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"Just Trying to Do This Jig-Saw Puzzle"

How architecture's and urban design's practice can change through studying of a little-appreciated Renaissance art, intarsia.

By Norman Weinstein
September 21, 2012

Astute Rock fans will note my title is taken from a Rolling Stones song, “Jig-Saw Puzzle,” a bit of Pop Culture soundtrack recycled and intended as a wake-up call to architects and urban designers. Your attention needs to be drawn to an overlooked form of Italian Renaissance wood inlay art, intarsia. Sound absurd? You have bills to pay and project promises to keep – and I’m asking you to gather lessons from an obscure decorative Renaissance art. With awareness of these practical challenges, yes, I’d like you to consider Intarsia, and put simply, “a jig-saw state of mind.”


My new found enthusiasm for intarsia was triggered by a new book, a gloriously written and illustrated survey edited by the Italian architectural historian Luca Treviso and with electrifying photography by Luca Sassy, Renaissance Intarsia: Masterpieces of Wood Inlay (Abbeville Press, 2012). Unless you’re residing currently in Italy, assume this book as your gateway into Intarsia. Speaking of gateways, look at the image on the book jacket.


What are we seeing? We’re looking at a 2-D architectural image heightened through perspective, composed of wood inlay, an example of Intarsia that flourished between the mid-14th to mid-16th centuries. Another example especially for city planners, though architects will find their pleasures with it also, is the second image at right.


This latter example looks strikingly contemporary – like a cityscape fusing the magic realism of painters like Magritte and Giorgio De Chirico (note Figure 7 and 9 on this website), with the pensively puzzling, perspective-worrying prints of M.C. Escher.


That may explain why intarsia, on view earlier this year in “La Città Ideale” (“The Ideal City: The Renaissance Utopia at Urbino between Piero della Francesca and Raphael”) at the National Gallery of the Marche, Urbino, Italy, caught the sharp eye of New York Times art critic Roderick Conway Morris (If a City Were Perfect, What Would It Look Like?). But shifting our focus away from art history to architectural thinking and process, this city image is presenting urban architecture by inviting you to walk through arches and between columns. Next, it is translating 2-D wood pieces into a compellingly unified 3-D composite that has complex surface textures and unresolved tensions.


Think of watching an architecture student in a studio course cutting cardboard or foamcore into a project model. If the student is well-heeled, he or she could do a model using textured foamcore. Of course, textured foamcore possesses the same degree of dazzling fidelity to actual wood that better quality “wood-grained” cardboard does. Both lack authentic grain, a consequence of the materials having had no direct contact over time with forces of Nature as they engrain life.


Now imagine that same architecture student designing a model through intarsia. Of course, the process would be more time-consuming than making a foamcore model, let alone creating a model comprised entirely of patterned pixels. He or she would draw a design on paper, and then imagine what that design would look like as interlocked wooden puzzle pieces. It’s paradoxical that we have the English idiom signifying someone’s demeanor or speech as “wooden,” implying lifeless rigidity. Any architect who has seriously worked with wood is well aware of the liveliness of it when confronting its materiality. Canadian architect Bing Thom spoke to this point when he noted: “No other material has wood’s capacity to shelter, support, and uplift the human spirit” (from reThink Wood). In fact, the primeval energy encoded in wood led ancient Chinese philosophers to enshrine it as the fifth element, joining eternally earth, air, fire, and water as elemental building blocks of the universe.


The wood pieces used in intarsia were (and are – intarsia is still practiced worldwide in small numbers) variously hued wood veneer pieces around 1/16-inch thick. Intarsia’s pieces possessed that wafer-thinness – yet pieces were composed, slowly, imagine ever so slowly, by Italian Renaissance masters into architectural and city images with astonishing detail and depth. With this as a seemingly unlikely conscious intention on the part of the Renaissance artist, the images of buildings and cities, framed by arches, gates, doors, or columns, assume a lightness, even a buoyancy – qualities cherished overwhelmingly by masters of 20th/21st-century architecture and urban design. Faithful to his sweeping knowledge of Italian design over centuries, Renzo Piano remarked about his hometown of Genoa, Italy: “Genoa is also a heavy city. Paul Valery called it ‘a city of slate,’ but I grew up with the idea of doing the contrary.”


Thinking “intarsially” also conjures another contemporary trend: edginess. Perhaps the figure of speech “edgy” suggests why intarsia garners new attention. To think and compose with wood jig-saw pieces, with a deep commitment to architectural design set in deep urban perspectives, is a tour-de-force exercise in “edgy” design. Designing through intarsia requires critical attention to how particular edges interlock in 2-D to create enlightening (pun intended) 3-D compositions, all the while pondering texture and color variations piece-by-piece. And if architects ever needed to design with meticulous piecework vision like Renaissance artists, that time is now, when the pieces in the global puzzle need to snap into place with greater than ever urgency.


Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record, and is the author of “Words That Build” – an exclusive 21-part series published by – that focuses on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably; his webinars are available from ExecSense. He can be reached at


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(click on pictures to enlarge)