Carlo Piano calls his father Renzo ‘the Explorer’ and has imagined an eight-month journey with him on an Italian Navy ship, doing port of call in many of the cities where Piano has built, and both take the adventure as a search for Plato’s mythical Atlantis, which is really a search for beauty. For her part, Lia Piano describes her childhood in a large villa surrounded by gardens, and uses different rooms of the house to paint an endearing portrait of an exceptional family, a delicious fresco of extravagant kids and grown-ups moving around a father focused on building a sailboat in the basement. So two of the architect’s offspring simultaneously hit the bookstores with tributes to the creative lifework and warm personality of the master from Genoa, a coincidence which is also unusual because so many filial accounts on celebrities are bitter reckonings with an authoritarian or absent parent.
The book jointly signed by father and son will be of greater interest to architects because, in the form of an account of marine adventures, it goes through the built milestones of the former’s career, which are described with the narrative gusto and nautical know-how provided by Carlo’s journalistic skill and love for the sea, and revisited with critical intelligence and poetic inspiration by Renzo, who shares his son’s passion for sailing; and because, in the form of extensive dialogues aboard the ship, it recalls the senior Piano’s biography and reflects on the impulse that has guided his metaphorical quest for the submerged continent. But this book by two authors is more than an extensive fictionalized interview because, besides throwing light on the architect’s career and ideas, it plows the oceans and visits the ports of the planet with the persuasive power and narrative instinct born of the literary prowess and rigorous documentation of Carlo, who even spent some time on a Navy ship to make his marine chronicle more plausible.
The work of Lia Piano, a literature graduate and expert editor of the Renzo Piano Foundation’s publications, caters more to the general readership, which has given her the splendid welcome of an immediate translation to Spanish. Her tale of a happy, crazy upbringing palpitates with sensitivity, intelligence, and humor, and if critics have inevitably likened it to Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, the magical story told by Lia has an architectural dimension supplied by flashbacks of her father’s life, and especially by the central role of the family house, drawn on the first page by Shunji Ishida – a Japanese architect who, as Carlo tells us, “has worked with my father for over forty years, from the very beginning, since Beaubourg, or the Centre Pompidou. One day, honeymooning in Genoa with his wife Sujako, his car broke down, and he hasn’t left since” – and whose different rooms, corners, and corridors name the chapters.
The English version of Atlantis is presented as a ‘non-fiction’ book and the Spanish edition of Planimetria di una famiglia felice as a novel, but such strict assignment of genres does little justice to two loving filial tributes that joyfully flit between truth and imagination, invention and memory, poetry and life.