Comments 2

The art of sketches | Renzo Piano

“When designing a building you start from a general philosophy and you come down, and you start from detail and come up. Only the theoretical architect believes that you can make the concept and then sometime somebody will come to build it” 

A holistic vision of architecture

The sketch is the right solution to gather volumes and structure, to put together context and details. His drawings, mostly sections,  always include some natural elements like trees (relation with nature, sustainability, …) or the sun (solar exposure, shadows, …). Colors can help define different materials, while the thickness of lines shows the structure.

Some sketches focus on a particular detail, some offer a complete vision of the project, some others explain the concept. But they are all impressively communicative.

A building isn’t just a volume.

A building is made of users, functions and paths;  it’s made of different materials and it’s surrounded by a specific context. The good interaction of all parts of the project highly depends on the application of  building technologies and the knowledge of the latest innovations. But when the city canvas is empty, the architect has to create and invent.

And, last, a building is made of lines, shapes, colors, and patterns. People don’t want to live in a place they don’t like, human beings look for beauty and harmony.

A render is not ehough

A building that answers to all these matters, from technology to beauty,  surely comes from a responsible design in which every element is closely analysed.

But the most beautiful render, even the most detailed 3D model, will always show how the project is going to look like, not how it’s going to work and not even how it was designed. That’s a big loss of information, especially when each step of the project is a balanced architectural decision. A real pity.

Renzo Piano’s sketches represent his holistic vision of architecture

Architecture is made of both theory and practice, both philosophy and matter. Renzo Piano’s firm,  Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW), is one of the most complete in the world: it’s able to provide full architectural design services,  from concept design to construction supervision, including interior design, urban design, landscape design and exhibition design.


These sketches express the concept, the main idea of the project. They are composed by few, simple elements to communicate the essence of the building. Different thicknesses and color don’t necessarely match the structural hierarchies: they just make the sketch more expressive and understandable.

They are the first (and last) spark of the project.

Kansai International Airport Terminal
Osaka, Japan (1988-94)

Parco della Musica Auditorium
Roma, Italy (1994-2002)

Zentrum Paul Klee
Bern, Switzerland (1995-2005)

Pathé Foundation, Paris (France)
Paris, France (2006-14)


This kind of sketch is a stands in between the technical drawing and art. Renzo Piano uses them to describe one particular detail, which is fundamental for the whole building: very often these elements aren’t unique or isolated, but they are used repetitively throughout the building.
In the Menil Collection and in Kimbell Art Museum, for example, the covering characterizes the project not only from the outside but also from the inside, giving rhythm to the interiors and creating special lighting effects.

Read more >> DETAILS | An illustrated library of architectural details

The essence of the project is hidden in one detail.

The Menil Collection
Houston, U.S.A (1982-1986)

Kimbell Art Museum Expansion
Fort Worth, U.S.A (2007-13)


Front views are used to give an immediate idea of how the building is going to look like. Sometimes there’s also some information about the structure (Maison Hermès sketch) but most times you just have a general idea of the outline and of the chosen materials (MUSE and Astrup Fearnley Museum sketches).

Projects made of pure shapes and precise lines.

Maison Hermès
Tokyo, Japan (1998-2006)

California Academy of Sciences
San Francisco, USA (2000-08)

Read more >> California Academy of Science | Man, nature and discovery

MUSE Museo delle Scienze
Trento, Italy (2002-13)

Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art
Oslo, Norway (2006-12)


These sketches are very complicated: not only do they represent the whole project, but they are also extremely detailed. They contain a large number of information, using words, numbers and symbols.
The sketch of The Shard (London Bridge Tower, London) is very impressive as in one unique drawing we can find: some measurements (like the height),  the relationship with the sunlight and some information concerning the internal structure and the ground floor. The circle tells us which part is going to be the core of the building and different colors hint at different functions or materials.

Tecnical sketches that build up the project

Centre Georges Pompidou
Paris, France (1971-1977)

Read more >> HIGH TECH | Tecnology and progress at architecture’s service

Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center
Noumea, New Caledonia (1991-1998)


Lingotto Factory Conversion
Torino, Italy (1983-2002)

London Bridge Tower (The Shard)
London, United Kingdom (2000-12)


Maybe they are not hyper-realistic but they make you understand how the building works, from structure to interiors. Different thicknesses correspond to different structural elements, while different colors correspond to different functions.

In the sketch of the Morgan Library and of the Auditorium del Parco the two lecture halls are represented by a series of curved and concentric lines; doesn’t matter if they are overdimensioned or unreal: you understand the program of the building.

Renovation and Expansion of the Morgan Library
New York, U.S.A (2000-2006)

Renovation and expansion of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Boston, U.S.A (2005-12)

Auditorium del Parco
L’Aquila, Italy (2010-2012)


These sketches are very interesting as they combine structure, volume, interiors…and also the environment. The role of sun is emphasized: there are lines and arrows that shows its movement in the sky and the inclination of its rays. Moreover, sometimes the suns are two, to show different situations during the day or during the year.

High Museum Expansion
Atlanta, U.S.A (1995-2005)

Chicago Art Institute – The Modern Wing
Chicago, U.S.A (1999-2009)

Harvard Art Museums renovation and expansion
Cambridge, MA, U.S.A (2006-14)

Read more >> Harvard Art Museums | Exhibition and research combined, to harvest innovation 

That’s how Renzo Piano uses the Art of Sketches.

Each one is different from the other but they have in common one thing: they put in drawing his holistic architetcure. Even if they focus on some specific aspects (the concept, some details, some functions, …) they will always tell you something abouth the genius behind each project.

Nothing is left apart, everything in the building is Architecture.

Read more >> The art of sketches (intro)

All about Renzo Piano Building Workshop • RPBW

Photos by Alessandro Gadotti – Archivio Trento Futura, Enrico Cano, Hickey & Robertons Photography, James Iska Photography, John Safa, Kanji Hiwotashi, Marco_Caselli_Nirmal, Michel Denancé, Moreno Maggi, Nic Lehoux, Pierre Alain Pantz, Tom Fox

This entry was posted in: Focus
Tagged with: , , ,


My fundamentals: creativity and pragmatism. When a was a little girl I wanted to be a vet during the week and a great painter on Saturdays and Sundays. Now, I am a confused and curious mind at Architecture's service.


  1. Pingback: Suggested reads for June 11th, 2015 | /home/kOoLiNuS

  2. Pingback: le letture consigliate … 11 giugno 2015 | kOoLiNuS ☞ il blog


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s