The following is an excerpt from our 1.5-hour conversation at the busy Renzo Piano Building Workshop in New York, right across from Piano’s 2015 Whitney Museum that may not be as inventive as his earlier projects, but still, this battleship of a building pulls you in again and again to discover something new with every visit, both within and in the surrounding city from its open decks and connecting stairs. We discussed some of the architect’s current and earlier projects, while he reflected on beauty, intuition, imagination, and, of course, the necessity of a protest.
Right after graduating from the Cooper Union School of Architecture in the mid-90s, I headed for Italy to participate in a workshop competition. Over beers, a fellow competitor confronted me point blank, “Who is your favorite architect?” Caught by surprise, I uttered the first name that came into my mind, “Renzo Piano.” Shortly after, I realized it was true. On that same trip, I went to Genoa to visit the architect’s office, perched on the slopes of a hill above the sea on Via Pietro Paolo Rubens 29 to touch, sniff, and discuss Piano’s work first hand. By then, his architecture was fully expressed and his best works were already produced – Center Pompidou in Paris (with Richard Rogers, 1971-77); The Menil Collection in Houston (1982-86); San Nicola Football Stadium in Bari, Italy (1987-90); Kansai International Airport Terminal (1988-94) in Osaka, Japan; Beyeler Foundation Museum in Riehen, Switzerland (1991-97); and Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center in Noumea, New Caledonia (1991-98). Piano’s architecture is well-balanced. It is daring and radical, yet, it is always impeccably cited, meticulously crafted, and beautifully integrated with landscape and natural light. In addition to performing whatever functions at hand, his buildings are often lifted off the ground to admit plenty of sunlight and create public gathering spaces in front of them; their graceful lines and refined details evoke beautiful ships or giant musical instruments.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: You studied architecture at the Milan Polytechnic University where you did a dissertation on fabrication and modular lightweight structures. Could you touch on why you became interested in that kind of architecture?
Renzo Piano: I grew up in the family of builders and I always wanted to be a builder. I only discovered architecture as a student; I could not study it in my hometown, Genoa, and I really liked the idea of running away from home to study elsewhere. So, I went to Milan. But it was always about the process of building and building at that time was about modular construction to achieve an economic way of building. Also, it was a nice way to grabble something solid. Modularity is about order. Life is always about order and disorder. Even a musician needs a pentagram to write notes. So, it was about anchoring my ideas on what is rational and clear. And, don’t forget, it was a period of student unrests, so we, students were concerned about ethics, economy, making buildings for people, and about the size of things – in meters, centimeters, and millimeters.
VB: Was this precision and lightness and protest against the solidity and durability of the kind of projects that your father was building?
RP: It was, of course. But basically, it was about the building itself. About geometry, which is based on production. And for me, production was about admiring people like Jean Prouvé who was concerned about inventing a system that would allow building architecture for everybody. It was a moral idea. It was about mass production and industrialization; these light structures were seen as signs of freedom.
VB: And you stayed on this course of experimenting with mass production, modularity, light structures for your entire career.
RP: I like the kind of architecture that is made piece by piece, with many identical pieces. Of course, now this is no longer true, and we can as effectively build buildings out of pieces that are all different. The machines now make it possible.
VB: Your Pompidou Center, the Beaubourg, turned everything upside down and inside out.
RP: Yes, of course. It was all about openness and flexibility. We dreamed about making that building truly public and transformative.
VB: And it remains to be the most daring and provocative, and isn’t it true that with every new project you are compared to the Pompidou? It was such a revolution!
RP: I don’t think about it this way. For example, right now, we are finishing a small pediatric surgery hospital in Uganda and I believe it will be even more revolutionary building than the Pompidou because we are building very thick walls out of earth, it will capture the energy of the sun, and it will be a very beautiful building, which is very important for a hospital. Our California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco was revolutionary because of the use of sustainable technologies; it became the first public LEED Platinum building in this country. You know, I don’t think about the Beaubourg. What keeps me going is not what I have done but what I will still do. We were lucky to be challenged with the right project at the right time. It symbolized that time, the time of great change. Don’t forget that the building was built only a few years after the student riots of May 1968. And in fact, someone said that our building may be the only visible proof of May 1968.
VB: It is a revolutionary building and it remains to be revolutionary. You may not be able to build something like this today.
RP: You are right. Not in Paris, for sure. And to be honest, I don’t think they really understood what they were getting. Every time we were asked a question we would say, “Je ne comprends pas.” I don’t understand. [Laughs.] Well, I am sure new things can still happen. You just need a special moment. With some luck and curiosity, it can happen. You also need risk-taking. If you only draw what you know you are going nowhere. In architecture, change is a must. We didn’t design Beaubourg simply to make something different, visually it was an expressive proof of the changing times.
VB: You said, “Especially as an Italian, I am grateful to building tradition. But, at the same time, I hate tradition because it may paralyze you.” Could you talk about the need for invention in architecture? What is it for you – an invention?
RP: Of course, it is not only true for Italians. But I was talking about places with great history, traditions, and memories. Because if you don’t find rebellion and energy within you then you can become totally paralyzed by just admiring what’s already around you. When I first run away from home, before going to Milan I went to Florence where I started my studies. But after two years there I said, “My God, what am I doing here? It is too small, too beautiful.” [Laughs.] What can I do here? I love beauty, of course, but after a while, you get accustomed to it. And then what? When you are twenty years old or twenty-five years old you need to find your own freedom, your own curiosity, your own imagination. This is part of our nature. We must look for our own invention. And this is true for writers, scientists, musicians, for everybody.
VB: I would like you to elaborate on a few of your quotes. You said, “Rationality doesn’t sing; intuition does.”
RP: Good ideas don’t come from anything rational, they come through an intuitive process. You know, bread is like rationality and marmalade is like intuition. You can’t have too much marmalade; you need to put it on bread. So, you need both – rationality and intuition to pursue your curiosity.
VB: “Being an architect, you need to know how to build, craft, and put things together. But it is not enough.”
RP: It is true. Of course, as an architect, you need to be a good builder. A pianist must know how to play the piano and what’s the good of a painter who doesn’t know how to paint? But then it is not enough because nothing is ever about just the craft, technique, and pragmatics. You must express the desire. Architecture is the response to the need for protection but also to people’s desires, passions, inspirations, and dreams. This is where architecture and art come together. Architecture must be an expression of all of these things. And architecture is for people to meet; it is for the community. You know, when you make a public building it becomes a little miracle of civic life. Museums, libraries, schools, courthouses, hospitals, churches, celebrate the art of staying together. They celebrate art, knowledge, education, civility, and beauty. So, is architecture practical? Yes. But it is also artistic and social.
VB: “Sometimes architecture is about a protest.” And you added, “You have to be rebellious, you have to be yourself.”
RP: You have to be yourself; this is true. You know, at a certain age you realize that you are what you started to be when you were ten or even younger. When you are just eight, nine, ten years old you already have certain storage in your memory, under your skin. You grow up with certain desires within your surroundings – the sky, the line of horizon… For me, it was about my relationship with the sea and what is beyond it… Being yourself is not about being selfish, it is about discovering who you are. You know, for me, Beaubourg is a ship in Genoa harbor! Of course, it is in the middle of Paris, so it is totally absurd, but this is how I see it subconsciously.
VB: Is the Whitney here another ship in Genoa harbor?
RP: It is, but it is not how you start – OK, now, I am going to make a building that looks like a ship. This is stupid and very banal. First, you must make a building. When I started designing the Whitney I wanted to make a piazza. But there is no space for that, so you lift the building up, you angle the bottom for the sunlight to come in. You do all these steps and then you look, and you think, “Hm… it looks like a ship in the dock.” But that’s not how you start because otherwise you are driven by metaphors. And metaphors can be dangerous.
VB: Metaphors are quite important in your work, nevertheless. For example, you said, “Ships don’t touch the ground, they float.” You said, “Buildings can fly.” Do you know the famous phrase by Wolf Prix who expressed a similar desire by saying, “I want my buildings to change like clouds?”
RP: Well, that’s more poetic. My idea is more grounded and personal. I grew up watching ships in the harbor. This is all very unconscious for me. I agree with Prix, but I never think about it before I start designing. If you look at our Kansai Airport in Osaka. Yes, it looks like a glider, but no one talked about the glider in the beginning. We designed that building to be light and not only because it is on water but also because it is in a seismic area. We never start with the image, it comes later in the process.
VB: You said, “More than anything architecture is a search for beauty.” You know, you mentioned beauty a number of times in this conversation, but architects don’t like talking about beauty.
RP: Because architects are afraid that beauty may be mistaken for fashion, frivolity, decoration, superficiality. But it is actually very profound, deep, and even essential. Beauty is not just about what we see, but what is inside or underneath, like in the case of an iceberg. And when we say, “A person is beautiful.” That’s what we mean – a person has a good heart, character, a beautiful mind. The idea can be beautiful. In most European languages the word “beauty” is inseparable from the word “good.” Beauty should be our aspiration and architects should be more mindful of it. Look at some of our buildings’ skylights – they are capturing sunlight but more than that; they are capturing beauty in a very subtle way.
VB: Beauty, of course, is not objective and, while much of your buildings as The Menil Collection in Houston is accepted as universally beautiful, the Beaubourg is still not accepted as such, right? There is a strong division between those who see it as beautiful because of how it functions and those who don’t understand it at all.
RP: Because it is not the kind of building that wants to please everyone. The Beaubourg is beautiful in its roughness, its directness, openness. It is beautiful for what it did, for what it offered to people. So aesthetically speaking, the Beaubourg is a slam in the face. But it was all about making art accessible. And that’s beautiful. And now when I see how people use that building and how they gather around it, that’s beautiful. Beauty and pleasing are different things. A good architect is like a good doctor who doesn’t try to please a patient. A good doctor tells his patient the truth. It is about making the right thing. You know, when you make a building that’s different it is not because you just want to be different. No, it is because the reality is different, the world is different. Everything is changing all the time. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989; it is a different world now. Every time there is a new story to tell, to comment, to reflect on. We don’t build buildings to please the crowd. No, you build differently because you respond to the changes around you. Changes are never accepted easily by people, never. And if my architecture is about celebrating the changes, of course, it is not going to be accepted by everyone. Almost no one accepted the Beaubourg when it just opened. It took many years for people to like it. It is now one of the most beloved places in Paris. Of course, you are going to have some taxi drivers who hate it, but it is accepted now. When I first presented the new Whitney and when it was just opened there were doubts and questions, but over some time there were less and less of them and now it is loved by people. It takes time.
VB: In your 1998 Pritzker Prize acceptance speech you said, “Creating means grasping within the dark, abandoning points of reference, facing the unknown.” You said, “The past is a safe refuge. The past is a constant temptation. And yet, the future is the only place we have to go.” Could you touch on this idea of perpetual progress and exploration?
RP: Well, this is true for anyone, not just architects. Creative work is like looking in the dark. You need to be brave enough not to look for safe ground. It is fine to look for safe ground but then we are not talking about experimental architecture, which is about going forward. Then you are missing your role, which is to be yourself in your own time. Everyone must find his own beauty and you can’t run away from that. The key message of our century is that the world is fragile. This means we simply can’t build the way we used to. And in any case, the future is the only place we can go to. We must accept that challenge. Jorge Luis Borges said that imagination is made of memory and of oblivion. Thank God we forget things, so we have our imagination to move forward. Creativity is always a mix of tradition and invention.