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Interview by Spencer Bailey | Portrait by Kyoko Hamada

At his firm’s New York City outpost, the legendary Italian architect discusses his early years in Louis Kahn’s office, his fondness for the Lone Star State, and why his buildings are sort of like kids. 

This year marks 50 years since you graduated from architecture school at the Polytechnic University of Milan.

Me? How’d you know that? I forgot that! You’re right!

What do you now know about architecture and the world at large that you wish you had known back in 1964?

As the son of a builder, I went out with this simple, innocent, and naïve idea that being an architect is about being a builder. You have to learn—and I did—that it’s not just that. It’s also about people, about society, about searching for a better world. You also learn, if you have it within yourself, that architecture is poetry. There’s a beauty in construction. But in ’64, I was 26, 27, and I hadn’t put all of those things together yet. When I finished my studies, I thought my destiny was looking for lightweight structures. I loved that idea. It’s simple, but it’s not simplistic, because taking weight away from structure is not just about science and technology. It’s also about the dream of lightness and about making shadows. When you look at a Buckminster Fuller job—or even one by Jean Prouvé, closer to me— they were working on the basic system of a structure. Their idea was that being light and simple was the best way to serve the shadow.

If you ask me what I was thinking during the time I was a student, I don’t know, but I was perfectly satisfied being someone who researched lightweight structures. Then I grew up. 

You mentioned Jean Prouvé, whom you met in Paris in the late ’60s.

Jean Prouvé was one of those figures like my father. I felt the beauty in this man who was looking for simplified things. Taking away is like making poetry. It’s like many other things: sculpture, music. It’s about looking for clarity, and once you get clarity in construction, there’s a good chance you’ll find beauty. All that was very confusing in my mind. At that age, you don’t see these things so clearly; you just enjoy life. I wasn’t making buildings then; I was making fragments of buildings, which was enough.

But you eventually started making buildings, and throughout your career, you’ve clarified your ideas in practice. You’ve also been savvy at political maneuvering. Do you view yourself as a political thinker?

Yes. I’ve been named a Senator for Life in my country [by current President Giorgio Napolitano]. Last week, I was in the Senate talking about peripheries, saying we have to stop making new sprawls.

If I look back, my life has been embedded with all kinds of politi- cal moments. At university in Milan, I saw the beginning of the Italian campus occupations well before the May 1968 student protests in Paris. Occupation is a totally utopian idea, but what’s wrong with that? When you have this sort of attitude at 24, believe me, it never goes away. You grow up with this idea that beauty can change the world. This is something that everybody must understand.

There’s another element that’s totally irrational. I grew up in Genoa, Italy, a city of beauty. Once you go to the sea and harbor, you start to feel the essence of a language: the water, the mobility and lightness of the harbor, the fact that in a harbor nothing remains the same and everything keeps changing.

My growth, or my career, was linear. I started as a builder. Then I began to understand what being a builder meant. I came to understand that architecture is about building emotion. The architect is there to observe and recognize societal changes, and to celebrate or represent that in construction.  

So this is where politics comes in to architecture.

Of course. The invention of politics and democracy was in Greece. What did the elected people swear when they were elected? They addressed the people of Athens, saying, “I promise to give back Athens to you more beautiful than you gave it to me.” That’s a beautiful intention. Doing some- thing good, making a city a better place, means to make it more beautiful.

Which is often easier said than done.

Somebody has got to do that dirty job, and who does that sort of thing? Teenagers. In the case of Centre Pompidou, Richard Rogers and I weren’t teenagers—I was 33, he was 36—but we were bad boys with bad man- ners. We actually didn’t change the world of museums; we celebrated the need for change, and then everything changed. If you’re not stupid, you find yourself, as an architect, in a situation in which you don’t change the world, but you are there to witness or testify to the change.

You’ve done many museums over the years. So far, 21 have been built and four are currently under construction.

Let me just say that I’m not a museum builder by definition. If you go around my office here, you’ll see the new Whitney, which is under construction just across the street. But with SOM we’re also doing the new Manhattanville campus for Columbia University. What I can say is that I much prefer public buildings. It’s not because they’re more chic or more important; it’s because they make a town a better place to live in. They’re a fertilizing element. They become places of civic life, places where you share value, where the beautiful, ceremonial ritual of being and staying together takes shape.

One of your new museums is the Kimbell pavilion in Fort Worth, which is the fourth arts building you’ve designed in Texas. That’s a lot of projects in one state for an Italian architect. What’s your relationship with Texas?

It’s a special relationship that started a long time ago with Dominique de Menil. I became almost Texan. My youngest son, Giorgio, was born in Texas in ’99. He’ll say, “I’m Italian, but I’m Texan.” Cities like Houston, Dallas, and Fort Worth are places where doing work is fertilizing. That’s what Dominique de Menil wanted to do with my first job in Texas. She had been working for 30 years in an area of Houston, buying and transform- ing little houses, and that became part of the idea for the Menil Collection project. The entire institution was done to make Houston a better place.

Then Ray Nasher came to me. He wanted the same thing in Dallas. He said, “I want to make Dallas famous not just for the TV show and the tragedy”—the Kennedy shooting. He wanted to make Dallas famous for art. He was extremely generous. He bought the land and said, “I don’t need a building; I want to make a garden.”

In recent years, I’ve visited Texas a number of times each year. This Easter, when we take a little vacation, my wife and Giorgio will go to Texas with me.

In the case of the Kimbell, you had to add to or build around an already existing building by Louis Kahn, whom you once worked for.

That’s right. I worked for him in ’68, ’69, a very short time.

What was your approach to the Kimbell project? It must have been a challenge to build alongside Kahn’s structure.

It took me some time to understand. I was told that the Kahn building was untouchable. Adding to the original master plan was difficult, so the only solution was to do something else. I started to think about designing another building across the street. Then I thought, What about putting the new building at a certain distance, in dialogue with Kahn’s?

In some ways, the new pavilion is the opposite of Kahn’s. It’s open, it’s accessible. It’s actually there to show Kahn’s building. We struggled a lot when we were designing it. We measured the distance for where we wanted it—too far, too close. Then we started to find the solution.

The client was fantastic. Clients are so important. A good client doesn’t tell you to do what you want. A good client is someone who struggles together with you. And a good client is someone who trusts you—if you’re trustable.  

Did your experience in Kahn’s office inform some of the decisions you made with the Kimbell project?

No. When I was in Kahn’s office, I was working on the fifth floor on only one job: a factory in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for Olivetti-Underwood type- writers. The reason I was in Kahn’s office was that, for a short time, I was in a class taught by Robert Le Ricolais at the University of Pennsylvania, researching lightweight structures—my passion. I was assisting Ricolais, breaking cables, doing funny things like that. Kahn and I had met a number of times at Ricolais’s house on campus, and one day he asked me to come over to his office. So I went there, started to sketch. I loved Kahn, that little man who was so strong, so persistent, so devoted.

What does it mean to you to be in dialogue with his Kimbell building?

My building complements what Kahn’s does. His building is introverted; mine is extroverted. We didn’t destroy the lawn. It’s big enough to play Frisbee on, to enjoy, to eat sandwiches on. The new building flies on the ground.

The Kimbell named the pavilion after you, to differentiate it from the Kahn structure and to honor you.

Yeah, so that it’s absolutely unique. I’m mad about that. But anyway, the pavilion is just a shelter, and when you look east, you see Kahn’s building. For me, it’s absolutely evident that it’s a natural observation point for the Kahn building and for the lawn. The idea was to make it one campus, and the lawn was a kind of roofless room in between the two. When this enters into the day-to-day life of Fort Worth, the two buildings work in synchrony.

In some projects, you have to be extremely careful. You don’t have to limit your creativity; you just have to apply your creativity in a different way.

You were likening architecture to poetry earlier—

[The Italian actor Roberto Benigni, a friend of Piano’s, bursts into the confer- ence room and says, “Renzo! Ciao!” Piano leaves with Benigni and returns several minutes later to finish the interview.]

Do you view yourself as a poet and your buildings as your poems?

My buildings are like children. I keep returning to them, and they never go away. Even one in the middle of nowhere—like the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre in New Caledonia, an island in the Pacific—I go to every five or so years.

So it’s like visiting your kids.

Yes! Buildings need love. You care that your kids stay active. That’s why I go visit them. It’s moral. But it’s also passion. I’m not asked to do it, but I do. In New York, for example, I have the Morgan Library and the New York Times Building, and I visit them often.

And now, outside this window, is your firm’s soon-to-be-born Whitney Museum building.

You know what happened? The Whitney client asked me to come see the site, and I did. It was a great site, in the middle of the Meatpacking District, which is where the Whitney should be—it’s near where the museum started in Greenwich Village. I saw this building across the street said,

“That’s where I want my office.” So I called the landlord and got the office and the Whitney job on the same day.