BUILDING VESSELS OF LIGHT. Renzo Piano is an Italian architect whose notable buildings include the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, The Shard in London, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens etc. Renzo Piano won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1998. In 2013 he was made a Life Senator in Italy.
This interview is available as a podcast here.
I am in the Renzo Piano Building Workshop on Rue des Archives in Paris. Renzo Piano, was your first studio in Paris?
It was on the other side of the street, not far away from the scene of the crime: the Centre Pompidou.
You came to Paris because of that?
Yes, the first time was in 1971 with Richard Rogers. We came from London, where I was living at that time. There was an open competition to build a cultural centre on the Plateau Beaubourg, part of Le Marais district in the middle of the city of Paris. It was an idea invented a few years before by André Malraux, the Minister of Culture. 1971 was only a couple of years after the civil unrest of May ’68, so it was the right atmosphere to do something different.
Did you ever think that the Beaubourg building would become such a symbol?
No. You do things because you’re a bit mad and because you believe in what you do, but after May ‘68 the world of culture had got to change. Museums felt distant, elitist, intimidating places where few people went. It was the right moment.
By then you had worked with your father, a builder in Genoa; you studied architecture in Florence; you worked in Milano with Franco Albini; then you worked with Louis Kahn in the United States. You had a great education. How old were you when you did Beaubourg?
My education was interesting and complicated. I was 33 at that time. Richard Rogers was four years older than me, he was the old man! (he laughs) We were the young, bad boys, but we were not stupid. We understood that something had got to be done, in a city like Paris or somewhere else, to make culture relational, unintimidating. Energy comes from curiosity, which is the beginning of everything when you are young and not yet a cultivated person. The idea was to make this funny factory because once you put many activities inside – music, art, cinema, a library, knowledge, education, all that – you create a place of curiosity where you go for one reason and then something else gets your attention and you get culture.
You used bright colours: green, red, blue, yellow?
That was the semantic way to express the idea of a machine. This factory also enables discovery of the city. Going up on the escalator there is a moment when you see the city and the piazza. In the centre of Paris you attract people as soon as you open space.
After this project you went to America and did the Menil Collection building and other museum projects which were quite different. Why the change?
Because life is like that, thank God! Architecture is an activity where you have to be quite stupid not to be different every time, because architecture is based on so many different things: different places, people, moments, climatic conditions. It’s like story-telling or film-making. Every time you have a different story to tell, and you also change.
Sometimes your buildings are in a familiar line, like the Whitney and the New York Times in New York. On the other hand The Shard, the big building that you made in London, is completely different. What is happening?
It is very simple. In France they call this the fil rouge, the little red thread that connects things. There’s a connection, and the connection between one thing and the other is not about recognizable style, but is about integrity. If you are a writer you have your own way of writing, you have your language and your vocabulary; and if you are an architect it is the same.
What inspires you?
One of the constant elements of my inspiration is light. Maybe this comes from the fact that I’m from the city of light that is Genoa, on the water. I have the idea that lightness is interesting. I don’t know why, but I find it more interesting than heaviness. I like to think of a building like a flying vessel, and the concept of the flying vessel is the fil rouge. Beaubourg is a vessel on dry dock in the middle of Paris, but then the Whitney in New York is a vessel on the West Bank, on the Hudson River.
What about the Beyeler Foundation building, near Basel in Switzerland?
The Beyeler Foundation is more like a flying carpet, but flying or taking off is a constant element for me. I like the idea of fighting against the force of gravity. Of course all my buildings are different, because everything is different in architecture, everything except yourself and your career.
“Poetry is the way to do the job, in your own language.”
Aerial View of the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
Photo: Piano & Rogers. © Fondazione Renzo Piano ( Via P.P.Rubens 30A, 16158 Genova, Italy) © Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners
Renzo Piano, your work is very eclectic and at the moment you are working on the CERN Science Gateway project in Geneva and also building the replacement for the fallen bridge in Genoa. Do you enjoy public work?
The best thing about architecture is that you build what they ask you to build. It’s like going out on a boat to fish – you keep the fish that you are able to catch. I do many different things because I love buildings and I love making buildings. Making a building is a gesture of peace. Making a building is putting things together. It’s also magic, because on site sometimes we have thousands of people working together, and it’s especially great when you make public buildings. That is what I like the best. I mainly do public buildings like schools, universities, libraries, museums, concert halls, hospitals, halls of justice, that when you build in a city have a beautiful conviviality. They are places where people come together and share the same values.
You built the Saint Nicholas football stadium in Bari but you also built the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre in Greece. You transformed the Lingotto in Turin into a modern complex. You expanded the Morgan Library in New York, and you have built auditoriums for music. Each project is very different?
It is different, but at the same time it is always about people, people together and sharing emotion. A building is important because it is about the beautiful sensation of coming together and staying together. You can listen to music at home, but if you listen to music with 2000 other people it’s about participation. Half of the beauty of the concert hall is music. The other half is being together to enjoy the same beauty.
How can you think about so many things, from safety to acoustics?
When you make a stadium, it’s a stadium. When you make a concert hall or a museum or a hospital, the priorities are completely different. Technically speaking, you need to understand, and that’s why you need an army of people working with you, and why you need an office. You need teamwork. You need to work with scientists, designers, acousticians. Architecture is a friendly profession. You need to be a builder and at the same time a humanist, because it’s about people. You also you need to be a poet, because without beauty buildings don’t work as a place where people feel well. Beauty is a difficult word; it could be something a bit superficial. But real beauty is not superficial, because beauty is something that you apply, not just to the visible part of things, but also to science and to knowledge.
Did you learn this in your sailing boat, watching the sea?
(He laughs.) You don’t know how you learn. I grew up in a family of small builders with the idea that making a building is pure magic, so I wanted to do that. I started to go to architecture school at the beginning of the ‘60s when architects were trying to understand how to make a better world. You grow up with these ideas and then you start to build things. Architecture, if you are lucky and in the right moment in the right place, is about making buildings that are the mirror of change in society.
Has your architecture changed?
I don’t feel that changed. I’m still living in the same enthusiastic atmosphere, a bit mad, doing things with other people. In the morning I come to the office and I start being. I don’t know exactly what is going to happen, but the dance begins; and it’s always like that. The work we do now is still work that is about public spaces. I am building a gallery in Moscow, a building in Los Angeles for the Academy Awards, a hospital in Uganda, so it’s not that different from before. What is different is that priorities change. Forty years ago nobody cared about the fragility of the earth. Today we do care about that, and energy use and climate change, and the fact that we have a duty to perform in making quality sustainable buildings. In Greece we are working on three hospitals, and hospitals are a very important element of civic life. These hospitals are built to capture the energy from the sun and have very little impact on energy consumption. We are about to finish a hospital in Uganda that is zero emission, because Uganda is making a great effort to use energy from the sun. The philosophy of making buildings today has changed.
What about the Science Gateway project in CERN?
We are working for CERN in Geneva on a building that is about discovering the secret, the mystery of the universe. This is a place where scientists research the mystery of the infinite, of atoms and the structure of matter.
“Architecture is a friendly profession. You need to be a builder and at the same time a humanist, because it’s about people.”
Renzo Piano, what made you decide to build the new bridge in Genoa?
That was purely emotional.
You had never made a bridge before?
I built the almost one kilometer long Ushibuka Bridge linking the three Amakusa islands in Japan, and I made a bridge in Chicago. I heard about the bridge falling in Genoa on that horrible day, 14 August 2018, one and a half years ago. I was in Switzerland and it was emotionally terrible. 43 dead. When a bridge falls it doesn’t just fall once, it falls three times. There are the victims, there are their connections, but also metaphorically a bridge does an immensely important job. Bridges should never collapse. My first reaction was, oh my God, terrible, terrible, and I started when the mayor and the president of the region both called me and asked me to think about what to do.
You did it quickly?
Oh yes. Knowing that it had to be done very, very quickly, I went immediately to the ship building industry that is already in Genoa, because making the new bridge from steel made sense. You can make quite big pieces that you can move by water and then lift up. I divided the work between the prefabricated steel and the concrete pillars.
Will your new bridge be very solid?
How long will it last?
A bridge must remain for thousands of years, but nothing lasts that long without a bit of love. I call maintenance love. You need to love things. In Japan things last a few thousand years because they are continuously maintained, because they love them. Love is a bit of a romantic word, but I use the word love to stress the point that buildings need affection. There’s nothing built, not even in stone, that lasts a thousand years without attention.
Buildings of the past look solid, even those in Italy that were built during the fascist era by architects like Giuseppe Terragni. The new architectures, from your Beaubourg to Frank Gehry, look fantastic and very different, but will they last?
They will last and have a long life if they are loved, and if they are useful and enter their city’s life and ceremonial in some way. Beaubourg has been there for 40 years, almost half a century, and of course you need to maintain it, but Beaubourg is almost like a bridge, it’s almost like an infrastructure, it’s not really a building, it’s a machine in the centre of the city. A year ago we finished a courthouse building in the north part of Paris, near Saint-Denis, a difficult place on the fringe of the Parisian banlieues, and that building will last a long time. The reason they do or don’t last is not just about the way they are built, but the importance they have in the city. If they become essential to the city, not just as formal icons but functionally speaking, when buildings become places of city life they become tangible proof that a city can be a great place to live. Public buildings provide a place for people and we should never forget that city sites create human relations. Public buildings made with the best expression of architecture do civic duty. Those buildings do a good job, and remain in a city like a barrier against barbarians.
Some architects are completely against tall buildings, but you’ve made several skyscrapers, like The Shard in London for example?
I don’t think there is anything good or bad about tall buildings. It’s good if they are good, it’s bad if they are bad. In a city it makes sense that sometimes you go up, because otherwise you lose intensity.
It certainly makes sense in New York, but what about elsewhere?
If you disperse the same amount of activity horizontally it takes up so much space that you build new peripheries. The growth of a city simply cannot happen by horizontal growth, by explosion: it should happen by implosion. A new periphery is a place where the city is no longer a city but not yet the country. It’s a disaster, where everything becomes impossible. Peripheries are sometimes dangerous, sometimes they are just boring places. The growth of a city should happen by working on what is already there, especially a city like London which built up the very simple idea of a green belt a long time ago. You have a city and the green belt becomes the limit of that, beyond which the countryside should remain country. Cities always have black holes, and a city like London is quite low density, so you can grow inside it by transformation.
You said that you come to the office in the morning and then start, not really knowing what you will do. What is your pleasure? What do you like?
I never stop working. I still have a pencil in my pocket and I love the sense of surprise of teamwork and having young people around me. My office is not just my own, it’s also the office of 160 people. We have people in Paris, New York, Genoa, and people where we build, and people that keep moving around. I am always among interesting people. We have a foundation and young people from universities all over the world come and stay with us. There’s a very interesting Italian word: “bottega”. The bottega is a Renaissance idea of a workshop, learning by doing. The main part of the foundation is in Genoa, on the water and on the sea.
Where do you stay in Genoa?
Punta Nave is the place and we gave it that name because there is a rock in the water called Scoglio Nave. The foundation we do with our own money; we don’t ask anyone for money.
You won the Pritzker Prize in 1998 and many other prestigious awards, and in 2013 you became a Life Senator for Italy but they say that you don’t take your salary?
Actually I do use my salary, because I pay for 12 different young people every year who come and stay with me at my very nice office in the Senate in Palazzo Giustiniani. They work with me on projects for the Italian city peripheries.
Do you like being a senator and participating in political life?
Yes I do, but not because I sit in parliament and vote for laws. My life as a Senator for Life in Italy is really more about working on the Italian city peripheries. I do that, and they pay me for that. Don’t forget that the word politics comes from the Greek polis, the city-state. Working on cities, and especially the weakest part of cities that are their peripheries is a political job. I like the Athenian idea of a politician giving back the city after his term in office more beautiful and better than when he was elected. It’s strong and clear, and that’s why I believe that politics is valuable.
Are you used to politics, because to build public buildings anywhere in the world you need to talk with the local politicians?
Architecture is about politics in the noble sense of the word. Thirty or forty years ago the big point was saving the historical city centres, and today they are saved, even too much sometimes. Now the point is to save the peripheries.
Detail of the roof of the Menil Collection building. Photo: Hickey and Robertson Photography © Piano & Fitzgerald, architects © Fondazione Renzo Piano (Via P.P.Rubens 30A, 16158 Genova, Italy)
View of the north elevation with details of the glass facade and the external stairs of the Whitney Museum of American Art at Gansevoort. Photo: Lehoux, Nic. © RPBW – Renzo Piano Building Workshop Architects.
Front view towards the south of the California Academy of Sciences renovation and expansion. Photo: Fox, Tom_SWA Group. © RPBW – Renzo Piano Building Workshop Architects.
Work progresses on the building of the new Polcevera Bridge, Genoa. Photo: Stefano Goldberg.
Night view of the building from Gansevoort Street, The Whitney Museum of American Art at Gansevoort. Photo: Lehoux, Nic. © RPBW – Renzo Piano Building Architects.
Renzo Piano and Alain Elkann together at RPBW – Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Paris, France.
“What keeps you alive is not what you’ve done, but what you have not done.”
Renzo Piano, when you saw Notre-Dame burning, when you saw the Twin Towers falling, what did you think? Do you have a relationship with buildings that makes you suffer?
War and watching destruction is terrible, and it touches me. By pure chance I was in New York with my family on September 11 2001. I was in the street that morning, walking down Madison Avenue, watching the smoke, and I saw the towers coming down. Equally, that day when Notre-Dame burned, I was here, watching the flames. When you physically watch those things, you just shut up, you don’t dilute, you don’t do anything. You just feel impotent, without capacity; but then immediately after that you react.
How do you react, by saying I have to rebuild?
Yes. In the case of the spire of Notre-Dame, I always loved that most beautiful part, historically more recent. The spire was built in 1859 after Victor Hugo wrote “Notre-Dame de Paris” (“The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”) in 1831. After the French Revolution Notre-Dame had stopped being a church, and the beautiful spire was put on by the architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc so all the evidence is there, all the documents, so it will be rebuilt.
What about your own buildings, Renzo Piano. Do you care about all of them, or do you regret some of the things you did?
You love all your children. You cannot say you love the youngest more, but you do care more, because they need more attention. Of course, I love Beaubourg because every time I go out of here I see it, but when I am in New York I love the Whitney Museum, which my office is in front of on Washington Street. You love buildings for what they are, but I cannot say I love this one more than that. What I can say is that I love especially the one I’m working on. The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures building in Los Angeles will be finished in a few months, and I love that building because it’s young, like a baby – and a baby needs attention.
You probably also love buildings that you have not yet made?
This is what keeps you in life. To be honest, what keeps you alive is not what you’ve done, but what you have not done.
What would you love to do?
What I love to do is what I’m doing, building places for people. It’s ridiculous, I’ve done so much. Last year at the Royal Academy they made a fantasy island in the middle of my exhibition and they put all the buildings I had built in my life on that island in the same scale. There were more than 100.
The most influential member of the jury who voted for you in the competition for the Beaubourg project was Jean Prouvé, an architect who made small popular houses. Did you ever want to do something like that?
I do that all the time. One of the projects that was made last year by three of my young people at the Senate – I told you they are working on the peripheries – one of those projects is a little house of 20 square meters inside Rebibbia jail in Rome. It is a jail for women and many have children who they cannot keep in the jail, so they come to visit the mother. With the prisoners we built a little house for their visits, and it was very touching. The budget for that job was 30,000 Euro, so I work from the range of 30,000 Euro to jobs in London and New York of half a billion dollars.
Do you consider yourself lucky because you have placed your buildings all over the world?
Yes, but this is not what makes me happy. It’s a pleasure to put things together. Making a building is still the same pleasure that I got when I was a small child, going on the building site of my father, sitting and watching. When you watch even the most modest building site you see people moving around and the next day you have bricks coming and then there is a wall. You are a witness to the magic of building, of making things.
Do you also like your sailing boat very much?
That’s my second passion. I love floating in the water.
Paris, January 10 2020
Portrait of Renzo Piano by Stefano Goldberg. All images by kind permission.
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