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Renzo Redoes the Morgan Library

Italian architect Renzo Piano opts for subtlety and simplicity in his buildings. His restrained reworking of the venerable (and ornate) Morgan Library, in New York, has nonetheless transformed a scholarly repository of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, rare books, musical scores, and master prints and drawings (including works by Dürer, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Galileo) into a modern destination.

The Morgan Library & Museum, as it is now known, encapsulates New York's architectural history in half a city block. The institution grew out of Gilded Age banker Pierpont Morgan's immense collection, which was scattered among three Madison Avenue landmarks: a Morgan family home, an 1880's brownstone; an Italian Renaissance-style structure built in 1906 by McKim, Mead & White to hold Morgan's library; and a Beaux Arts annex, added between the two buildings in 1928. Lack of actual gallery space kept most of the Morgan's 350,000 treasures from view.

Piano (working with the firm Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners) restored the three original structures and joined them with delicate, gleaming steel-and-glass pavilions that defer to the surrounding historic architecture. The new entrance is on Madison Avenue: bronze-framed glass doors in an understated façade of pearl-gray aluminum panels. The lobby opens onto a glass-enclosed atrium filled with natural light, which Piano likens to an Italian piazza.

Piano renovated the interiors of the McKim building—including the magnificent library—and Annex, which now has two galleries. Between them, he set a 20-foot cube based on Renaissance Platonic proportions, executed with Modernist precision, to house exhibitions of select rarities.

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