“Beautiful, durable and eco-friendly” was how Renzo Piano described ceramic tile in his memorable address at Cersaie 2009. Today’s appointment represents a kind of follow-up to that event, presenting one of the most important works of avant-garde architecture constructed in the last ten years and at the same time a building that fully harnesses the potential of ceramic tile.
This project, called Central Saint Giles, is also featured in a dedicated space at Cersaie, the first time that this ambitious building opened last May has been officially presented at an international exhibition. The project was created by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, the architecture business and philosophy that today has 130 employees working in offices in Paris, Genoa and New York. Lia Piano, the great architect’s daughter and director of Fondazione Renzo Piano, was one of the speakers on the panel.
“We chose this project because it enables us to make optimal use of ceramic tile, a material that played a crucial role,” said Lia Piano during the official presentation held this morning in the Palacongressi in Bologna. “But we chose it above all to lend continuity to the philosophy of Renzo Piano Building Workshop and its training activities. We have workshops in Genoa and Paris, which each year host 14 students from the world’s top universities and architecture schools. I would describe our approach as fairly anti-academic. There are no teachers, lectures or theories: the students immediately become part of a team and work every day on concrete projects.”
Much of Piano’s personality – and indeed a lot of modern architecture – is perfectly summed up in the Central St. Giles project, which is intended to be adopted and enjoyed by Londoners in their daily lives. The project manager was the Dutch architect Maurits Van Der Staay, associate of RPBW since 2000 and an internationally acclaimed professional who headed the Potsdamer Platz project in Berlin.
“It is a very large building located in the heart of London, between Bloomsbury, Soho and Covent Garden,” explained the project manager in perfect Italian. “It has a total floor space of 65,000 square metres, including 40,000 square metres of offices, 10,000 square metres of apartments, as well as restaurants and places for socialisation on the ground floor. It was a very time-consuming project that took almost eight years to complete. The building has a big visual impact on the city and is situated in the midst of very old and popular districts of London.”
The original structure that Central St. Giles replaces was an old Ministry of Defence block. “It was a dark, grim building,” noted Van Der Staay, “a forbidding place that was plagued by anti-social behaviour. We set out to change the structure radically and to transform it into something that previously did not exist. The keywords of this process were mass, fragmentation, piazza, permeability, accessibility and transparency. A major aspect of the project was the use of colour and therefore ceramic tiles.”
It is an imposing building, but only from above. Arriving from nearby streets and lanes, one happens upon Central St. Giles almost by chance, as though it had always been an integral part of the city. Transparency and accessibility are also key features: every access route to the building allows it to be traversed from one side to the other. The central piazza itself, open to the general public, houses restaurants and places for socialisation. Although relatively small, the piazza has a spacious, airy feel due to the use of a cutting-edge tile developed by RPBW in close cooperation with a well-known Italian producer of extruded tiles.
In view of the outstanding results of the project, a dedicated exhibition curated by Aldo Colonetti and Studio Origoni Steiner was organised at Cersaie to honour the long process of aesthetic, anthropological, sociological and urban research pursued by RPBW in implementing this project.
“We are here today not only to talk about architecture but to discuss the future of this profession,” stressed Colonetti. “Architecture is not and cannot be just an academic activity, but an activity that enables ceramic tiles and other materials to find their ideal location, their own truth. Workshop activities, the sense of learning a trade, are the foundations of architecture. If we are able to present this project here today it is because of people who have truly learned their trade.”
One of these, a key member of the team that worked on the Central St. Giles project, is the Italian architect Lorenzo Piazza. After initially joining RPBW as a student, he has subsequently worked there for 4 years, “a sign that the workshop was successful”, noted Lia Piano.
“I arrived at RPBW on the 1st of September 2006, the day after the approval of the Central St. Giles project. I arrived in Paris and joined this team. Our approach,” explained Piazza describing the details of the project and the RPBW working methods in general, “is to transform a vision into a three-dimensional form, searching for textures and depth, studying the grain of the facades. The challenge we faced was to give thickness to forms, to create depth through the use of light and shadow. It was a tough challenge that required months of experimentation, gradually adding materials, proceeding from one to two and then to three dimensions, using scale models of the individual parts – the building is made up of a total of 140,000 pieces – and then entire portions of building.”
It is a building with 22 types of façade, on each of which ceramic tiles, in their multiplicity of shapes and colours, play a key role. Following the official opening last May, the building has already become part of everyday life of London’s residents. “The great thing about this project,” concluded Van Der Staay, “is that it involved a kind of industrialised artisan process that included long-term cooperation with the Italian tile manufacturer who supplied the ceramic tiles and whom we had already worked with during the period of the Potsdamer Platz project.” The finishing touch was the glazing on the tiles which enables the appearance of Central St. Giles to change according to the light, making it look different and yet always true to itself at every time of day.