Architecture Renaissance Man: An Interview with Renzo Piano

By Grenier, Cynthia | The World and I, October 1998 | Go to article overview
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Architecture Renaissance Man: An Interview with Renzo Piano


Grenier, Cynthia, The World and I


This year's winner of the prestigious Pritzker Prize tells how he has translated a love of art, architecture, and engineering into an astounding variety of projects around the globe.

Renzo Piano is the twenty-first architect to be honored with the Pritzker Architecture Prize. The profession's highest distinction, it is bestowed with a bronze medallion and a $100,000 grant. In celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the Pritzker, the formal presentation was made at a ceremony hosted by President and Mrs. Clinton at the White House on June 17.

The jury citation describes Piano's architecture as a "rare melding of art, architecture, and engineering in a truly remarkable synthesis." Prodigiously energetic as well as talented, he has left his mark around the globe. What's more, his projects include not only buildings--which range from homes to apartments, offices to shopping centers, museums, factories, workshops and studios, airline and railway terminals, expositions, and theaters and churches--but also bridges, ships, boats, and cars, as well as city-planning projects, major renovations, and reconstructions. In addition, in his native Italy he stars in a television program dedicated to architecture.

Born into a family of builders (his grandfather, father, four uncles, and a brother were all contractors) in Genoa, Italy, sixty-two years ago, Piano chose architecture instead. He studied at the Milan Polytechnic Architecture School, and upon graduation he worked in his father's construction company, designing under the guidance of Franco Albini.

Piano's first major commission came in 1969: designing the Italian Industry Pavilion at Expo '70 in Osaka, Japan. The Expo project drew much favorable attention, including that of an English architect, Richard Rogers. The two young men found they had much in common, and when an engineering firm suggested they team up and enter the international competition for the Georges Pompidou Center (popularly known as the Beaubourg) in Paris, they did--and won.

Their collaboration resulted in a building over a million square feet in size, set in the heart of seventeenth-century Paris and devoted to the figurative arts, music, industrial design, and literature. Over 150 million people have visited the center since it opened in 1977, making it a success not just locally but internationally. Piano has never looked back. In 1980 he opened his own firm, the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, which employs some hundred people in Paris, Genoa, and Berlin.

Cynthia Grenier, contributing editor to THE WORLD & I's Arts section, conducted this interview by phone with Renzo Piano, who spoke from his Genoa home, Punta Nave (Ship Rock), perched on rocks jutting out into the sea. It is here, as Piano puts it, "I find calm, silence, and concentration-all things that are essential to my personal way of working." Piano had just returned a few days earlier from the inauguration of the Tjibaou Cultural Center in Noumea, New Caledonia, a work he describes as "the most reckless of my many ventures into other fields."

The World & I: You seem to have had a most extraordinary career.

Renzo Piano: Well, when you're 60 [he says with a self-deprecatory laugh], and you've been working in your profession for more than thirty years...

W&I You're just back from the inauguration of your latest work?

Piano: Yes, the new cultural center in Noumea in New Caledonia, not far from New Zealand and Australia. Building a structure like that, you risk falling into the picaresque. [The concept is a real village composed of ten different-sized buildings, the largest being nine stories high.] But you have to run some risks--it's part of the profession. It was quite risky to create buildings like that--entirely of wood. They are a mix between modem architecture and traditional. The exterior reflects the traditional. The interiors are very modern, of course.

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