Renzo Piano may be the most urban, and urbane, of great architects working today. He made his name in Paris in the 1970s, when he and Richard Rogers designed the Pompidou Center, a machine of a museum bristling with exposed steel and pipes. The “inside-out” building provoked howls from Parisians at first, but the Pompidou soon became a beloved landmark and helped revive the then-ailing Marais district. Since that time, the Italian architect has designed a master plan for the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. He has built an airport in Osaka and the tallest skyscraper in London. He has left elegant, precisely crafted museums and galleries in Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. So critics did a double take last year when Piano announced that he was designing a new shopping center in San Ramon, California. Renzo Piano—winner of the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s Nobel—was designing a suburban mall?
The project didn’t come out of nowhere. Recently, Piano assigned six young designers on his staff to work on a suburban renewal initiative. The research project, which is called G124 and is sponsored by the Italian government (in Italy, Piano is an honorary senator-for-life), studies experimental and low-cost ways to repair the frayed tissue of cities’ outskirts. In a recent interview with National Public Radio, Piano explained that the suburbs are where most people live, yet they are badly neglected. Suburbs “are not beautiful, of course; they are not well treated,” he said. “But they are the future of the city; or they are the city of the future, if you prefer.”
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Amanda Kolson Hurley is a writer and editor who lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C. Her writing on architecture has appeared in Foreign Policy, The Atlantic’s CityLab, and The Washington Post, among other publications. This post was originally published by the American Scholar.