Q+A – Renzo Piano

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Shuttling between offices in Paris and Genoa, the 66-year-old Renzo Piano presides over one of the busiest and most highly regarded architectural practices in the world: Renzo Piano Building Workshop, or RPBW. Piano first earned an international reputation with the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, which he designed with Richard Rogers in 1979. Since then his work has become less edgy, perhaps, but no less inventive, even as it stretches to massive scale, as in the case of Kansai Airport in Japan (1994), the biggest airport in the world.

Piano’s design for the Menil Collection in Houston has been a sort of pilgrimage site for his fans since it opened in 1987, but until recently he hadn’t done much other work in the U.S. That changed in the 1990s, when RPBW won a number of American commissions, including three forthcoming in Manhattan: a new 53-story headquarters for The New York Times, an addition to the Morgan Library, and a master plan for an extension of the Columbia University campus. In addition, his Nasher Sculpture Center, a glass-and-travertine structure that combines an outdoor sculpture garden and a two-story museum, opened last fall in downtown Dallas.

Why do you call your firm the “Building Workshop”?

I am very keen about keeping sight of the whole process-the piece-by-piece approach, the pleasure of manipulating materials. It’s a kind of homage to my family. I come from builders-three or four generations back.

How do you maintain that connection to craft, to the hands-on approach, when you’re working on such a large scale? Is it more a rhetorical emphasis than a literal one?

The office is not as large as you might think. It’s about 100 people, and has been for a long time. Maybe 20 have been working there for more than 30 years. It’s a bit like being married to 20 different people at the same time. When we talk, we don’t even have to finish phrases. And there is no hierarchy in the way we do things, no separation between people working on concept and people working on construction. I’m not the kind of architect who’s just sketching and then disappearing. I spend from morning to night working on everything, from the nuts and bolts to the big principles.

The Nasher Sculpture Center is an unusual commission in the sense that Ray Nasher decided to create a building from scratch to house his sculpture rather than donating the collection to a museum. How did you wind up getting the job?

I met Ray Nasher six years ago at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, Switzerland [a RPBW building that opened in 1997]. We were having a meal together and started to talk about his plans for his collection. I found his ideas completely mad-mad in the good sense of the word: to buy a piece of land in the middle of Dallas and instead of making a couple of skyscrapers, to make a sculpture garden. This idea seemed completely illogical, but beautiful, especially because it’s not about putting art in a kind of paradise, but in the middle of noisy, normal life.

The screen on the roof is probably the most striking feature of the museum’s design. How does it work?

It consists of pieces designed to take in light from the north [which is less damaging to art than southern light]. They were modeled and prototyped first in wax, then wood, then plastic, and finally cast in aluminum. So it’s hard to say whether this is a piece of industrial design or architecture-for me the separation has always been small, and now it’s getting even smaller. In the case of the Nasher building, this piece was repeated something like 50,000 times to get the roof. It’s like the art-world concept of the multiple: You repeat the same artwork a number of times, and in some ways the repetition becomes more meaningful than the original. The idea is that architecture is made by the accretion.

You’re doing several projects now in New York, which can be a headache for any architect.

I’m quite happy to be working in the city, but to have the exposure you get in New York you have to be ready to fight and defend your scheme. You have to put a lot of energy into the ideas, and then spend three times as much energy to get them done. You have to put your nose in everything: in the politics of the city, the history of the city. But I like this aspect. Without it you are talking about architecture that is pure form, purely an academic exercise. This messiness, this fighting, is what produces good architecture.

Which architects and designers have had the greatest influence on you?

Oh, there are too many to name. Jean Prouve was a great mentor. I was lucky enough to know Ray Eames, and though I never met Charles, they were both a great influence. Frank Lloyd Wright-a fantastic sense of space and detail. I love the American Mies. Louis Sullivan. And Larry Halperin, whose work is too complex to just call him a landscape artist. Richard Meier is a friend. And Frank Gehry-I just had dinner with Frank 10 days ago. We are very different-we come to architecture from completely opposite directions. I think he starts from the irrational and then becomes more rational. I start with the rational and become more irrational.

Christopher Hawthorne is a freelance architecture and design writer based in the Bay Area. He contributes regularly to The New York Times, Metropolis, and Slate.