Reading Martin Filler’s review of Renzo Piano’s proposed addition to the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, considered Louis Kahn’s masterpiece, and one of the museums to beat worldwide, I was struck again by how Piano’s critical reception seems to have curdled. Sure, Nicolai Ouroussoff called him overly respectful years ago at the Whitney, clearly preferring Rem Koolhaas’s refusal to let Breuer win, but then he fell all over himself (as did everyone else) praising the Morgan addition. After that, it seemed no city could be without a Piano museum addition. He was the safe choice, and safely beautiful. It didn’t hurt that the man trotted out a series of nice phrases involving piazzas in his Genoese accent, and could be called upon to make a charming sketch. I’m not dismissing the charm, as I have not been immune. But the work and the man did begin to seem a little repetitive.
Was it that the Morgan didn’t look so good, a year after reopening? Where in that vast internal piazza was the art? Why did getting around make you feel like you were sneaking in the back door?
Was it that the work got larger and more bombastic, in Chicago and LA, and became too much of a good thing? Its neoclassical roots, and its over-reliance on fussy ceiling systems (why, after all, did each city need a whole new set of scrims and shapes) seemed all too obvious on a grand scale. (Though Christopher Hawthorne defended, with faint praise, the latest at LACMA.)
Was it that it failed to disappear? After completing the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, versions of its outdoor loggia began to crop up in projects from the Kimbell to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. But they weren’t outdoors, and the loggia, sketched with greenery, seemed to suggest that the building would just fade into the landscape.
But we know glass walls don’t disappear, just as we now know the lightness Piano’s design for the New York Times Tower promised failed to happen. I wouldn’t call it one of the ugliest buildings in New York, but it is a dour, often gray presence on the skyline. I have never been so wrong (does he know he was wrong) about how something would look in reality.
The allure of Piano seemed to be an extreme flexibility, respectfulness for the neighbors without sacrificing architectural credibility. But that flexibility may be a thing of the past. Maybe all architects, given the chance to build as much as Piano, start to repeat themselves. It’s just strange, and a little disheartening, to see Piano becoming—perhaps—as much a prisoner of his own shtick as Frank Gehry. The new Whitney promises a new form (I don’t have the same access to the plans the Times does) but I worry about that white exterior. We may have another battleship on our hands.