Renzo Piano’s CV is an impressive one. The Shard, the Centre Pompidou, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the New York Times Building – all his. And yet, he isn’t satisfied. Always seeking perfection, he feels very deeply the mistakes that have been made, the dreams that didn’t quite make it into reality.
Atlantis is really Renzo’s story, though it is largely narrated by his son, the journalist Carlo Piano. In this highly unusual book, the duo set off on board a large research vessel and travel the world. It is a search for ‘Atlantis’, which could mean the ancient, lost city of antiquity, but is really a metaphor for perfection. Carlo and Renzo sail from Genoa to Sydney, New York to London and Paris. At each stop they consider one of Renzo’s works – is this one the perfection he craves? No, not this time.
What makes the book unusual is the back-and-forth between father and son. While trained writer Carlo controls the narrative, Renzo chips in frequently – his passages marked by a different font. These are contemplative, philosophical discussions, in which Renzo explains the thought process behind his buildings and often expresses his dissatisfaction with some aspect of how they turned out. This is not the same as self-doubt. The reader can sense that he is a fairly formidable man. As such, the book benefits hugely from the irreverence of the son, without whom, Renzo could seem a little pompous. Following a comparison of one of his designs to an iceberg, Carlo interjects: ‘Icebergs again! I said it before: he’s obsessed with icebergs.’
This natty dialogue is often comic; a pleasingly familiar relationship. To Carlo, Renzo is alternatively the ‘Explorer’ and the ‘Old Man’ (‘He places a plaid blanket over his lap, a detail he’d rather I kept off the record’). Respect coupled with some irritation? Sounds about right. At its heart, of course, there is warmth and love.
So what is this book? Travel, memoir, family relations. It’s a bit of everything. A very enjoyable blend of architectural tails and the musings of a highly successful perfectionist.