An Exhibition of Renzo Piano Building Workshop Will Open at the Lenfest Center for the Arts

The three buildings RPBW designed for the Manhattanville campus—Lenfest, the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, and the Forum—are the focus.

Eve Glasberg
May 23, 2024

On June 7, 2024, RPBW Renzo Piano Building Workshop: Le Fil Rouge will open at the Lantern, on the top floor of Columbia’s Lenfest Center for the Arts. Designed in a lightweight, sustainable format, the traveling exhibition will be on view through June 30.

Le Fil Rouge not only offers an in-depth look at selected buildings designed over the last 50 years by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, established in 1981; the show is also a homecoming for the renowned architecture firm, which designed the Lenfest Center for the Arts. Through projects of different nature and scale—including some of the firm’s most iconic structures, such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Menil Collection in Houston, and, in New York, The New York Times Building and the Whitney Museum of American Art—the exhibition traces the common thread that runs through drawings and models: A singular quality of lightness and transparency, with buildings appearing both monumental and lightweight. RPBW structures also often integrate into the landscape, combining nature and architecture. 

The simple, reusable installation of large panels with text, diagrams, and photos will immerse the visitor, and make walking through the show feel like reading and turning the pages of a book. Each panel illustrates and marks an important chapter in the RPBW story.   

Le Fil Rouge signature, Renzo Piano Building Workshop exhibition, Columbia University

Central to the New York iteration of Le Fil Rouge in the Lantern will be three panels, each one devoted to one of the three buildings that the Pritzker Prize laureate architect and his team designed for Columbia’s Manhattanville campus: First, the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, home to the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, and, second, the Lenfest Center for the Arts, which houses the Wallach Art Gallery and multiple spaces for the School of the Arts. Both Lenfest and Jerome Greene opened in 2017, with Davis Brody Bond, LLP, as executive architect, and Body Lawson Associates, a Harlem-based, certified Minority Business Enterprise (MBE), as associate architect.

The third building designed by RPBW, the Forum, located on the corner of 125th Street and Broadway, opened in 2018, with Dattner Architects as executive architect, and Caples Jefferson Architects, a certified MBE, as associate architect. The multi-use venue hosts a variety of events, and serves as the gateway to the Manhattanville campus, open both to the entire University and the local community.

“Science, art, communications, global issues, community, and energy are combined and stitched together with a network of open spaces to shape Columbia’s Manhattanville campus,” said architect Antoine Chaaya, lead partner of RPBW, who worked closely on the project with Renzo Piano. “The diverse material palette expresses the semantics of the buildings—glass for the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, as a Crystal Palace, dedicated to light and science; aluminum panels for the Lenfest Center for the Arts, which requires a more opaque enclosure for film and performance spaces; and, finally, concrete for the Forum's auditorium volume, to provide mass and acoustics. Lightness, transparency, and permeability play together to create balance.”

Transformative Architectural Ambitions

In 2002, former Columbia President Lee Bollinger announced his intention to expand the University’s physical footprint in New York. He explained that for a great research University like Columbia to develop new knowledge and transformational innovations across disciplines, it needed the space to match its ambitions. Over the course of the next two decades, this vision and these goals shaped Columbia’s future.

The plan to expand Columbia’s constrained physical space resulted in a proposed campus spanning 125th Street to 133rd Street along Broadway to 12th Avenue in West Harlem, in a former industrial neighborhood called Manhattanville.

Once the approval process was completed and systems were put in place to address the needs and concerns of the local community, two architectural firms, RPBW and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, partnered to create the master plan for the new Manhattanville campus, which outlined the first buildings and the overall design.

The new campus was meant to be interactive and open to the surrounding city, in contrast to Columbia’s historic, gated Morningside campus, with its heavy neoclassical buildings designed by McKim, Mead, and White, located 10 blocks south of Manhattanville.

Free, flowing, flexible interior space with multiple window walls enabling transparency, permeability, and translucency characterize the three buildings that RPBW designed for Manhattanville. These qualities reduce architecture to light and industrial structures, hallmarks of a Renzo Piano building.

The Lenfest Center for the Arts, located next to Jerome Greene, is designed for the creation and presentation of art across disciplines, providing a dynamic space for the School of the Arts, with four levels of double-height venues for exhibitions, performances, screenings, symposia, readings, and lectures. 

“Working with Renzo Piano, Antoine Chaaya, and the entire RPBW was one of the great experiences of my life,” said Carol Becker, dean emerita of the School of the Arts. “This is not only because Renzo is a poet as well as an architect, but because everyone on their team cared so deeply about our project. Even though Lenfest was to be the smallest building on the Manhattanville campus, Renzo referred to it as “the lantern,” which would illuminate and animate everything around it. That is how he understood the importance of the arts as the entry point for the new campus. We are grateful for the result of our collaboration—a magnificent, flexible building that has been transformative for the School of the Arts.”

“Manhattanville was and is, in Columbia terms, a project for the centuries,” said Bollinger. “It required a master planner and an architect at the highest levels of the era, and that was Renzo Piano. Because the creation of a new campus requires attention to every level of academic life, from the aesthetics of buildings and spaces to the essentials of research and teaching, you need an architect who is more than an architect: You need an intellectual, an artist, a teacher, and a student, and someone completely dedicated to the University. And Renzo was all those, too.  As well as being a friend to each of us. Manhattanville gives Columbia a future, for decades and decades to come.”