Paul Klee Museum in Berne, by Renzo Piano

The notion of a ‘light modernity’ is suggestive. ‘There is one theme that is very important for me,’ Piano remarks: ‘Lightness (and obviously not in reference only to the physical mass of objects).’ He traces this preoccupation from his early experiments with ‘weightless structures’ to his continued investigations of ‘immaterial elements’ like wind and light. Lightness is also the message of his primal scene as a designer, a childhood memory of sheets billowing in the breeze on a Genoese rooftop, a vision that conjures up the shapely beauty of classical drapery as well as contemporary sailing boats as architectural ideals. For Piano lightness is thus a value that bears on the human as well as on the architectural – it concerns graceful comportment in both realms. As a practical imperative, however, lightness confirms the drive, already strong in modern architecture, toward the refinement of materials and techniques, and yet now this refinement seems pledged less to healthy, open spaces and transparent, rational structures, as in modern design, than to aesthetic effects and decorous touches. A light architecture, then, is a sublimated architecture, one that is particularly fitting (that word again) for art museums and the like.

Such lightness is also pronounced in the Museum of Modern Art in New York as renovated by Yoshio Taniguchi in 2004. Its importance to contemporary design was also first signalled at MoMA in a 1995 show called ‘Light Construction’ in which Piano was represented by his Kansai terminal. The curator, Terence Riley, took his cue for the show from another Italian, Italo Calvino, who in his last book, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988), proclaimed the special virtues of lightness for the new age: ‘I look to science,’ Calvino wrote, ‘to nourish my visions in which all heaviness disappears.’ The attraction of this dream is clear: it is part of the promise of modernity that free movement will lead to freedom. Viewed suspiciously, however, it is little more than the old fantasy of dematerialisation and disembodiment retooled for a cyber era, and it has become a familiar ideologeme to us all – though it still seems odd that architecture, long deemed the most material and bodily of the arts, would wish to advance it. Viewed even more suspiciously, this lightness is bound up not only with the fantasy of human disembodiment but with the fact of social derealisation: the lightness of the unreal under Communist regimes for Milan Kundera, who proposed this sense of the term before the fall of the Wall, yet under capitalist regimes for the rest of us. This kind of lightness is no ideal at all; it is ‘unbearable’. Perhaps in the end the two notions of lightness must be thought together, dialectically – that is, if dialectics has not suffered its own final lightening, as many people now seem to think.

Hal Foster
London Review of Books