Italian Club Students Discover Renzo Piano's Architecture in New York (April 2014)

What do architecture and literature have in common? What does the built environment tell us about nature and history? And how does this all relate to Italy from the perspective of Manhattan?

On Saturday April 26, 2014, a group of students of Italian and members of the Amici Italian Club at Montclair State University took a tour of Manhattan
inspired by the works of famous Italian architect Renzo Piano, allowing themselves to engage with these questions as part of a multi-sensorial experience. They walked around the city, looked at architectural sites, and listened to passages read from works by the celebrated Italian writer Italo Calvino, a friend of Renzo Piano.

Piano’s name is attached to a number of iconic buildings in Manhattan by now. The New York Times building and the expansion of the Morgan Library and Museum are two of his completed projects, while two in-progress projects confirm the trust major institutions in NYC afford this winner of the Pritzker Prize (the Nobel for Architecture): the new Whitney Museum and the new Columbia University campus in West Harlem. This choice of projects speaks to the relevance of Piano’s contribution to the cultural fabric of the city – the “purposes” of his buildings range from art (Morgan, Whitney) to the academic and publishing worlds (Columbia, New York Times), thus embracing key sectors of the city’s history, personality and economy. 

Piano’s apparent lack of signature style did not deter Italian Club members and students from identifying some of his Leitmotivs: the creation of piazza-like lobbies that foster circulation and sharing; the permeability of outside/nature elements in indoors space through the use of glass structures and inner vegetation; the ability to link past and present in seamless ways; his thoughtful embrace of a philosophy and practice of sustainability before it became mainstream.

The running threads of the tour were the concepts of light and lightness, which play a key role in Piano’s architecture characterized as it is by the use of lean structures that subtract volume and by a predilection for glass surfaces.  These concepts are central to Italo Calvino’s writings, which many of the attending students had read in the ITAL381 class (Italian Contemporary Cultural Studies) and then recited on site during the tour. They took turns reading from Calvino’s essay “Lightness” and quoting from Piano’s statements thus enacting a dialogue between the two thinkers who were sensitive to each other’s work. “My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight… sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities,” Calvino wrote, while Piano stated: “Making buildings is like telling stories. Architecture is the art of telling stories.”

The tour, born out of an idea by Dr. Teresa Fiore (Inserra Endowed Chair and Italian Club’s faculty adviser) and already offered on Oct. 5th 2013, was led by AIA-affiliated architect Kyle Johnson who provided the students with a well-informed illustration not only of the Piano’s buildings at the core of the tour (Morgan Library, New York Times building and new Whitney in order), but also of many architectural elements of the neighborhoods visited. He lent a special eye towards the Italian and Italianate details that the entire island is peppered with.  In an unexpected turn, while in the Auditorium of the Morgan Library, students had the opportunity to listen to an Italian baroque song performed by Montclair State University music student Zachary Morehouse, eager to test Piano’s acclaimed expertise with designing concert halls.

At the end of the tour, students had lunch at one of the best Italian restaurants in town - Rana’s at the Chelsea Market - where dishes such as the freshly handmade ravioli served in a filigrain-like basket of grilled grated grana cheese function as other reminders of how art can be found in everyday moments. According to the enthusiastic comments of the students, the entire tour experience transformed classroom knowledge into action and turned the environment into a book to learn from, especially things Italian, as Italian Club Vice-President Stephanie Ridge remarked.

In reinforcing the Montclair State University’s motto “It’s all here”, this Piano-themed tour is a great reminder of the fact that for students of Italian culture,  “It’s all here…. 20 miles away from Montclair State” – a direct train or bus ride from campus, in the most Italian city outside of Italy, New York!

For a full set of pictures taken by Emilia d’Albero:

Stay tuned for more activities by the Amici Italian Club in the fall of 2014 on both sides of the Hudson River!

This activity was also made possible through funds from SGA (Student Government Association) at Montclair State University secured by the Club's officers for Spring 2014.