Magazine article The New Yorker

Civic Duty

Magazine article The New Yorker

Civic Duty

Article excerpt

CIVIC DUTY

The architect Renzo Piano has offices in Genoa, where he grew up; in Paris, where he currently lives; and in New York, where he is perhaps best known for having designed the Times Building, on Eighth Avenue. Piano spends a lot of time in New York--among his current projects is the new Columbia University campus that's going up in West Harlem--and he was in the city when he got a call, a year and a half ago, from Italy's President, Giorgio Napolitano. Napolitano wanted to appoint Piano a "senator for life." The job comes with a salary and a vote in the Italian Senate, and since it's "for life" there are no pesky reelection campaigns. Was Piano interested? He was taken aback.

"For some funny reason, you don't understand that you are aging," Piano said the other day, in Rome. "So when President Napolitano called me, I said, 'But I'm too young!' And he laughed over the phone, and he said, 'No, you are not too young.' "

Piano, who is seventy-seven, was sitting in his Senate office in the Palazzo Giustiniani, around the corner from the Pantheon. The room is almost entirely taken up by a large round table, and its walls are covered with drawings and plans. As soon as Piano became a senator, he handed over the office, along with his government salary, to six much younger architects and asked them to come up with ways to improve the periferie --the often run-down neighborhoods that ring Rome and Italy's other major cities. The six were about to present their first year's worth of work to the public, which was why Piano was in the capital.

"In the nineteen-sixties and seventies, the big challenge--in Europe certainly, but everywhere--was to establish as a principle that historic centers have to be preserved," he went on. "But in the two-thousands--probably for the next three, four, five decades--the real challenge is to transform the periphery. If we fail in doing this, it will be a real tragedy."

Much as recent immigrants in France are shunted to the banlieues , in Italy they are pushed into the periferie . As immigration to Europe has soared, so, too, have tensions; in November, riot police were dispatched to Tor Sapienza, a neighborhood on the eastern edge of Rome, after residents attacked an immigrant center there. …

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