Renzo Piano Highlights Design of Revamped Museums

Renzo Piano Talk
Renzo Piano, in a packed auditorium, gives a talk on the architecture of the newly renovated Harvard Art Museums building, which his firm designed.

Architect Renzo Piano outlined the trials and triumphs of designing the new Harvard Art Museums building, speaking to a packed Piper Auditorium Thursday evening.

Piano, who also designed The Shard in London and the The New York Times Building in Manhattan, discussed his work on the Harvard Art Museums with museum director Thomas W. Lentz and Columbia University architecture professor Kenneth Frampton in a conversation immediately after his lecture.

The event, titled “How Did You Do It, Mr. Piano?”, coincided with the student opening of the Art Museums, which have been under renovation since 2008 and are opening to the public on Nov. 16.

Piano drew particular attention to the new interior courtyard of the Fogg museum, noting that the original design drew inspiration from the Italian town of Montepulciano. Piano also likened the revamped, new courtyard to an Italian piazza.


“The kind of the center point of the entire composition, it is a meeting point,” Piano said. The revamped Art Museums’ courtyard will be freely accessible to the general public.

Piano also emphasized the importance of natural light in the building’s composition. The conservation labs, where artwork is restored and preserved, are located at the top of the building and can tune natural light to their needs.  An additional art study space will be located under the building’s the building’s glass roof, which Piano likened to a “lantern.” The exterior of the building is made of Alaskan yellow cedar wood.

During the conversation, Lentz discussed some of the difficulties the University had in working on the project, which he said took 17 years to conceive, design, and construct—partially due to hurdles in negotiating the design with both the Cambridge and Massachusetts Historical Commissions. Lentz also pointed out the poor condition of the “much-beloved” original Fogg building, which he called “a wreck, an absolute wreck.”

After the event, Phillip L. Harrison ’86, co-chair of the Graduate School of Design’s capital campaign, said he thought the talk was “fantastic” and that he found Piano “extremely down to earth, charming, funny” and “quite capable at describing the complexity of design.”

Harrison added that he thought the new Art Museums would have an impact on GSD’s capital campaign.

“I think as one of the most important new buildings on the Harvard campus, the new Museum, designed by one of the most important architects in the world, will just highlight the critical importance design can bring to an organization like Harvard,” Harrison said.

Piano said in his lecture that he hoped that the Harvard Art Museums would make Cambridge a better place to live, and expressed his conviction “that beauty will save the world”

“Fundamentally, this new institution is about beauty. It is about culture... and the strength of knowledge and [beauty] joined, and this is what makes people better people...this is what humanity needs,” Piano said.

—Staff writer Vimal S. Konduri can be reached at