Most of the time, designing a City Center in a suburban environment means creating a replica of a fragment of a true downtown. The reason is clear and deeply human: people need to meet each other, to experience the kind of energy and magic on which the notion of a city is fundamentally based.
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The architectural result is most often the same: a slice of a themed main street, animated by the shop fronts, embellished with greenery and water features, a main street going from nowhere to nowhere. All the parts needed to make the street work – loading bays, parking structures, trash rooms – are pushed outside, forming an impenetrable crust around the center’s heart.

Could such a creation here ever be an authentic and true place, one founded on San Ramon’s unique local identity? This question is central to Renzo Piano Building Workshop’s approach, throughout the design process, in the creation of City Center Bishop Ranch.

Topos

In ancient Greek, “topos,” meaning “place”, is the embodiment of the local environment and way of living. Living in suburbia is often the choice for people in search of space, green, air and sky. San Ramon has these elements in abundance, and they are the starting point of our project. What we add is the welcoming framework necessary to bring life, vitality, and energy to create City Center.

Piazza

City Center is conceived around the Piazza, a thriving social hub. The idea is to have three generations of people walking around, meeting people, comfortable and spontaneous in the place. To achieve that, an open-air theatre is designed for concerts, outdoor projections, or any type of meeting or civic event. An open area suitable for a sculpture garden lets people experience the arts, with temporary exhibitions and the work of local artists. A second floor movie theater complex, centered on the axis of the Piazza, provides an iconic presence. Nature is present in both a grove of trees and an adjacent clearing, as well as a water mirror and a lawn with a playground for kids. An ice skating rink will be installed during the winter season. Restaurants, café terraces and shopping opportunities together with cinema, music, arts and nature, will create an authentic vitalized City Center for San Ramon.

Permeability & Transparency

The City Center is a porous, permeable, urban-architectural composition. The inside is open and oriented to the Piazza, the outside is open to and embraces its surroundings. The six pavilions each have a full height glass façade on all sides. We imagine people walking around the City Center along Bollinger Canyon Road, Sunset Drive, Bishop Drive and Camino Ramon, then entering the piazza through any of the access points. There are no backdoors; City Center is the negation of the fortress alien to the context in which it has landed.

San Ramon needs a City Center, but also needs a “seed,” a place that will generate opportunities for an extended community around it, a place conceived to grow according to the organic process typical of a downtown. The Piazza, together with City Center’s openness and permeability, create a destination as well as a starting point for the future.

Nature

Nature gracefully dominates Bishop Ranch; trees, water and landscape shape the environment. The City Center is thus wrapped by trees and has trees at its heart. The same trees that line the approaches, along with other varieties and sizes, create an interior grove. Sunlight and shadows are shaped by the trees in the Piazza. The result is the play of shadow-sunlight-shadow, bringing change and comfort throughout the seasons. 

Facades

The treatment of the facades plays a crucial role in the definition of the relationship between the City Center and its context. All of the facades are fully transparent from floor to ceiling, creating an inviting walking experience both inside the Piazza and around the perimeter. From the outside, the Center is perceived as a volume clad lightly with folded metal sheets, “floating” over the street level. The choice of the folded metal sheets comes from the idea to design a facade using the sunlight. The metal sheets are folded at specific angles, creating a sequence of stripes of light of different intensity and shadows. In front of the metal cladding, all around the perimeter, a light steel frame projects from the façades, providing support for all types of signage, and for projection screens to communicate events held at the City Center.

Pedestrian Realm

One of the biggest constraints we face when designing a City Center in suburbia is that cars are essential to getting there. Cars are inevitably in the DNA of any suburban environment. Our objective is to create a pedestrian realm, a place into which -- as soon as it is reached -- the car seemingly by magic disappears and leaves the place to the human being. Parking is partially inside the building and partially on the rooftop. The City Center works as an “engine” capable of metabolizing the cars into its “belly;” negating the need to build parking structures that consume valuable and walkable land. 

Topos
Piazza
Permeability & Transparency
Nature
Facades
Pedestrian Realm

The Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) is an international architectural practice with offices in Paris, Genoa and New York City. The Workshop is led by 13 partners, including founder and Pritzker Prize laureate, architect Renzo Piano. The company permanently employs nearly 130 people. Our 90-plus architects are from all around the world, each selected for their experience, enthusiasm and calibre.

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The company’s staff has the expertise to provide full architectural design services, from concept design stage to construction supervision. Our design skills also include interior design, town planning and urban design, landscape design and exhibition design services.

Since its formation in 1981, RPBW has successfully undertaken and completed over 120 projects across Europe, North America, Australasia and East Asia. Among its best known works are: the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas; the Kansai International Airport Terminal Building in Osaka; the Kanak Cultural Center in New Caledonia; the Beyeler Foundation in Basel; the Rome Auditorium; the Maison Hermès in Tokyo; the Morgan Library and the New York Times Building in New York City; and the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Recently completed works include the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum extension in Boston, the Shard in London, and the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo.

The quality of RPBW’s work has been recognised by over 70 design awards, including major awards from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). In all our work we aim to address the specific features and potential of a particular situation, embracing them into the project while responding to the requirements of the program. We continue to push the limits of building technology – innovating, refining and experimenting – to come up with the very best solution for each situation.

Our challenge in creating City Center Bishop Ranch is to bring the dynamics of the city – its concentration of energy and spontaneity — to the more diffuse suburban environment. Our dream, our goal, is not to drop down into San Ramon an urban building dressed for the suburbs. Rather, we have worked to create an open and animated place that arises from the innate qualities of the area and invites everyone into its generous public space.

City Center is designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop under the direction of Partner in Charge, Antonio Belvedere.

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Examples of RPBW's work