8 Art Museums Architected by Renzo Piano

Top Lists, Architecture

February 12, 2021

Known for his delicate and refined approach to building, the Italian architect Renzo Piano was compared to Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Brunelleschi by the Jury of the Pritzker Prize which he won in 1998. As they explained, he is gifted with "intellectual curiosity and problem-solving techniques as broad and far ranging as those earlier masters of his native land."

Piano's personal success came early in 1970 at the age of 34, when he, alongside Richard Rogers, won the design competition for the Centre Pompidou in Paris. After the groundbreaking success of the Pompidou, Piano received a number of other museum commissions, becoming the world's most prolific museum designer. He is celebrated for his light designs and precise detailing, but he refutes the idea that his work displays any single style.

Here are some of the best-looking art museums designed by Renzo Piano around the world.

Editors’ Tip: Piano. Complete Works 1966–Today by Philip Jodidio

Renzo Piano rose to international prominence with his co-design of the Pompidou Center in Paris, described by The New York Times as a building that “turned the architecture world upside down.” At the age of 81, the Italian maestro retains all of his enthusiasm and kindness―and his recent roster is more impressive than ever. From freshly built museums in Athens and Santander; ongoing works in Los Angeles, Moscow, Beirut, and Istanbul; to such humanitarian projects as the Emergency Children’s Surgery Center in Entebbe, Uganda, and the Children’s Hospice in Bologna, Italy, Piano’s career is a thrilling journey through the beauty and very essence of architecture. This XXL-sized monograph, jam-packed with more than 200 new pages illustrated by photographs, sketches, and plans, spans Piano’s entire career to date and the many existences of his singular aesthetic.

Featured image: Zentrum Paul Klee, via Creative Commons.

Centre Pompidou, Paris

A building that became an immediate architectural icon of Paris, Centre Pompidou was built between 1971 and 1977 in the Marais district, following a radical design strategy. It was designed in collaboration with Richard Rogers, following a competition by Georges Pompidou, President of France from 1969 to 1974.

Looking as a huge spaceship made of glass, steel and colored tubing that landed unexpectedly in the heart of the city, it is one of the most radical buildings of our time. Piano's design exemplifies constructivism, structured with a distinct system gerberettes and trusses. All of the infrastructure of the building is exposed, not only so that it could be understood but also to maximize the interior space without interruptions.

Featured image: Centre Pompidou, Paris, via Creative Commons

Fondation Beyeler, Riehen

The Beyeler Foundation consists of three parts: the Berower Park, acquired from the commune of Riehen in 1976; the 18th-century Berower Villa, and the new museum for which Renzo was commissioned in 1991. Located in the middle of Berower Park, it is elegantly integrated into this cultural landscape in an ideal combination of nature, art, and architecture.

With a pond on its southern side, the Renzo Piano building is sunk into the ground, providing both a harmonious merger of building and landscape and more intimate character. Filled with water lilies and reflecting Monet's works, the pond creates a perfect transition between interior and exterior. The museum is filled with natural light due to the lightweight glass roof, which contrasts with the solid stone walls.

Featured image: Fondation Beyeler, Riehen, via Creative Commons.

Centro Botin, Santander

Designed by Renzo Piano in co-authorship with luis vidal + architects, Centro Botin in Santander, Spain restores the ties between the historical part of the city and the sea.

Half based on the land and the other half suspended over the water on stilts, it features a series of light walkways of steel and glass that separate the two rounded volumes of the building. Executed in a rounded form that provides better illumination of the exterior, the building is fully faced with 280,000 small, slightly rounded ceramic tiles, pearl-colored and vibrant, that reflect the sunlight and the sparkle of the water.

Featured image: Centro Botin, Santander, via Creative Commons.

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City

Situated between the High Line and the Hudson River in the Meatpacking District, the Whitney Museum of American Art is the largest column-free museum gallery in New York City. It has a cantilevered entrance, which transforms the area outside the building into a large, sheltered public space.

Taking a strong and strikingly asymmetrical form, Piano's building design perfectly responds to the industrial character of the neighboring loft buildings and overhead railway. Yet it asserts a contemporary, sculptural presence, being powerfully asymmetrical and clad in pale blue-grey steel panels. Some 50,000 sq. ft of gallery space is distributed over levels five, six, seven and eight.

Featured image: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, via Creative Commons.

Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern

Commissioned by the artist's heirs, Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern is inspired by the hilly landscape encircling the city. It has a recognizable wavy metal roof, upon which lawns and agricultural fields have been planted with the aim to achieve a complete union of art and nature.

Conceived as a "landscape sculpture", it is combined with the vegetation in a harmonious whole, while remaining perfectly visible. The three rolling hills of the structure are connected by a pathway that runs along the entire length of the western façade. Made of steel and glass, it is covered with shading devices in textile which filter natural light into the interior.

Featured image: Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, via Creative Commons.

Menil Collection, Houston

Renzo Piano's American debut, the Menil Collection in Houston is a two-story building characterized by an innovative roof, a "solar machine" designed to convey natural light into the galleries. A central "spine", open onto a tropical winter garden, maximizes the natural light contribution. Piano also designed the neighboring Cy Twombly Gallery. 

Located in the park of a 1920’s residential neighborhood, the museum remains domestic in proportion, following the low lines of the neighboring bungalows. It is designed to seem "small on the outside but large on the inside." It is one of the first modern buildings in the United States to use a floor air supply system, now known as ‘displacement’ ventilation.

Featured image: Menil Collection, Houston, via Creative Commons.

Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth

Surrounded by elms and red oaks, Piano' Pavilion of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth is characterized by simplicity and lightness. Made of glass, concrete, and wood, this.low-slung, this colonnaded pavilion is made up of two sections connected by a glass passageway. A glass roof system of the front section seems to float high above wooden beams and concrete posts, giving away an impression of weightlessness.

The museums has an abundance of natural light, which enters through narrow plexiglass skylights along the top of cycloid barrel vaults, diffused by wing-shaped pierced-aluminum reflectors that hang below.

Featured image: Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, via Creative Commons.

The Morgan Library and Museum, New York City

When the Morgan Library & Museum needed an expansion, Piano was commissioned to create new buildings that would compliment and preserve the Library’s original classified buildings: the McKim's building (1906), the Annex (1928), and the brownstone Morgan House at 231 Madison Avenue, house of the Morgan family.

To create this additional space, safe and organized storage areas for the collection itself, an auditorium for chamber music, and a new reading room, the design recovered it underground, excavating to a depth of 17 m. Digging into the hard rock, new steel and glass units were inserted in and amongst the existing buildings. The three historic buildings, the new plaza at the centre of the Morgan complex and the new pavilions meet under a steel and glass transparent roof.

Featured image: The Morgan Library & Museum, New York City, via Creative Commons.

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