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21 First Drafts: Renzo Piano's Italian Industry Pavilion

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Franziska Barczyk

First Drafts is a series exploring the early work of our architectural icons, examining their careers through the lens of their debut projects. Every day in August, we'll profile one architect's first finished building—often surprising, always insightful—as a solo practitioner. Within the vast field of great building design, we aim to uncover the significance of first acts.

Renzo Piano
Italian Industry Pavilion at Expo '70 in Osaka, Japan
Date completed: 1970

Getting the Gig:
The futuristic structures of Renzo Piano now span the globe, but in many important ways, his engineering accomplishments and grand buildings can trace their origins to the architect's formative years in Genoa. During his childhood in the Italian port city, Piano would visit construction sites with his father, a contractor, and obsess over the boats in the docks and the curve of the sheets drying on nearby rooftops. It was the beginning of a drive to master both form and function, as his firsthand experience with the building trade would encourage him to continually test out new materials. After graduating from the Polytechnic School of Architecture in Milan in 1964, Piano followed a typical career path for the rest of the decade, working as an intern for both Louis Kahn in Philadelphia and Z.S. Makowsky in London. But he continued to experiment back at home, constructing a series of lightweight structures, such as a portable fiberglass pavilion for sulphur miners in Pomezia that could move with the workers. He told Surface Magazine that, at the time, he would have been "perfectly happy" researching and designing lightweight structures and exploring "the dream of lightness." He would have continued down that path, but then, he grew up; winning a commission in 1969 to build the Italian Industry Pavilion at Expo '70 in Osaka may have been the key turning point.

Description and Reception:
"At the beginning of my career, the piece-by-piece attitude gave me the opportunity to study, experiment and understand the logic of materials," said Piano. This temporary pavilion was no exception. The square structure stretched out his previous small-scale, experimental work, such as the barrel vaulted miners pavilion, while including subtle curves in every square grid that looked like petals waiting to bloom. Packaged and transported overseas in 15 shipping containers, the tent-like structure was also a prefab experiment that presaged the exposed suspensions, external supports and intricate jointing that would be seen on later Piano projects, especially the Centre Georges Pompidou. Construction of the pavilion, a steel skeleton with reinforced polyester cladding and panels, was also a family affair; his late brother Ermanno assisted with assembly.

Impact on His Career:
Touring the futuristic grounds of Expo 70, the young Piano would have been privy to a range of experimental work from across the globe, including the Mylar-covered, moon-like American pavilion by Davis-Brody and Powell and Moya's suspended steel design for Britain, which featured an open-air pavilion underneath the main structure. While attending the record-breaking event, which drew more than 64 million visitors, he met Richard Rogers, a young architect with whom Piano discovered a mutual interest in material and experimentation. When it was was suggested that they team up to enter a competition to design the Centre Georges Pompidou, the two decided to partner up, even though as Piano says, they were young and perhaps edgy ("we were not very professional - let's say, on the margins of the professionwe were bad boys with bad manners."). Relatively unknown, with a CV consisting of mostly temporary structures, the partnership went on to win the competition with a shocking submission that suggested erecting an arts center with an exoskeleton in the center of Paris.

Famous Future Works: Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris: 1971), Kansai Air Terminal (Osaka: 1994), Parco della Musica (Rome: 2002), California Academy of Sciences (2008: San Francisco), Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago: 2009), The Shard (London: 2012), Whitney Museum of American Art (New York: 2015)

Current Status:
The temporary structure has long been disassembled, and the site of Expo '70 has been turned into a Commemoration Park. A massive, 70-meter-tall Tower of the Sun statue by Taro Okamoto, a symbol of the international gathering, still stands as a reminder of the event.

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