Like so many devoted cinephiles, Italian architect Renzo Piano began his love affair with the movies as a child. Born in Genoa not long before World War II, he remembers the films of his youth as a beguiling distraction and a beacon of optimism in the postwar years. “From where I stood, there were two avenues of escape, two frontiers to cross—the sea and the cinema,” recalls the 81-year-old Pritzker Prize winner.
Today, as his dazzling design for the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles nears completion, Piano’s belief in the power and magic of cinema remains resolute. “Moviemaking is the most complete, truly contemporary art form,” he avers. “It brings narrative, acting, scenery, lighting, sound, and music together into the most marvelous machine for emotion.”
Piano’s enthusiasm finds expression in a 300,000-square-foot design that, quite literally, ties the past to the future. The museum connects the renovated Saban Building—originally the May Company department store, a 1939 Streamline Moderne landmark designed by Albert C. Martin Sr.—with a new massive concrete sphere that suggests a modern riff on the geometric follies of 18th-century French architects Étienne-Louis Boullée and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux.
The six-floor Saban Building, with its signature gold-tiled cylindrical section facing the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, houses a variety of exhibition, event, and conservation spaces, along with a café and shop. Glass bridges link the erstwhile department store to the state-of-the-art, 1,000-seat David Geffen Theater contained within the sphere. That bulbous behemoth, constructed of 13,000 tons of concrete seemingly levitated off the ground, is sheared at the top to create the Dolby Family Terrace, a rooftop public-gathering and special-events venue with 360-degree views of the city and the Hollywood Hills.
“Making architecture is like making cinema. Both are about combining technology and practicality with things that belong to the imagination. And both require an army of people with ideas coming from all sides,” Piano observes. He knows of what he speaks. Before receiving the Academy Museum commission, the architect designed the spectacular Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé in Paris, an institution devoted to the promotion and preservation of historic French cinema, as well as a group of theaters and performance spaces at his sprawling convention center in Lyon.
Set to open in late 2019, the Academy Museum will debut with a long-term exhibition, “Where Dreams Are Made: A Journey Inside the Movies,” that stretches over 30,000 square feet in the Saban Building and may include such treasures as the Adrian-designed ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, the scepter from Cleopatra, the tablets from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, and a shark model from Jaws. The museum’s first temporary exhibition is dedicated to the Japanese filmmaker and anime master Hayao Miyazaki.
For Piano, the allure of the Academy Museum resides in the communal experience it offers to visitors, particularly in the Geffen Theater. “The building says, ‘Let’s embark together into this world of wonder!’ You are one of 1,000 people sharing the same ritual and the same joy,” he explains. “How can you not be a fan of the movies?”