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Renzo Piano: ‘Architecture is not frivolity’

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Renzo Piano, the architect behind the Shard in London, explains why it is important to try to change the perception of the profession

Last week you spoke at a parliamentary event with planning minister Greg Clark about the Shard. You began by saying architecture is a serious business. Why?

People sometimes believe architecture is a kind of frivolity, that it’s about shape, it’s about gesture. Recently, the story of the star architect has actually been disastrous because it is creating a sense of a profession in which form and gesture govern. I believe architecture is something that relies on long [time scales] and buildings – they stay there forever like forests, like rivers. It’s not like fashions that come and go.

12 years after its conception, the Shard is nearing completion. Would progress have been quicker without a planning inquiry at the start?

In this case [a planning inquiry] was quite welcome. [With Southwark and later with the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment] we had a discussion and we got to prove the value of the scheme. I don’t dislike a bit of discussion. In the end, this is what makes you a bit more humble.

Do you incorporate criticism into the design process?

You have two ways to go back home: one it to say, ‘Forget it’, the other one is to be a bit more loyal and say ‘Let me see. What is right? What is wrong? What is useless?’. I’m not an undecided person but listening doesn’t mean being obedient. Listening doesn’t mean that you do what people tell you to do. Listening is a very difficult job because it is a mix of openness and stubbornness.

Are design competitions good for the architectural profession?

Competitions are a good idea on one condition – that they don’t become a beauty contest. Unfortunately sometimes this does happen.

Is there a need for a moral view in the profession?

I’m not a moralist, I don’t want to be moralist, but I feel sad about the way architecture is perceived sometimes – as though it’s a job for people creating shapes. Architecture is one of the most difficult, complex serious jobs.

What does it mean to be a contemporary architect?

To be an architect you need to be a master builder, a militant, a poet and a historian. But you have to be master builder; otherwise all this is garbage.

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