The reviews are pouring in for Renzo Piano’s new masterpiece in Golden Gate Park. But how did it all come to be? We wanted to give you some insight on how a project this complex actually gets designed and built. Kang Kiang, AIA, worked for seven years as the project architect for Chong Partners Architecture (now Stantec), the executive architect for the new California Academy of Sciences. When the project was substantially complete a few months ago, he joined Mark Cavagnero Associates as a senior associate. Kenneth Caldwell interviewed him there on September 29.
The Architect’s Newspaper (AN): Did the big idea come quickly?
Kang Kiang: If you look at the sketch that Renzo drew on top of the roof on the first day, the project looks remarkably like that sketch.
AN: When he did that first sketch, did he know there would be an aquarium, a planetarium, a natural history museum, and the research labs?
Kiang: Yes. He came to the interview knowing the program. He was taken on a tour of the existing facility, and he was very impressed with the research and collection side of it, which had been relatively unknown to the public. Especially the hundreds of thousands of jars of specimens lining the shelves. He thought that it would be wonderful to show that to the public. And he thought that the scientific aspect relating to explanation of the natural world needed to be evident in the building. The idea of transparency came into being.
The transparency is literal. The glass is a low-iron type, which allows you to see not only from the building to the outside very clearly, but from one side of the building to the other, even though the building is several hundred feet long. The public can also see into the labs. I was there yesterday, and was able to watch a scientist doing taxidermy on a pheasant. The procedure was projected, so visitors could see close-up images of what she was doing.
AN: Can you tell me about being out on the old roof with Renzo Piano?
Kiang: Renzo came up with the sketch before we got involved. On the rooftop, you are surrounded by trees. So the idea came to him as he was looking at the trees but also at the hills and the bay. He thought, let’s lift up a little piece of the park very gently, put the museum underneath, and then put the lid back down.
AN: What was it like to work with Renzo?
Kiang: He is very much a collaborator, with all the architects, the engineers, the contractors, the subcontractors, and of course the scientists—with everybody. If he hears about a good idea, he’s willing to incorporate it, which is truly remarkable for a person of his stature.
AN: What did Piano’s office do and what did Chong’s office do?
Kiang: We intentionally set up our relationship knowing how they work, which is very collaborative and detail-oriented. Renzo’s office is known for very refined detailing. It would not make sense to use the model where the design architect hands over drawings to a production architect. We wanted to collaborate, which means that we were exploring the project with them in Genoa at the beginning.
And then when it was time to build the building, they had a presence in our office in San Francisco. But everything from beginning to end was essentially split 50-50.
AN: What was your role as the project architect?
Kang Kiang: My role was to be the conduit about what gets decided in Genoa, because our consultants were all here in San Francisco. I had to convey the decisions and make sure everybody understood what we’re doing.
AN: Do you speak Italian?
Kang Kiang: No. Piano’s office is a very international office. The project architect was Dutch, the project manager was American. Everybody speaks English.
AN: Tell me more about the design process within Piano’s office.
Kiang: Renzo is blessed with a number of partners that have been with him for 30-plus years, who can carry his ideas forward—obviously with constant review and input from Renzo. They would draw by hand. It’s a bit unusual now. For example, during schematic design, when you anticipate that the building is a certain size as a result of the programming layout, and things are still fluctuating, they already have the windows detailed and drawn out. They look at the macro and the micro simultaneously, and then adjust each one as needed. If they find that a spacing of the mullion or the window wall doesn’t work—that they need to increase or reduce it—the building fluctuated a little bit. So that might change the entire footprint.
AN: What did you take away from the project?
Kiang: The way that Renzo’s office looked at details and at the overall picture simultaneously. And the way he works with everybody: he’s very inclusive. He really tries to reach out to everybody and listen to their ideas.
Renzo takes the position that we have to have integrity. For example, last week at one of the opening events, in a lecture he gave for students, he was talking about the obligation of being an architect, arguing that our obligation is tied to the environment. His vision is that this generation and the next generation need to be fully aware of what’s going on with the planet. Our buildings must respond to that.
The fact that he’s able to incorporate great design and very sustainable design both into this one building is remarkable. As you know, it’s not easy.