“Art makes people better people,” says Renzo Piano, “and a place for art makes the city a better place to be.”
He is speaking at the opening of the Astrup Fearnley Museum on theOslo waterfront, a new £65m home for the private art collection of ashipping company, which he describes as “an open forum, where art meets life”.
Piano should know about such things. The 74-year-old has designed 17museums and art galleries across the world in his long career, ranging from the revolutionary vertical art factory of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, built with Richard Rogers in 1977, to the refined, low-slung shed of the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, constructed 10 years later, to the delicate lightbox of the Fondation Beyeler, erected outside Basel in 1997. Each decade brought a seminal new building that changed the way architects think about spaces for art, cementing Piano’s reputation as a global brand for big museums.
“I see Astrup Fearnley as completing the cycle, almost coming back to the beginning,” he tells me, as we sit in the upper gallery, looking out across the fjord – a picture-postcard view dotted with islands and sailing boats.
“The Pompidou was a rebellion against the idea of a monumental gallery. We were the bad boys then,” he grins. “We didn’t want to make a mausoleum to art. Instead, we created a big piazza for the people, and here in Oslo we have returned to that idea.”
Right on the waterfront, the museum takes the form of a vast glass sail that arcs over to envelop three timber buildings beneath, separated by a canal and terminating the dockside promenade in a consciously iconic swoop. Unlike many of his previous galleries, which take the form of finely tuned if somewhat anonymous containers, Astrup Fearnley is here to play the role of glamorous civic saviour – the cultural anchor for a whole new urban quarter.