Johns Hopkins University has hired Italian architect Renzo Piano to design a building for its Homewood campus in Baltimore that will “reinvent the ancient Athenian agora for the 21st Century.” Hopkins commissioned the Renzo Piano Building Workshop of Genoa, Italy, to design a home for the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute, an interdisciplinary center dedicated to “strengthening democracy by improving civic engagement and civil discourse worldwide.”
The Foundation announced in June 2017 that it would commit $150 million to launch a joint effort with Hopkins to create the institute, assemble a faculty, and build a home for it on the Homewood campus. The project is called the Agora Institute because one of its goals is to reinvent the ancient Greek agora, or public gathering place. A budget for the building has not been established. The target completion date is 2022.
At 81, Piano is considered one of the world’s leading architects, with major projects on five continents and awards such as the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the RIBA Gold Medal, and the AIA Gold Medal. He is the subject of a retrospective that opened this month at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Past projects include the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; the Shard skyscraper in London; and, with Richard Rogers, the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris. Piano has worked with the donor before to design the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens, Greece.
Piano said in a statement that he accepted the commission because he has “great respect” for what the university and foundation want to build. This will be his first project in Baltimore, which has a “sister city” relationship with Genoa. “I was attracted to the Johns Hopkins project for its humanistic nature and also because I have always been interested in making places for learning,” Piano said in a statement. “I am very happy and honored to start this new adventure.”
University president Ronald J. Daniels said he believes Piano is the best choice to design the project. “SNF Agora Institute seeks to reinvent the ancient Athenian agora for the 21st Century,” Daniels said in a statement. “The institute will serve as a forum for scholarly research, the robust exchange of ideas, and for sharing strategies to repair civic discourse and strengthen democracy in America and around the globe.”
As “a visionary who understands the power of public space to foster conversation and create community,” Daniels said, “Renzo Piano is the ideal architect and artist to give physical form to the SNF Agora Institute.”
The institute is envisioned as an “academic and public forum” that will bring together experts in fields such as political science, psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, ethics, sociology, and history. Its mission, according to Hopkins, is to “forge new ways to address the deterioration of civic engagement worldwide and facilitate the restoration of open and inclusive discourse that is the cornerstone of healthy democracies.”
The building will house a director, 10 faculty members, 10 visiting scholars, and both graduate and undergraduate students. It will be the setting for a wide range of public events, including an annual conference bringing together “representatives of different viewpoints to examine contested public policy issues.” There will be lectures, symposiums, dinners, and performances.
A site for the institute has not been finalized, and Piano is expected to help make that decision, along with determining the building’s size. Given the nature of the project and stature of the designer, officials say, it is likely that Hopkins will want it to be in a prominent location facing out towards the city, rather than buried deep within the campus.
The incredible challenges inherent in today’s mega-architectural undertakings triggered my interest in just how such projects are built. More than four years ago I began to track the design, construction, and completion of one of the most ambitious of these, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC) in Athens. I could not have anticipated in those early days how the global economic crisis and subsequent political upheaval in Greece would affect the story of the $842 million building complex and 40-acre park. Even under these circumstances, the building was completed on time and on budget and is already inundated with visitors, both local and foreign; the new national opera house and national library will open officially this fall.
Almost as soon as I started to research the SNFCC, I was struck by the number of people, companies, and even cultures involved, the largest team I’ve ever seen on a cultural project. Project meetings were a veritable Tower of Babel, with Greek (construction workers) and Italian (the RPBW architects and one of the joint-venture contractors) foremost, and a good deal of English thrown in (many of the special consultants). Most of the time the group worked harmoniously. There were a few disagreements at the outset, but the site remained markedly congenial throughout the five years of construction.
A major reason for this coordination was the universal respect for Renzo Piano. The Italian architect was likened by one member of the Greek teams to “an orchestra conductor for his ability to work with all manner of collaborators.” His visits to the site were like the public appearance of a pop star, with admirers vying to get selfies with him. But there was also the fact that the SNFCC was the only important construction job in a city paralyzed by economic austerity. Seen as a symbol of hope for the nation’s recovery, it provided thousands of jobs in a nation wracked by unemployment. One of the Greek project managers expressed the general feeling on-site: “It’s a first, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Victoria Newhouse’s new book, Chaos and Culture: Renzo Piano Building Workshop and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens was published by the Monacelli Press in May 2017
New book tells the story of the Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center, but can a building this wasteful really be called “green”?
The idea that work by Renzo Piano—winner of a Pritzker Prize, among numerous other awards—could be corrected by anyone, let alone a far less known firm, would be surprising under any circumstances. What made it especially so is the stark disparity of styles between the two offices.But Piano prevailed: “Having initially greeted [Mecanoo founder Francine] Houben with his usual charm, the Italian architect barely glanced at the Mecanoo proposal in late 2013 before rejecting it out of hand.” In the course of writing the book, Newhouse developed expertise on subjects as diverse as the history of philanthropy in the Ottoman world and the acoustical preferences of Southern Europeans. The book is a kind of encyclopedia. But there is one significant lacuna: Newhouse calls the building “a triumph of environmental sensitivity.” In fact, the building, despite incorporating enough “green” features to achieve LEED platinum status, is inherently wasteful. First, it’s not clear it was needed in the first place. The Greek National Opera, though lacking a purpose-built home, has performed “with great success” at the Megaron Concert Hall in the center of Athens, Newhouse reports. As for the library, its existing building, also in the center of the city, could handle far more visitors than it received. Consequently, Newhouse writes, “no one was able to realistically define the new library’s purpose.” Neither organization had a director at the time the planning for the cultural center began. And with the country in economic crisis, the entire enterprise, Newhouse observes, “defied logic.” But the Niarchos Foundation was determined to build something important, and its resolve only strengthened when the Greek economy collapsed. True, Piano’s best buildings, including New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, exhibit an inherent modesty (as does Piano himself). But the Niarchos Foundation encouraged Piano to think big. After visiting the Athens site, he decided to give the library and opera separate buildings, facing a modern agora (through a pair of enormous glass facades) and set them into a manmade hill, more than 100 feet high at its peak. “It was an almost childish idea: I simply lifted the ground’s surface to make way for the architecture,” Piano told the author. Creating the hill would involve building vast retaining walls, moving some 654,000 cubic feet of earth, and protecting all of it against seismic activity. That was accomplished by filling steel tubes with rocks, then hammering the tubes into the earth at 10-foot intervals, creating some 3,500 “gravel piles” in the process. Those processes required vast amounts of energy. Then came the planting of the center’s 40-acre garden, much of it on raised ground, and the extensive irrigation required to keep it alive in arid Athens—a process that involves both pumping water uphill and passing it through a reverse osmosis desalinization plant. The hill, that “childish idea,” is a grown-up energy consumer. Overall, operating the cultural center will require 14 gigawatt-hours of electricity each year, Newhouse reports. Producing that much power through the burning of coal—the predominant source of electricity in Greece—will create some 30 million pounds of CO2 or its equivalents, according to the best available figures. That’s about as much 1,500 average Greeks produce each year. True, setting the building in a hill could reduce the cooling load by as much as 7%, Newhouse reports. But counting that as an environmental victory is like counting gambling winnings while ignoring losses. And, true, the vast building has a substantial photovoltaic system. In fact, after the artificial hill, its most prominent feature is the canopy atop the opera house, a kind of flying carpet supporting 87,000 square feet (about two acres) of photovoltaic panels. That certainly sounds green. But the panels, even with the latest technology, will produce just 2 gigawatt-hours of electricity each year, or about 15% of the building’s needs. (And that’s if all goes well.) And even that power isn’t “free,” environmentally speaking. Thirty steel columns, braced by diagonal cable ties, support the p.v. panel-covered canopy, which is estimated to weigh 4,700 tons. The carbon footprint of structural steel is enormous. And solar panels themselves require energy to fabricate, transport, and install. There is no free lunch, energy-wise. Making matters worse, the Center is two miles from the nearest subway stop. Hard to reach by public transit, it contains 1,000 parking spaces, evidence of its reliance on private cars. LEED doesn't take any of that into account. It is essentially a checklist system, conferring points for “moves” like providing bicycle racks and using recycled building materials. Whether the building should have been built in the first place; whether it could have been built closer to public transportation; or could have been significantly smaller than it is—the big-ticket items, environmentally—are the very issues LEED ignores. Of course, I understand the need for symbols, which can help uplift societies (especially societies as troubled as 21st-century Greece). And I believe that the Niarchos Foundation had the best intentions when it vowed to make the building green. But the building it built is anything but green, and LEED is its enabler. With its “platinum” imprimatur, LEED sends a message that even unnecessary buildings, on sites ill-served by public transportation, and requiring vast amounts of energy to build and maintain, are good for the environment. Which, at this time of climate crisis, triggered by energy consumption, is a dangerous message to send. Chaos and Culture: Renzo Piano Building Workshop and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens is available from Monacelli Press.