Designing a ‘community’ for Faliro Delta

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.»

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