationship with the surrounding community. For this reason, the new Manhattanville Campus was designed so as to remain open to the public and to the traffic. The permeable space allows for pedestrian access, thereby creating an “urban layer” that unifies the campus buildings and extends the university community out to the sidewalks. The buildings are clustered between plazas and green spaces, this allows for interdisciplinary exchange to occur, and for the local community to be engaged. In Piano’s words, “‘It’s a campus not just in the city of New York, but in the streets of New York”5.
Following Piano’s quest to prioritize climate protection, the buildings designed for the new campus utilize cutting-edge technology. The Jerome L. Green Science Center, home to Columbia’s Brain Behaviour Institute, is equipped with solar sensors that regulate temperature and save energy. In order to create energy efficiency, a centralized plant was built below the compounds in a single location, which provides cold water, pressure steam and electric power across the entire campus.6 Another interesting feature concerns the selection of all building products and materials with an eye to minimizing waste and carbon footprint. Remarkably, all the materials derive from local/regional manufacturers within 500 miles from the worksite!7