Renzo Piano of Italy is the 1998 Laureate of the Pritzker Architecture Prize
Los Angeles, CA—Renzo Piano, a 60-year-old Italian architect who builds all over the world, has been named the 1998 Laureate of the Pritzker Architecture Prize. In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the prize, the formal presentation will be made at a ceremony hosted by President and Mrs. Clinton at The White House on June 17.
In making the announcement, Jay A. Pritzker, president of The Hyatt Foundation, which established the award in 1979, quoted from the jury’s citation which describes Piano’s architecture as a “rare melding of art, architecture, and engineering in a truly remarkable synthesis.” Piano is the twenty-first architect in the world to be selected for his profession’s highest honor which bestows a $100,000 grant and a bronze medallion. He is the second Italian to become a Pritzker Laureate, the first being the late Aldo Rossi, who was honored in 1990.
Piano first achieved international fame for the Centre George Pompidou in Paris completed in 1978, a collaborative effort with another young architect from England, Richard Rogers. Since then, Piano has gone on to higher critical acclaim for a much wider range of building types with greater diversity and subtlety that include among many others, the Menil Museum and its Cy Twombly addition in Houston, and the Beyeler Museum in Basel, Switzerland.
On a grand scale, he designed a spectacular soccer stadium for his native Italy in Bari, an eye-popping shopping center called Bercy in Paris that has been likened to a giant space ship that has just landed. Perhaps one of his most remarkable projects is the Kansai Air Terminal, the world’s largest, built on a man-made island in Osaka Bay, Japan.
Born and raised in Genoa, Italy, Piano divides his time between a home there and another in Paris when he is not traveling to the many world-wide sites of his projects. He currently is working in Berlin on the Potsdamer Platz redevelopment; in Sydney, Australia on a mixed use tower; in New Caledonia on a Cultural Center; with projects just beginning at Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church in Foggia, Italy; and other continuing projects in Rome, Paris and Stuttgart.
Pritzker Prize jury chairman, J. Carter Brown, commented, “Renzo Piano’s command of technology is that of a true virtuoso; yet he never allows it to command him. Deeply imbued with a sense of materials and a craftsman’s intuitive feel for what they can do, his architecture embodies a rare humanism.” And from fellow juror, author Ada Louise Huxtable, “Renzo Piano celebrates structure in a perfect union of technology and art.” From juror Charles Correa, a much honored architect from Bombay, India, comes the praise, “He brings to each project a great seriousness of purpose, combined with a lyrical understanding of materials (and how they might come together)-so that what emerges is an architecture of extraordinary clarity and finesse.” Juror Toshio Nakamura, editor and architectural writer from Japan, said, “Piano’s approach to design is always imaginative and inventive, technologically oriented, yet with the hand-crafter’s attention to detail. His capacity for architectural problem-solving tempered by a poetic sensibility has made possible his wide diversity of projects, from temporary exhibition halls to the world’s largest air terminal, from museums to apartments, and from factories to high rise towers.”
Bill Lacy, the executive director of the Pritzker Prize, quoted further from the jury citation which states, “Piano has, over three decades of his career, relentlessly searched for new dimensions in his structures, both literally and figuratively.”
Lacy, who is an architect himself and president of the State University of New York at Purchase, added, “Renzo Piano’s body of work is reminiscent of the Roman god Janus, represented by two conjoined heads facing in opposite directions, one looking forward, the other backward. This year’s Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate embodies that dichotomy. It was appropriate on this occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the Prize, to select an architect whose work is such an apt representation of the purpose of the prize.”
Renzo Piano is a man whose work is reinventing architecture in projects scattered around the world—from a Mixed Use Tower in Sydney, Australia to the mile-long Kansai Air Terminal on a man-made island in Osaka Bay, Japan to the master plan for the reconstruction of Potsdamer Platz in Berlin or the Beyeler Foundation Museum in Basel, Switzerland. Even this skip around the globe does not indicate the full range or enormous output of this prodigious architect. Renzo Piano’s projects include not only buildings that range from homes to apartments, offices to shopping centers, museums, factories, workshops and studios, airline and railway terminals, expositions, theatres and churches; but also bridges, ships, boats, and cars, as well as city planning projects, major renovations and reconstructions, and even television star of a program on architecture.
He was born into a family of builders in Genoa, Italy in 1937. His grandfather, his father, four uncles and a brother were all contractors, and he admits, he should have been one too, but instead chose architecture. Piano declares his architecture has an important legacy—a passion for construction, or more pointedly, a culture of doing, resulting from growing up in a family of builders.
He was seventeen when he approached his father with the idea of going to architecture school. “Why do you want to be just an architect? You can be a builder,” was his father’s response that has never been forgotten. Perhaps that is the reason for the name Renzo Piano Building Workshop, rather than Piano Architects & Associates. Explains Piano, “We not only design things there, but we also make things, and test them. Keeping some of the action together with the conception makes me feel a little less like a traitor to my family. The name is also a deliberate expression of the sense of collaboration and teamwork that permeates our work.” It was in 1980 that the Building Workshop was formed, and now has offices in Paris, Genoa and Berlin employing approximately a hundred people in the three locations.
Following his graduation from Milan Polytechnic Architecture School in 1964, he worked in his father’s construction company, designing under the guidance of Franco Albini. In addition to his 15th century idol, Brunelleschi, Piano pays homage to Jean Prouvé‚ of France with whom he formed a friendship during the time (1965-70) that he worked in the offices of Louis Kahn in Philadelphia and Z. S. Makowsky in London. Two other important influences he acknowledges were Buckminster Fuller and Pier Luigi Nervi, albeit from afar.
While still studying in Milan, he married a girl he had known from school days in Genoa, Magda Arduino. Their first child, Carlo, was born in 1965. He is now a journalist. Another son followed three years later, Matteo, who is an independent industrial designer; and a third child, daughter Lia, now 25, is pursuing a career in architecture.
His first important commission was in 1969 to design the Italian Industry Pavilion at Expo ‘70 in Osaka. His late brother, Ermanno, built and installed the pavilion and a number of other projects before his premature death in 1993.
The Expo project attracted much favorable attention, including that of another young architect named Richard Rogers, who although born in Florence was English. The two architects found that they had a great deal in common and when an engineering firm suggested that they work together and enter the international competition for the Georges Pompidou Center (also known as Beaubourg) in Paris; they did and won.
The result was a hundred thousand square meters (over a million square feet) in the heart of Paris, devoted to the figurative arts, music, industrial design, and literature. In the two decades since it opened, over a 150,000,000 people have visited it, averaging more than 25,000 people per day—an overwhelming success—both with the people of Paris and the international media. Both Rogers and Piano became recognizable names throughout the world.
Described often as “high tech,” Piano prefers other modifiers. In his own words, “Beaubourg was intended to be a joyful urban machine, a creature that might have come from a Jules Verne book, or an unlikely looking ship in dry dock. Beaubourg is a provocation, an apt description of my feelings, but has no negative connotations as far as the quality of the design and the reasons behind it are concerned. Beaubourg is a double provocation: a challenge to academicism, but also a parody of the technological imagery of our time. To see it as high-tech is a misunderstanding.”
In the introduction to the book, Renzo Piano, Buildings and Projects 1971-1989, Pulitzer Prize winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote, “Like any artist who produces a celebrated work early in his career, Renzo Piano has in many ways been more confined than liberated by the Centre Beaubourg, known primarily as the architect who installed this high-tech spoof at monumental scale into the heart of Paris.” And then referring to more recent projects such as the Menil Collection museum in Houston, Texas; the 60,000 seat football stadium in Bari, Italy; and the multi-functional complex of the giant Fiat factory at Lingotto near Turin, Italy, Goldberger continues: “(there is) the presence in all of these projects of a light, tensile quality and an obvious love of technology. But where the expression of technology at Beaubourg was broad and more than a little satirical, in the buildings since Beaubourg, it has been straighter, quieter, and vastly more inventive.”
One of the casualties of the Beaubourg project, which required years of living in Paris, however, was Piano’s marriage. His wife preferred to live in Genoa, and so they separated. In 1989, he met Emilia (Milly) Rossato when she came to work for his Renzo Piano Building Workshop. They were married in 1992 by Jacques Chirac, then the Mayor of Paris who supported the construction of Beaubourg through many crises. They live in Paris next door to their office there, just a few blocks from Pompidou in the Marais district. In actual fact, they divide their time between Paris and Genoa, with frequent trips to his many projects around the world.
In 1995, Piano was called upon to renovate the Centre Georges Pompidou. The popularity of the place has taken its toll. The library and exhibition spaces are being expanded, and the public spaces reorganized. Plans call for a reopening on the eve of the new millennium, December 31, 1999, as Grand Beaubourg.
Two other projects closely related to the Beaubourg are the IRCAM Extension and the Reconstruction of the Atelier Brancusi, both on the same Centre Pompidou square. The former’s initials in French stand for Pierre Boulez’s Institute of Musical Research which is actually attached to the Pompidou. The need for the greatest possible soundproofing originally led IRCAM to excavate a space underneath the square for its various sound labs and studios. The only visible evidence that it was there was a glass ceiling and a few elements of the ventilation system. The need for more space, a desire to emphasize the institute’s role and image, prompted the extension which consists of a tower six stories above ground and three below. It fills an angle left between two existing buildings at the edge of the square.
When Constantin Brancusi died, his will left all his work – sculptures, drawing, paintings, photographs—to the French state on the condition that they remain in his studio. In the 1950’s the area occupied by his studio was demolished to make way for other things. Piano was given the task of rebuilding Atelier Brancusi on the square of Centre Pompidou. “What we did,” says Piano, “was reproduce the sensation of being surrounded by an explosion of art made up of many pieces in different stages of development.”
It was in 1982, that the now late Dominique Schlumberger de Menil, widow of John, contacted Piano to design a museum in Houston to house the 10,000 works of primitive and modern art in the Menil Collection. Completed in1986, it has achieved universal high praise, and is often cited as Piano’s finest work. Embodying the idea of a “museum village,” i.e. it is made up of several buildings, the construction is large, but not monumental, and rises no higher than its neighboring small houses. The walls are built of planks of wood attached to a metal framework.
Perhaps the most distinguishing aspect of the Menil Collection is the roof of the exhibition spaces, made up of repeating modular elements described as “leaves.” Each leaf is a very thin section of
reinforced concrete integrated with a steel lattice girder. They function as roof, ventilation and light control efficiently. In his book titled Logbook, Piano states, “Paradoxically, the Menil Collection with its great serenity, its calm, and its understatement, is far more ‘modern,’ scientifically speaking, than Beaubourg. The technological appearance of Beaubourg is parody. The technology used for the Menil Collection is even more advanced (in its structures, materials, systems of climate control), but it is not flaunted.”
Some five years later, Piano was called upon to make an addition to this museum village—a small (approximately 11,000 square feet) gallery to house a permanent exhibition of the pictures and sculptures of Cy Twombly. Built of modest materials, the Cy Twombly Gallery has an outer facing of ochre-toned concrete, the building is devoted entirely to exhibition space with floors of natural American oak. All the galleries in the building are illuminated by natural light (except the one in the center). The roof takes the form of a series of superimposed layers that filter the light. The top layer is a metal grating, then comes a layer of solar deflectors and a layer of fixed skylights. Immediately above the exhibition space is a fabric layer. All the systems for controlling the deflectors are electronic.
The year before he began work on the Houston de Menil Collection, he was hired to transform the Schlumberger industrial plant on the outskirts of Paris. The company made measurement systems for fluids, and including a device to detect the presence of oil underground. What were mechanical devices were being replaced by electronic ones. Piano’s plan called for the demolition of part of the old workshop, where a park was laid out over a parking facility with space for a thousand cars. Some of the original buildings were retained but restructured as offices and laboratories. Although the electronic plant in Paris and the Houston museum were totally unrelated, it is interesting to note that Mrs. Dominique de Menil was a member of the Schlumberger family of France before marrying and moving to Texas.
“While working on the Menil Collection in Texas,” Piano recalls, “we made a little machine—which we called a bit pompously, ‘the solar machine’—that would allow us in Genoa to find out the position of the sun in Houston. We also built one-to-ten scale models, which we put in the garden to study the diffusion of light. All the projects that come out of the Building Workshop have stories of similar experiments.”
Piano went on to relate that Brunelleschi, who is Piano’s favorite architect from history, studied the mechanism of the clock so that he could apply it to a system of great counterweights which in turn was used to raise the beams for the dome of the Florence Cathedral.
“Knowing how to do things not just with the head,” says Piano, “but with the hands as well: this might seem a programmatic and ideological goal. It is not. It is a way of safeguarding creative freedom. If you intend to use a material, a construction technique, or an architectural element in an unusual way, there is always a time when you hear yourself saying, ‘It can’t be done,’ simply because no one has ever tried before. But if you have actually tried, then you can keep going – and so you gain a degree of independence in design that you would not have otherwise.”
Reflecting on the building of the Centre Pompidou, Piano elaborated the point, “We had to make a structure out of pieces of cast metal. The entire French steel industry rose up in arms: it refused point-blank, saying that a structure like that wouldn’t stay up. But we were sure of our facts, and passed the order on to the German company Krupp. And so it was that the main structure of the Centre Pompidou was made in Germany, even if the girders had to be delivered at night, almost in secret. This was one case in which technique protected art. Our understanding of structures set free our capacity for expression.”
In 1979, Habitat, an educational television program was produced by RAI, the Italian government television network, starring Piano, who says, “We set out to explain to the non-specialist audience the principles of construction, a few simple experiments on structures and materials. I tried to get the message across not to be overawed by architecture, explaining that this century has produced impressive structures because it has developed fantastic machinery for building. But innovation in process does not necessarily entail high technology in construction. There is very little today that can bear comparison to the structural and formal research that went into a 15th century church.”
IBM called upon Piano to provide them with a Traveling Pavilion to visit 20 European cities to convey the marvels of new technology. They wanted it to be self-contained with a pavilion of its own that could be set up in urban parks. The Piano solution was made up of 34 arches, each consisting of six pyramidal elements of polycarbonate. When assembled, it was 48 meters (154 feet) long and six meters (20 feet) high. It was a great success, seen by a million and a half people.
The Lingotto Factory Conversion, begun in 1988 was another major project for Piano. Built in the 1920’s as a Fiat automobile manufacturing plant, it was Europe’s first and largest factory for mass production. Five hundred meters (almost 1000 yards or ten football fields) long, five stories high, with an auto test track on its roof, the building was an enormous part of the city of Turin. In the early 1980’s, the plant was retired. Of it, Piano says, “I believe that it is one of the great monuments of manufacturing, and is deserving of loving restoration, just as any great work of architecture.” It was also the first project in which Piano undertook urban space planning.
The plan was to provide a multifaceted future as a center for technology and trade fairs, university, park, exhibition and meeting space and auditorium, in fact a concert hall for an audience of 2000. A surprising addition to the structure was a “bubble” on the roof, literally a spherical room for high level meetings, totally transparent with a commanding view.
To celebrate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America, Genoa organized the Columbus International Exposition which Piano took on as a project to make lasting interventions of urban reclamation in the area of the old port. “This was a great opportunity,” says Piano, “to rescue the historic city from decay. Works of permanent value could be carried out that would remain and be useful when the expo was over.” His work included the restructuring and reconstruction of cotton warehouses (built in the 19th century), four bonded warehouses from the 17th century, and another recent warehouse, Millo. Several new constructions were an aquarium which has become one of Italy’s most popular attractions, the harbor office, and Bigo, described as a gigantic derrick that served as the symbol of the expo, and supported a tensile structure for festivities as well as a panoramic elevator ride.
Another major intervention for Piano has been the Cité‚ Internationale in Lyon, France. Some 15 hectares (37 acres) along the Rhone River which was an International Fair Ground is being turned into a mixed use complex that so far includes office buildings, conference centers, a museum of contemporary art, and will have a hotel, casino and multiscreen movie theatre. It is Piano’s first application of the “double skin” for buildings.
He explains it: “The protective finish of the buildings is provided by a terra-cotta covering that, as well as responding very well to the local climate, bestows a warm color and delicate texture on the buildings. The outer layer of the facing consists of glass panels. Some of these can be opened, turning on pivots like skylights. Between the two surfaces, a gap acts as a heat exchange, reducing energy loss. The reflections in the glass shells of the buildings cause the appearance of the constructions to change completely with variations in the strength, color and direction of light. Since all the buildings in the complex will be faced in this way, it will give the complex the unity (but not uniformity) that is necessary for the place to have a strong and distinctive character.
San Nicola Stadium in Bari, Italy was built for the World Soccer Championships of 1990. “The stadium was built of one basic material, concrete, and the contribution of the late Peter Rice, a structural engineer for Ove Arup & Partners, was essential,” says Piano….
Renzo Piano’s architecture reflects that rare melding of art, architecture, and engineering in a truly remarkable synthesis, making his intellectual curiosity and problem-solving techniques as broad and far ranging as those earlier masters of his native land, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. While his work embraces the most current technology of this era, his roots are clearly in the classic Italian philosophy and tradition. Equally at ease with historical antecedents, as well as the latest technology, he is also intensely concerned with issues of habitability and sustainable architecture in a constantly changing world.
The array of buildings by Renzo Piano is staggering in scope and comprehensive in the diversity of scale, material and form. He is truly an architect whose sensibilities represent the widest range of this and earlier centuries-informed by the modern masters that preceded him, reaching back even to the fifteenth century of Brunelleschi-he has remained true to the concept that the architect must maintain command over the building process from design to built work. Valuing craftsmanship, not just of the hand, but also of the computer, Piano has great sensitivity for his materials, whether using glass, metal, masonry or wood. Such concepts, values and sensitivities are not surprising for someone whose father, uncles and grandfather were all builders.
By choosing a career as an architect rather than contractor, he may have broken with a family tradition in one sense, but in fact, he has enhanced that tradition in ways his forebears could only have imagined.
Always restless and inventive, Piano has, over three decades of his career, relentlessly searched for new dimensions in his structures, both literally and figuratively. His early Pompidou Centre in Paris, which brought the first international recognition of his talent and promise, could have been a stylistic end in itself. Instead Piano persevered with unrelenting experimentation that resulted in subsequent works that included the Houston Menil Museum along with its exquisite Cy Twombly addition, and the more recent Beyeler Museum in Switzerland. These three museums show his unerring sensitivity for site, context and a remarkable mastery of form, shape and space.
Piano proved himself a master of the gigantic project with Kansai, the world’s largest air terminal in Osaka Bay, Japan, and again with the imposing Bercy Shopping Center in Paris, as well as a massive and beautiful National Science Museum in Amsterdam. His soccer stadium in Bari, Italy is like no other in the world, with its great swaths of blue sky interrupting the usual monotony of stadia seating.
His versatility is displayed further in such projects as the beautiful sweep of a nearly one thousand foot long bridge that curves across Ushibuka Bay in Southern Japan; again with the design of a 70,000-ton luxury ocean liner; an automobile; and with his own hillside-hugging transparent workshop. All of his works confirm his place in the annals of architecture history, and the future holds even greater promise.
The Pritzker Architecture Prize applauds Renzo Piano’s work in redefining modern and post-modern architecture. His interventions, contributions, and continued explorations to solve contemporary problems in a technological age, add to the definition of the art of architecture.
Mr. President, Mrs. Clinton, Mr. and Mrs. Pritzker, it is naturally a great honor for me to be awarded the 1998 Pritzker Prize. And first of all I would like to thank the members of the jury. They have taken on a tremendous responsibility in opening the doors of the temple to someone like me who has always lived outside of it.
I am very happy, proud and grateful to have been nominated architect of the year—whatever that means. It does sound a bit odd, this year’s best-seller, the season’s hit, the record of the month. Does this mean that architects have a sell-by date; that you throw away the architect at the end of the year?
But what exactly is an architect? What is architecture? I have been in this trade for thirty years and I am only just beginning to understand what it is. Firstly, architecture is a service, in the most literal sense of the term. It is an art that produces things that serve a purpose. But it is also a socially dangerous art, because it is an imposed art. You can put down a bad book; you can avoid listening to bad music; but you cannot miss the ugly tower block opposite your house. Architecture imposes total immersion in ugliness; it does not give the user a chance. And this is a serious responsibility—for now and for future generations. And architecture is an ancient profession, perhaps the world’s oldest; or the second oldest if you prefer, a little like hunting, fishing, farming, exploring the seas. These are man’s original activities from which all others stem. Immediately after the search for food, we find the search for shelter; at a certain point, man was no longer content with the refuges offered by nature and became an architect.
Finally, architecture mixes things up: history and geography, anthropology and the environment, science and society. And it inevitably mirrors all of them.
Perhaps I can explain myself better with an image. Architecture is like an iceberg. Not in the sense of the Titanic, that will take you down if you bump into it, but in the sense that the rest is submerged and hidden. In the seven eighths of the iceberg that lie below water, we find the forces that push architecture up, that allow the tip to emerge: society, science and art.
Architecture is society, because it does not exist without people, without their hopes, aspirations and passion. Listening to people is important. And this is especially difficult for an architect. Because there is always the temptation to impose one’s own design, one’s own way of thinking or, even worse, one’s own style. I believe, instead, that a light approach is needed. Light, but without abandoning the stubbornness that enables you to put forward your own ideas whilst being permeable to the ideas of others.
I am no boy scout, and my appeal to the sense of service is not intended as moralistic. It is, very simply, an appeal to the dignity of our profession. Without this dignity, we risk losing ourselves in the labyrinth of fads and fashions. Reading architecture as a service certainly means limiting its creative freedom, constraining it. Yet whoever said that creativity had to be free of any constraint? I would like to say more: the interpretation of society and its needs is the richness of architecture. Florence is beautiful because it is the image of Renaissance Italy, its artisans, its merchants, its patrons of the arts. Its streets, squares and palaces reflect Lorenzo de Medici’s vision of society.
Architecture is science. To be a scientist, the architect has to be an explorer and must have a taste for adventure. He has to tackle reality with curiosity and courage to be able to understand it and change it. He has to be a “homo faber,” in the Renaissance sense of the term. Think of Galileo: the telescope was invented to look out for ships, certainly not to study the movement of the stars. Theologians worried about the stars. He, instead, wanted to understand the heavens, and he fought against the most powerful lobby of his time to do it. This image represents a lot for me: a formidable lesson in curiosity for anything new, an independence of thought and courage in exploring the unknown.
Architects have to live on the frontier, and every so often they have to cross it, to see what is on the other side. They, too, use the telescope to look for what is not written in the sacred texts. Brunelleschi did not just design buildings, but also the machines to build them. Antonio Manetti recounts how he studied the mechanism of the clock in order to apply it to a system of large counterweights: this was how the structure of the cupola was raised. This is a lovely example of how architecture is also research. And it makes us think about an important thing: all of those whom we look up to as “classics,” were in their own time great innovators. They were the cutting edge. They found their way by experimenting and taking risks.
In explaining their reasoning in assigning this prize, the jury makes a reference to Brunelleschi which fills me with pride and embarrassment at the same time. He is a model that cannot be reached, but only approached. If I have to compare myself to someone, I prefer Robinson Crusoe, an explorer capable of surviving in foreign lands …