A building tells a million stories

If you approach Renzo Piano’s Paris office from the Seine, it looks like just another bourgeois entrance – simple name-plate, passage, bell, metal door. If you approach it from the north, though, you immediately see why the sign reads not “Renzo Piano Architect” but “Renzo Piano Building Workshop”.

The lofty model shop acts as a storefront, one that evokes the city of craftsmen that Paris once was, with its exquisite miniature buildings emerging from piles of card and timber, walls of beautifully arranged tools and projections of huge new pieces of cities around the world. Among the neutral colours, a few flashes of fruity shades twinkle: bright red, fiery orange, lemon yellow, lime green.

From outside the office, a glimpse of the Pompidou Centre displays some of those same brilliant colours, applied to the structure of a building designed more than 30 years ago by a young Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano. These new flashes of colour, though, are destined for London. In the grimy hinterland behind Centrepoint, off the northern end of Charing Cross Road, the diggers are excavating a city-block-sized hole that will be filled with a very large new building by Piano, his first in the city, although the viciously pointed pyramidal models of the Shard of Glass scattered around the workshop remind us that it is not destined to be his only radical London intervention.

Central St Giles, a mixed-use development, takes its name from a city quarter with a brutally chequered history. A site of desperate poverty and overcrowding, of gallows, of the rookeries and drunken destitution portrayed in William Hogarth’s “Gin Lane”, the area remains resolutely dissolute, a magnet for the itinerant and the inebriated. Its problems are confounded by the ragged incoherence of the urban space beneath and around Centrepoint and Piano’s new commission begins to address the problems around this curiously unsuccessful crossroads. The new structure replaces a grim brick building that formerly contained a secret-service office. It is a high-density scheme embracing nearly 400,000 sq ft of offices, 11 retail and restaurant units, 109 apartments (of which half will be affordable for key workers) and a public piazza occupying more than one-quarter of the site area. With a web of routes through the site, it also attempts to become the foundation for a broader reinvention of St Giles.

Piano made his name with a series of urbane and sophisticated buildings for arts institutions around the world, from the serene Beyeler Foundation in Switzerland and Menil Collection in Houston to the intricate Morgan Library in New York and the minimal High Museum in Atlanta, not to mention the nearby Pompidou Centre. He has become the board of trustees’ favourite, a reliable problem-solver. His would not be the first name to come to mind at St Giles, his delicately crafted works somehow seeming a little fey for this unforgiving bit of city. But, with his work at Berlin’s Postdamer Platz and with the Pompidou itself, he has proved himself well capable of handling interventions in heavily nuanced and historically tainted urban settings.

Sitting in the basement of his Paris office (his main studio is in Genoa), I ask Piano how, or indeed whether, he could take into account such a dense history in a modern commercial building. “This is all medieval,” he replies, sweeping his arms over a big plan of the site. Then he launches into a charming, articulate lecture in which I barely need to ask another question for an hour. “The complexity is the spirit of a fragment of a city which has been growing as an organic part of the fabric,” he continues. “When you work in a historical city centre, instead of worrying about the lack of freedom you should be grateful for the restrictions. Creativity doesn’t need freedom, it needs rules, then you can enjoy occasionally breaking those rules. I find myself in trouble building in an open space. I’m a big walker, the first thing I do is to walk around the site, you mustn’t do anything without walking around the place.”

Piano – tall, slender, bearded – reminds me slightly of a priest. He has a calm, sensitive confidence but also a kind of evangelical belief in what he does. I ask him about the spirit of place, about how you begin making a new space, a place with character that grows out of the site and is not imposed upon it.

“First we respond to the topography of the site, the geographical complexity of the place,” he says. “We are working at a different scale to that of the medieval fabric, so we break the building down into a series of facets. We respond to the movement of the sun” – he holds his finger up and fixes me with his stare – “this is very important: the shade and the light, the orientation, the transparency to the street. The building flies above its site, on a glass base. I like this idea that the building doesn’t take possession of the land in a selfish way but it talks to the streets. This is a European way of doing things.”

I mention that I’ve recently visited his new skyscraper for The New York Times and that he seems to be doing something similar there, making the lobby public and see-through, creating indoor, public routes through a city where public and private are usually powerfully distinct. “In New York, after September 11, there was a temptation to make everything like a fortress, solid and closed. But in fact we found that transparency is safer than opacity, everyone can see what is happening.”

This, he says, is the approach he has adopted with St Giles. “The building doesn’t touch the ground. A building in an intense city should not entirely occupy the ground, it’s like defying gravity. Urbanity is in that little bit of magic. An urban space is a ritual space for the city in which people are able to get rid of difference, in the best case even fear itself disappears ...

“This idea of flying above the site, it’s not decoration, it’s about accelerating the ritual. We are in the centre of the city and people can walk through the site, cross it, now that the building has been lifted, it has become permeable. This is not just a psychological transparency, a shop window, it is physical.”

Even more though than its transparency, the new building is defined by its distinctive breaking down into a series of brightly coloured facades. Piano has described the building as an apple, coloured and shiny on the outside, crisp and white on the inside. I mention that as I walked towards the site down Denmark Street, London’s guitar retail centre, I couldn’t help making the link between the brightly sprayed electric bodies and the new facades.

Piano smiles. “You’re right. The colour came from observation of the little streets around the site, the fragments of bright colour. The scale is obviously different, but we took the colour from the sudden presence of brightness in that part of the city – it is not as grey as you might think. The colour adds surprise, it helps fragmentation, I don’t think cities should be boring. They are a kind of miracle because they are full of surprises, the colour is the humour and the magic.”

I ask about the process, the models, how Piano designs. “We call the office here a workshop. My father was a builder and I grew up on sites and I never left that idea of craft, of making a better building,” he says. “Without craft all we can make is fakes. The coloured façades are of ceramic, a material that comes from the earth and will return to the earth. I look at it and fall in love. The colour is real. In just the yellow facade there are 2,000 pieces and each piece has its own scale.”

As we talk he begins to veer on to the subject of the state of architecture in general. “Today architects are obsessed with form and shape, everybody is obsessed with invention,” he says. “New shapes are not difficult to make but a new shape that makes sense, that is something else. Computer technology makes the making of nonsense very easy. You just press a button and ... it comes out,” he says, gesticulating wildly, making absurd shapes with his hands. “I believe in invention but I hate the idea of style,” he adds, “the idea that architects can create a signature style, the repetition of their own forms, that’s where you lose your freedom.”

Virtually every conversation with an architect now ends with the inevitable guilt-assuaging statement, the sustainability spiel. Piano is subtler than most, seguing it into a broader cultural and historical context. He talks about the roof gardens and terraces that break the St Giles building up into layers, then he says: “If the architecture of the 19th century was defined by metal construction, the Crystal Palace and so on, and that of the 20th century by the modernist stripping down of decoration and the clean surface, then the architecture of the 21st century should be about humanism, about the realisation that we are building in a fragile world. Sustainability is not just about energy but about the whole story, the city.”

To grasp this requires footwork as well as handwork. “As I said, I’m a big walker. I must know every single paving stone between my apartment and my office. The most beautiful part of a city is the stone. The detail in architecture is immensely important and the pattern in the pavement is as important as the building. The reason we’re so in love with historic centres is that they aren’t designed, but they’re built on a million stories.”

With the earth-movers at work in St Giles, the next story is beginning.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic

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