The architect who changed the shape of London

A new exhibition at the Royal Academy celebrates starchitect Renzo Piano and the indelible mark his creation The Shard has left on London

Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that London’s horizon would look utterly different without The Shard.

The 95-storey skyscraper broke records as well as the mould when it was completed in July 2012, becoming Britain’s tallest building at 309.7 metres high and jutting out from the London Bridge area like, well, a shard of glass. Now, six years later, the Royal Academy is celebrating its creator, the Italian Renzo Piano, by putting the spotlight on this visionary architect’s long and rich career.

The exhibition, Renzo Piano: The Art of Making Buildings, follows Piano’s work, dating from his early career when he was experimenting with innovative structural systems, to signature buildings his studio is still creating today. The display features a centrepiece sculpture designed for the exhibition, bringing together 100 of the Italian’s projects on an imaginary island. These include standout realisations such as the Pompidou Centre in Paris (1977), the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Noumea (1998), the New York Times Building (2007), the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (2015) and, of course, The Shard.

‘I believe passionately that architecture is about making a place for people to come together and share values,’ says Piano, now 81. ‘This exhibition aims to show how making buildings is a civic gesture and social responsibility.’

While the public is used to seeing his finished creations, this intimate exhibition will investigate the process behind the conception and realisation of Piano’s best-known buildings. Visitors will discover rarely seen archival material, models, photographs and drawings. Elements such as original models made for museums including the Menil Collection in Houston (1986), reveal how Piano and his team rigorously explored creative ways to bring natural light into the galleries, creating spaces that would be ideal for viewing art. Other highlights include the huge white ceramic exterior cladding rods from a full size mock-up of The New York Times Building, produced to test their scale, surface and reflectivity.

Such insight won’t make The Shard any less Marmite in people’s minds, and that’s probably Piano and the exhibition’s biggest point: there is more to great architecture than simple considerations of taste.

Renzo Piano: The Art of Making Buildings. Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries, The Royal Academy. 15 September 2018 – 20 January 2019. Entry £14, children under 16 and Friends of the RA go free.