Nothing about Renzo Piano is what you?d expect. The man who has undertaken the task of changing our lives, by decisively altering Attica?s urban landscape, swears, indirectly yet clearly, that ?he will give back a city more beautiful than the one he initially encountered,? paraphrasing the pledge of the Athenian hoplites in antiquity. From 34 rue des Archives in the Marais, in the heart of Paris, he is designing the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center at the Faliro Delta, which includes the National Library, the National Opera House and a spectacular park. Construction will begin in late 2011. The revised project budget comes to 566 million euros. Piano is also working with the Greek government to prepare the architectural plans for the development of the Faliro Delta, a project which is funded separately by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation as well.
One of the first things the Italian architect — one of the world?s greatest — and father of four (aged from 45 to 11 years old) brings up during our long meeting is that he was taught Ancient Greek and Latin at high school in Genoa. He proves it by analyzing in depth the phrase ?kalos kagathos? (the good and the beautiful), on which he bases his philosophy of life, while serving a light lunch prepared at his office, the Renzo Piano Building Workshop. ?The beautiful, in itself, may be something unreal, ornamental, but as soon as you combine it with the good it becomes both real and powerful. As an architect, this is what you need to bear in mind: When you work in a city, you must make it better in the sense of beautiful and good.?
Looking at the building?s facade, you could mistake it for the workshop of Geppetto,Pinocchio?s carpenter creator. Glass allows passers-by to watch the traffic in a small part of the interior, which creates the impression of a well-organized playground. Inside the spacious building, approximately 80 employees comprise the Paris office. There is a similar one in Genoa and another smaller one in New York. Piano works in all three but in the last 35 years, since the creation of the Centre Georges Pompidou (which he designed in partnership with his colleague Richard Rogers, among others) he essentially lives next door to it. ?This city holds me hostage with Beaubourg,? he confesses and adds, happily, that it was the only place US President Barack Obama saw during an official visit to Paris. ?Not Versailles, not the Louvre, but Beaubourg.?
Even though he feels more French now, Piano expresses great concern for his first home, Italy. ?Money is being taken away from art. Many people do not understand the value of beauty and the fact that art can change the world. Painting, literature and cinema can penetrate our conscience, and have the capacity to transform people and make them better. They don?t necessarily create artists, but people. Better lawyers, better scientists, better politicians. Art puts a tiny spark in people?s eyes which you can recognize. The people currently governing Italy don?t understand these values. They?re idiots… But it doesn?t matter. It takes more than 20 years to kill a country. It may even take a century. But I continue to worry.?
After much time contemplating the culture of ancient Greece and the ?Agora,? a meeting place included in his project, to bring our conversation back round to architecture, I remind Piano of Churchill?s phrase: ?We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.? He remarks that that is precisely the reason cities resemble their residents, and residents resemble their cities. ?The Genoans, for example, are very introverted, quiet. The city itself is introverted, almost mystical as well. There exists symmetry between the buildings and the people. One creates the other. You don?t know what comes first: the people or the buildings. Architects must know how to listen to people. That?s fundamental. One may argue that the same applies to a writer. But architects must be able to know how to pick out the good voices. As you know, sometimes you have 20 people talking at you, but only one is of any interest; the one with the lowest voice.?
Making the best of a bad thing and turning it into an opportunity
For Renzo Piano, the National Library is the most important building; mostly because, it?s arriving so late in the life of the city. ?But this delay may mean that we now have the chance to do the right thing; because libraries today are completely different from those of 50 years ago. Books still play the leading role, of course always. But there is also a connection to the rest of the world through the Internet.?
But we wasted half a century…
That?s the bad news. The good news is that now we can do the right thing. Changes in libraries have been cataclysmic within the last century. One thing is certain: We are not designing a library for only the specialists to come and study. Libraries are popular places these days, centers of knowledge but also of reception. The intervention on the city is social, functional, and perhaps even architectural. But it is mostly a social and functional intervention. This project is a very important gift to the city. Athens will be different afterward. It will take off into the future?
Have you given any thought to the balance of your project in relation to the Parthenon?
To do what I do requires a little dosage of madness, or you might be driven to suicide! I?ve certainly given it a lot of thought. Not in terms of competition. That would be ridiculous. The only way for us to exist is to be contemporary. We are children of our time. It?s a privilege and a problem, simultaneously. Architecture tells the tale of your time. What we call ?vision.? You ask me about the relationship with the Parthenon. All I can say is that they were one thing, and we are another. We must carry ourselves with dignity. [He avoided commenting on the New Acropolis Museum. ?Let?s stop here, or I?ll need to resort to elegant platitudes.?]
Would you say there is an architectural star system, a form of globalization of architecture?
Globalization is not necessarily a negative concept. It helps with knowledge, education, the sharing of information. If you?re an idiot, you?re an idiot, whether it be locally or globally. On the other hand, the challenge is rising together with the interest. There is something stereotypical in the way we deal with globalization. When we finish this discussion and I return to my office, I?m completely local. And there is another thing: silence. What I hold dearly is the fact that silence is a very important part of life. There is no need to talk all the time, to always be in a hurry. You can be quiet and wait.
Contact with reality
We continue our conversation, undisturbed, in the building?s bright atrium. The staff around us have already gone to and returned from their lunch breaks. Our own plates lie almost untouched. ?I have great respect for writers. For the effort they make, throughout their lives, to draw and to grab from reality. I was very happy that Mario Vargas Llosa received the Nobel Prize. He?s a very good friend of mine. I?ve watched him for years now, how he works, collecting moments and a reality which he then needs to transform. The past of the great Italian art is exactly there, in that contact with reality, the pure power of need. Architecture is based on that power as well, and it draws inspiration from it. It depends on gravity, on earthquakes. And you need to respond to those needs, as an architect. Thank God, that?s not enough. You must also respond to desires and to dreams.?
To what extent is your final design limited by practical difficulties?
It is not limited, it adapts to them. There?s a difference. The suggestion of something limited has negative connotations. Reality is an opportunity. If you want, for example, to build something monumental and you view the energy issue as a problem, you will fail. You need to look at energy as a source of inspiration. That?s exactly what we?re doing with the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center. We are turning the building into a big park. We are placing the building under the park so that it doesn?t consume energy, and we are installing a huge solar panel on the green roof. The roof is a living thing, not an isolated entity. It ?sings? the need for energy; it isn?t burdened by it, nor does it suffer because of this need. Last year, I completed a project in San Francisco, the California Academy of Sciences. The building is not air-conditioned. I think it?s the first building of that size in the US without air-conditioning. We created an undulating roof with plants, local species. Poetry merged with reality. It was necessary to consume less energy. But the need created an opportunity, because the roof became part of the landscape. People enjoy spending time there and birds have gradually begun to arrive. Thus, nature, the quest for an energy solution and pleasure came together; life and beauty, happened at once. We must therefore turn need into opportunity. It is fundamental. It is yet another part of ?the good and the beautiful.?
What is your objective with the Stavros Niarchos Foundation? Is it to create a signature building?
?Signature building? has a bad ring to it. It evokes formalistic images. But architecture is an adventure. It?s like you writing an article and focusing on form rather than content.
Like a deeply academic film.
Exactly. Academic is the right word. It is the beast that drags itself around and threatens mainly the people who do creative work. I mean formalism, adapting to other people?s tastes. Architecture is not fashion. It doesn?t last five months or five years but… 5,000 years. That?s the aspiration of architecture. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation proposal is an opportunity for Athens to flex its muscles. It may seem to you narcissistic and wrong, but it?s also true. Beaubourg is based on appearance, but this appearance resulted from the need to build a different venue for art in the early 70s. A friendly place, which doesn?t frighten people off. We were in our mid-30s, ?bad boys,? and we didn?t want to create something unforgettable but a new relationship between art, culture and people, and to break the barrier of awe, of terror projected, until then, by museums with their monumental structures. We wanted to create something good and beautiful as well. And that is also our intention for Faliro, for the Opera, the Library, the Agora and the park. The park will be one of the largest and most beautiful in Athens. But there will also be the reading room, high up, with a view of the city and the sea, the endlessness of the sea. We want to create a meeting place, a place for people, and a place that will take the fear away and create a community of feelings, the belief that we share the same things, regardless of our color and background, a place of culture.
Would you say that architects need to be connected, somehow, to the city for which they design? What?s your relationship with Athens?
It?s fundamental. It?s hard for me to separate Athens from Greece, which I know well as a yachtsman, and I love. It was in the late 70s or early 80s, if I?m not mistaken, that Melina Mercouri and Andreas Papandreou invited me. I took part in the development of the Shipyard (Arsenali) at the Venetian port of Hania, with the support of UNESCO. But knowing something is not enough. You must also be able to metabolize it.
1937: Renzo Piano is born in the Italian city of Genoa.
1964: He graduates from the School of Architecture of the Polytechnic School of Milan and begins experimenting with lightweight structures.
1977: Together with Richard Rogers, he undertakes to design the Centre Georges Pompidou (Beaubourg), the emblematic cultural center of Paris.
1981: He creates the Renzo Piano Building Workshop in three cities: Paris, Genoa, New York.
1985: He begins the redevelopment of the old port of Genoa, a project that is completed in 2001.
1992: He begins the reconstruction of Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, which is completed in 2000.
1998: Winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize.
2002: Winner of the UIA Gold Medal. His major project, the Parco della Musica Auditorium in Rome, is inaugurated during the same year.
2005: Paul Klee Center in Bern.
2006: Renovation and expansion of the Morgan Library in New York.
2008: American Institute of Architects? Gold Medal.