When I was in Chicago to check out the new Modern Wing of the Art Institute I sat down for a talk with Renzo Piano, who designed it — and half the other new museums in the U.S., or at least it feels that way.
LACAYO: Renzo, it seems like every few months you premiere a new project somewhere.
PIANO: If you compare what we do to what other offices do, we do very little. But the point is we do only good things, interesting commissions.
LACAYO: You started working on this project about ten years ago. Architecture changed a lot during that period. It became a lot more free wheeling, freer in form. Did your own thinking about architecture, or just about this building, evolve much during those years?
PIANO: Sometimes I feel like one of those old people who keep going like this. [He gestures in a straight line.] While architecture keeps going up and down, up and down. In my career, and it’s now close to fifty years, there was the rise of post-Modernism, then Deconstruction, and then, and then — it’s like waves. But I feel like I just go in a straight line, because I’m still strongly connected to the idea that in architecture your first job is to provide good, solid, safe shelter for human beings. I like that someone has said that “Fantasy is great, it’s like marmalade. It’s good in little amounts, and especially if you spread it on a good piece of bread.” In architecture you have to start from something very solid.
LACAYO: You’ve talked about the Modern Wing in terms of “fragility.” What do you mean by that?
PIANO: The fact that the building is not massive, that it’s been broken down, fragmented. When a building “breathes”, when it’s not a solid piece of something, I use “fragility” to describe it in a positive sense.
LACAYO: I’m struck by how many of your buildings have a strong upward diagonal somewhere that plays against the stable rectangles. The Modern Wing has a pedestrian bridge that starts at ground level in Millennium Park and slopes upward to the sculpture terrace on the roof.
The entire Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center that you’re designing for Athens is set within a manmade sloping site.
You have the big escalators on the exterior of the Pompidou Center. The planted “green roof” of the California Academy of Sciences is basically a series of hillsides on top of a Cartesian box. For that matter your entire studio in Genoa is built down a slope. I’m reminded that Genoa, where you grew up, is a hillside city like San Francisco, a city of sloping streets, and I wonder sometimes if that seeped into your unconscious.
PIANO: One thing for sure, I love movement. That [freestanding] diagonal stairway in the Griffin Court [of the Modern Wing], where you can see through to the courtyard, is about movement, the dynamic perception of the building. I like the idea that when you are working with two dimensions you have to start working with other dimensions, and one other dimension is movement.
LACAYO: Another one of your upcoming projects is an addition to Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Kahn was one of the greatest 20th century architects and the Kimbell is one of his finest buildings. I know your addition won’t be joined physically to the original building, but it will be very nearby. You’ve made additions to some nice buildings before but never one as venerated as this. Does that change how you approach the project?
PIANO Context for me is everything. I think sometimes that freedom is a very bad idea. Not political or social freedom, but architectural freedom, freedom from everything, a tabula rasa. It gets you in trouble. I always look for something to grab on to in a job. And when fate gives you something to “grab” that’s very strong, that’s not bad. It gives you a solid element.
When I think about the Kimbell — I love that building, it’s a jewel. I spent six months trying to find the right distance from the Kimbell to site the addition. When the context is so strong and meaningful, in some ways you are more in trouble, because the challenges are bigger. But in some ways you are better off.