Piazzas in Atlanta by Renzo Piano – Atlanta, Georgia

Piazzas in Atlanta by Renzo Piano

Atlanta, Georgia

The main entrance to Renzo Piano's expansion of the High Museum of Art
The main entrance to Renzo Piano’s expansion of the High Museum of Art
Before I stumbled into an exhibition entitled “Celebrate Architecture-Renzo Piano and Building Workshop,” I had never taken the time to learn the name of the architect whose work I most disliked in an array of various European cities such as Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris, the man who had brought some form of modern eyesore to these cities.

The NEMO building part sinking U-boat or space saucer whichever image comes to mind first in blue and copper seen as you approach Centraal Station in Amsterdam, that’s his. The modern mega-center in Berlin called Potsdamer Platz; eight of the eighteen buildings are Piano’s babies. And worst of all, the Centre Georges Pompidou in the heart of Paris with its array of oversized colorful pipes and tubes growing out of what looks like a jungle of steel scaffolding, it’s a Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. For all the disunity he seemed to have brought to those cities, his work expanding the High Museum of Art in Atlanta was a pleasant surprise. In a city of uninspiring architecture, his actually became good.

It’s not surprising that Renzo Piano, in collaboration with the Atlanta architectural firm of Lock, Aeck & Sargent, Inc. was chosen for this Atlanta project. This is the city that brought you the 1996 Olympic flame’s resting place in what looked like a McDonald’s French Fries holder. The city that then tore down half the Olympic stadium, leaving the French Fries holder at the other end of what became a parking lot and converted the remaining half into a baseball stadium so overwrought with advertising that the homerun fireworks rocket out of a huge Coca Cola bottle and facing center field is a huge canopied bar named Bud Light.

The High Museum of Art, designed by Richard Meier in 1983, is an all white contemporary building. It doesn’t blend in with the rest of the city but since Atlanta’s urban center is aesthetically dysfunctional nothing is ever really expected to blend in. Renzo Piano’s expansion basically took the same all white design and stretched it out to form a European style piazza with narrow spaces between the buildings that are suppose to be like European side streets. I found this European approach to a city where buildings as young as fifty years old can be listed on the Atlanta Preservation Society’s “Most Endangered Historic Places list of 2005,” ironic. The symbol of modernity in Europe was influenced by the Italian piazza for his Atlanta expansion.

A lamp heater in Sifly Piazza, look closer to see another lamp not far behind
A lamp heater in Sifly Piazza, look closer to see another lamp not far behind
From a video explanation on constant replay in the exhibit, Piano explains how his inspiration came from Genoa’s San Matteo Piazza, the home of his first architectural office. However much it’s supposed to be a piazza, I find it hard to utter the word piazza when standing in a square of aluminum panels painted white, the only color coming from the adjacent lawn and a Roy Lichtenstein’s “House III”. What I can utter is squared three-dimensional conceptual space with light creating interesting geometric shadows on the panel’s façade.

The Atlanta High Museum of Art’s piazza has a name – it’s called Sifly Piazza and then there is a smaller less central piazza named Rich Piazza. After spending time in these piazzas, you can then take an elevator down to the parking garage and drive 30 minutes back to your suburban home or 15 minutes back to your condo. But if an Italian architect designs it with the idea of a piazza in mind, exactly who is in a position to call it a misnomer.

When I hear the word piazza, I think of Renaissance architecture, a cobblestone pavement with perhaps a simple mosaic incorporated in the layout and home to the town’s drama stage of life where the entire community walks through it as part of their daily lives and also keeps a tab on each other by doing so. Therefore, an Italian piazza usually has a church, several cafes, and then various stores and residential apartments with perhaps several old timers always parked outside with of course your fountain or statue in the center. The Atlanta piazza only encompasses a narrow aspect of life happenings in the form of museum goers or arts patrons with lamp heaters off to the side that eventually overtakes the square in the evenings. Then when the people watching of individuals entering and exiting the museum end with closing time, you’re left with the same white building on all three sides to stare at.

The space between two of the buildings or the European style side street
The space between two of the buildings or the European style side street
Piano’s expansion however, parlays the original Meier building seamlessly. Exteriorly, it’s hard to differentiate the building’s architects without either going inside or paying particular attention to Piano’s repetitive geometric design at the roof of his buildings. Interiorly, Meier’s architectural centerpiece lies in the museum’s former entrance comprised of a circular open space with a sun roof and a series of horizontal bands descending in a zigzag formation to the main floor level. Piano’s interior focuses on a unique ceiling and glass paneled bridges connecting two of its buildings.

Aside from the hype of the European style piazza, Piano’s chief architectural highlight and the central focus of his design comes from his innovative structural lighting design of the top gallery floor. Working from the philosophy that the original artwork housed in the museum was created and intended to be seen in natural light, the top level called the Skyway level is comprised of 1,000 light scoops which filter morthern light into the building.

Renzo Piano is currently in the process of taking over New York City with planned buildings and expansions for the New York Times building, Columbia University, and the J.P. Morgan Library.