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MARGARET WARNER: The Pritzker Prize, now in its 20th year, is architecture’s most prestigious honor. Pritzker laureates are chosen from the ranks of living architects worldwide. They receive a bronze medallion, $100,000 from the Hyatt Foundation, and a place in history with the likes of Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei, Frank Gehry, and Robert Venturi. This year’s Pritzker winner is an Italian, Renzo Piano.
SPOKESMAN: We’re delighted to present you the Pritzker Architecture Prize of 1998.
MARGARET WARNER: He received the prize at a White House dinner Wednesday night. Piano is best known for futuristic buildings whose structural and technical elements are often an integral part of the artistic design. In announcing the award the Pritzker jury said: “Renzo Piano’s architecture reflects that rare melding of art, architecture, and engineering in a truly remarkable synthesis. Piano was born 60 years ago in Genoa, Italy, into a family of builders. His grandfather, father, and uncles were contractors. And his brother became one too.
Piano first attracted notice in 1971, when he was just 33. He and another architect, Richard Rogers, won an international competition to design the Pompidou in Paris, an art and cultural museum also known as the Beaubourg. When completed in 1977, the Pompidou Center generated controversy but proved immensely popular with the public.
It also generated plenty of new commissions for the young architect. In the two decades since then he’s completed some 33 major structures, most of them commercial or public buildings. They include: the Menil Collection Museum in Houston, Texas; Italy’s San Nicola Soccer Stadium in Bari; and the Columbus International Exposition in Genoa; the Kansai Air Terminal in Osaka, Japan; the Beyeler Foundation Museum in Basel, Switzerland; and this year a cultural center in New Caledonia.
MARGARET WARNER: Renzo Piano joins us now. Welcome, Mr. Piano. Congratulations.
RENZO PIANO, Architect: Thank you.
MARGARET WARNER: Why did you become an architect?
RENZO PIANO: You know, when you grow up in a family of builders, you don’t worry about what you do when you be big. You know, it’s like growing up in a family of acrobats in the circus; you don’t-you know what you will be. And the day I went to see my father to say I wanted to become an architect, he was a bit surprised, because for him being a builder is much more than being just an architect. He was very angry, and I never thought I could do something else.
MARGARET WARNER: Is there a Renzo Piano style at this point? Is there a signature that if someone came upon a building, didn’t know it was yours, they’d look at it, and they’d say, that looks like a Piano?
RENZO PIANO: I think so, but, you know, let’s put it this way. I don’t like the idea that the first preparation when you start to design your building has to put your label. I think this is not fair. It’s not fair to the building or to the people, to the client, because every building tells a different story. So the building is more important than you as an architect. For example, I love working with very light elements. I love transparency. I love natural light. So when the building’s finished, you recognize those elements in some way. But I think style may be actually very limiting something, you know, because you may end-instead of understanding the need of people–you may end by imposing your style, and this is bad. This is not very fair.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, we thought we’d look at a couple of specific works of yours and talk a little bit more about your work. And I think we have a slide that we’re going to put up, the first one, which is the Pompidou Center in Paris, which, as you know, but to our viewers, was completed in 1977. Now, you entered a competition for this, and you were a very young man at the time. What were you trying to achieve?
RENZO PIANO: I did that competition in 1971, together with Richard Rogers, who is one of my best friends, and we are still great friends, and we were very young. I was 33 years. Richard was 36, I guess. We were bad boys. We were really bad boys. And what we wanted to do was mainly to be disobedient to-institution-and build in the middle of Paris. At that time Paris was full of institutions building very, very severe, austere, made of stone-we-we wanted to break that sensation of intimidating building. And we wanted to create actually totally different emotion, that is, the one of creating curiosity. Curiosity is much better emotion than intimidation.
MARGARET WARNER: So is that why you took all these machinery elements like ventilation and so on and made them design elements?
RENZO PIANO: As usual, in architecture there is never one reason why you do this or that way. One reason for taking the machine out was, in fact, create that effect of a factory, but also there was another very important practical reason. By doing this we-we were making free the platform from fixed elements. And, you know, when you are 33 and you are asked to make a building for culture, that may last three or four hundred years, that is what people told us, I mean, you are in great trouble.
You don’t even understand what culture is about. How can you understand what culture will be in 200 years? So the idea was to create a few piazzas, one above the other, and to take all the fixed elements like lifts, elevators, air conditioning, all out from the platform, so that the building is actually made by five platforms, one above the other, totally flexible, and this actually did work very well.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, it’s been very, very popular with tourists and visitors, but as I know you know it’s also been criticized for kind of standing apart from the neighborhood.
RENZO PIANO: From one point of view I agree. The Marie–is that neighborhood there–is an old neighborhood, but this spaceship landing from somewhere in the middle of Marie is exactly what medieval cathedral has been long time ago. They are a spaceship. And in every city you have always some element, monuments normally, that are out of scale. If they have an important job to do, that makes sense, and the Centre Pompidou has an important job to do. It has been visited by 150 million persons in 20 years. So it’s a very important job.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let’s turn now to the Menil Collection Museum in Houston, which was completed really 10 years later in 1987, another museum but so different, at least to the untutored eye looks different, very serene, very subtle. Was that your intention? What were you trying to do there?
RENZO PIANO: You may feel a bit funny what they’re saying, but the Menil Collection Museum in Houston is in a sense also provocation like Beauborg was in Paris, except that in Paris it was a city full of memory, too much memory. In Houston, Texas, that is a city with very little memory you can say. I mean, we got built up, the opposite, the secularity of a museum, and, of course, the Menil was the right client for that. She was extremely bright, extremely subtle, and intelligent.
MARGARET WARNER: This was the woman with the great art collection.
RENZO PIANO: Yes. Dominique De Menil was the collector, and she died at the beginning of this year. And then in some way the Menil Collection, quite a building, it was quite a provocation, but it was a sacred place, almost a temple, for contemplation of art, where you almost feel like taking off your shoes and getting gently inside. And so, you know, every kind of building has a different story and is in different place, and you cannot consider coherence to make the building equal. I mean, coherence is to be able to understand the situation and to make a good interpretation.
MARGARET WARNER: And you created an interesting way of letting in the light with these what they call leaves on the roof.
RENZO PIANO: Yes, yes.
MARGARET WARNER: Can you explain that in a way we could understand.
RENZO PIANO: Well, it’s very easy. I mean, we call those elements of concrete, very tiny piece of concrete, and we call leaves because like the leaves of a tree they make impossible to the sun to get in directly, and you cannot, of course, have the sun directly on the painting. So by doing those forms that are like that and so the sun bunch all time twice before coming in, we were able to avoid direct sun, and, of course, to cut down the infrared rays and light.
And this was just a system for aiding natural light inside. It’s not the only one, but, of course, we did use the shape of those leaves from inside to create a sense of the space, because it’s not true that a good museum is totally neutral. If you make a museum like a white box and you put a piece of art inside, you kill the piece of art. A museum should be not neutral, totally neutral, must have a character.
MARGARET WARNER: Finally, tell us briefly about one of your current projects, the Putzdamer Platz in Berlin. You’re doing a reconstruction of this area that was divided by the Berlin Wall. What are you aiming for there?
RENZO PIANO: Just simply-and this is very, very big challenge, to bring back the center of the city there. You know, that part of Berlin was destroyed by the war. It was the center of Berlin when Berlin was the center of Europe. Then the war destroyed that piazza, and the war made the rest. Actually, even the Berliner wanted to forget about the war, so they actually razed down all the main buildings. So when we started that job-in ’89 the wall went down-in ’92 we won a competition, we started the job. It was a desert, a total desert, just ghosts going around. So the only memory of the past were ghosts. And this is extremely difficult, but in reality all the city is waiting for the center of the city to go back there, right there.
MARGARET WARNER: And finally, for you personally, what does it mean and what will it mean to you to have won the Pritzker Prize?
RENZO PIANO: You know, it’s even a bit amusing, because you feel a bit funny, because being the architect of the year is a bit like being the top of the year or I’ll say the best of the month or-and you wonder what happens next year. You wonder if the architect expires like a product. So it’s a bit funny in some way. But I’m just joking, because, of course, it’s a great honor.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, thanks, Mr. Piano. Thanks for being with us and congratulations.
RENZO PIANO: Thank you.