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Diversity goes fourth

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Renzo Piano Building Workshop: Complete Works Volume 4 By Peter Buchanan. Phaidon, 2000. 240pp. £45

At a time when Phaidon seems to be championing the designer book, with offerings such as Cream and 10 x 10, it is reassuring to find that it can still produce a truly weighty hardback. This immaculate offering on Renzo Piano has all the qualities required for an office seeking that appropriately impressive leaving present for a departing student.

As one would expect of an author writing a fourth volume, Peter Buchanan's text is insightful, informative and sympathetic to Piano's approach.

His commentary provides the context for 11 of Piano's most recent projects, while offering a scholarly and convincing appraisal of the work.

The book does not try to create a single narrative encompassing all the featured projects; it is more akin to a collection of beautifully crafted short stories - a format well suited to taking the reader through this decade of widely diverse work.

Piano is something of an enigmatic figure.

Although he is the recipient of virtually every honour the architectural profession has to bestow, the heterogeneous nature of his buildings prevents any easy categorisation. The range of his building forms and language is definitely wider than a single label could describe. The monumental timber structures of the Tjibaou Cultural Centre result from a freedom of expression which could appear contrary to the late Modern cool of the Beyeler Foundation Museum or the hierarchical urban design of Potsdamer Platz. If only New Caledonia was as close as Bilbao, the Tjibaou Centre would surely have made an even greater impact on the general architectural consciousness.

Buchanan leads the reader through this stylistic confusion and builds a portrait of a design process, created by Piano during 30 years of practice. It is this process which is essential to understanding the projects, and it is in this respect that the text provides an essential companion to the drawings and generally superb photographs.

Piano's process is not immune from the disruptive forces which affect all major projects. He refers to these difficulties as 'contamination'.

Buchanan is critically astute in discussing the results of such contamination, most pointedly in assessing the National Centre of Science and Technology in Amsterdam. This vast hull of a building is perhaps an example of something potentially great made merely good by client changes and budgetary constraints. Although well received by the city, there is the feeling that Amsterdam has got only 'half a Piano'.

The importance of a strong client in creating a truly successful building is seen in all the projects.

With clients such as Ferrari (the Modena Wind Tunnel) and Mercedes-Benz (the Sindelfingen Design Centre), Piano finds a culture receptive to his design-led building process. In a year which has seen the failings of the Millennium Dome, and the soaring success of Tate Modern, the importance of a client being willing to relinquish artistic control is surely no surprise, and yet for many client organisations it still appears unthinkable.

On giving Piano the brief for his museum, Ernst Beyeler borrowed the motto that Matisse had borrowed from Baudelaire - 'Luxe, calme et volupte'.

The building met its brief, and this fourth instalment of Buchanan's continuing series captures something of those same intangible qualities.

Alex Wright is an architect in Bath

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