A rendering of Piano's Palais de Justice in Paris.
A rendering of Piano's Palais de Justice on the northeast edge of Paris, set to open this year. The architect says that architecture can "fertilize" struggling urban peripheries. RPBW

The 79-year-old architect discusses how openness in architecture makes for safer, happier places.

For Renzo Piano, every building should tell a story.

The 79-year-old architect is as busy as ever with a workload that spans from Los Angeles to Uganda. With no signs of fatigue in a nearly 50-year career, Piano doesn’t struggle to find meaning in each new project. “I’ve wanted to make buildings since I was a kid,” says the Italian-born architect, who fondly recalls spending time at construction sites with his dad.

Despite making a name for himself after winning the competition, along with Richard Rogers, in 1971 to design the Centre Pompidou in Paris—a project that revolutionized the cultural role of the modern museum—Piano sees his work as a reflection of what’s happening in the world, not as a force of change. “I’ve been very lucky in my life,” he says. “When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, I got a call not much later asking me to do Potsdamer Platz. I didn’t create any change in Berlin, but I ended up there because something had happened and someone needed to express that change.”

The architect’s work has rarely drawn outrage since the Pompidou and its playful, machine-like appearance shocked traditionalists and fussy Parisians in the ‘70s. (It faced six lawsuits before opening.) But he is mindful of the offense that projects like the Pompidou, or the Shard—London’s tallest skyscraper—can trigger. “Buildings are multidimensional, just as the cities they’re built in,” says Piano. “If a building tells a story at all, that story will keep shifting.”

In New York, Piano is behind the masterplan for Columbia University’s Manhattanville campus, slated for completion by 2030. His own buildings for the campus have been praised for their structural elegance and openness to the surroundings. The first phase of the campus is now open after years of litigation over Columbia’s contested use of eminent domain and a severely tested relationship between the university and the neighborhood.

Piano, whose book of complete works has been recently updated and re-released (Renzo Piano: The Complete Logbook 1966-2016, Thames and Hudson), spoke with CityLab earlier this spring from his New York office in a room facing the new Whitney Museum of American Art, which he designed. Our conversation touched on a variety of topics including Manhattanville, urban peripheries, and the importance of designing buildings that reject paranoia in a world increasingly concerned with terrorism.

First of all, tell us about your Manhattanville plans for Columbia.

In 2002, Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia, came to me and said, “We need to think about how we can make an urban campus in the new century.” He wanted a truly urban approach near the Morningside campus. So, Manhattanville is where we built it, which is only a few subway stops away.

Manhattanville is a crowded, bustling place. I do a lot of work on the periphery of urban cores. I love the possibilities that come with these kinds of areas and that’s what I’ve been able to get into with this new campus.

Part of Piano’s masterplan for Columbia University’s Manhattanville Campus. (RPBW)

Morningside campus looks nothing like [the Manhattanville campus]. That was built in the middle of the 19th century, when you would build a gate and then a fake historic campus inside it to create a sense of dignity. I get that, but it’s time for something different. To build a campus in the 21st century, you need to build a system underground that connects everything (technology, energy, etc.), and which allows the street level to be extremely open and the research and academics to be hosted above that. You’re keeping the campus open and taking away the gate so that students aren’t growing in some sort of paradise. Manhattanville is a busy, diverse space and this campus is tapping into its energies and desires.

Manhattanville has a historic former milk pasteurization factory, an old Studebaker factory, and Riverside Drive, which is just a masterpiece of simplicity. So we looked at all of this and asked ourselves, “Do you really needed to take the lessons from Old Europe? Or can we say that today’s culture—American culture—is perfectly trustworthy?” I don’t think you don’t need to do something that looks old to be trusted.

We’re expressing something about clarity, accessibility, openness, and a sense of lightness with this campus. It has an invigorating sense of unity and belonging without pretending to be Gothic. There are plenty of fantastic universities in this country made to look old and another one like that might be fine, but a truly urban campus today has to be an example of integration between different disciplines. You can observe the chemical structure of the brain, study the earth’s ecosystem, experience the beauty and emotion of art all in the same campus here.

Anyone can come in and enjoy it. There’s a fantastic piazza, which is intended as a community space—there’s no gate. The architectural functions of the campus, of science and art, are placed around the square. There’s an exchange of ideas and by people studying global issues. It’s not the biggest campus, but it’s a new kind of campus and a fantastic combination of uses and spaces with a great spirit of beauty, access, and sharing.

From the street level, your buildings on this campus seem to be speaking a similar design language as the Whitney.

Well, the Whitney is about American art and the neighborhood around it. It’s also about creating something people love that didn’t exist before. There’s a sense of the traditional piazza and a connection with the street level, which didn’t exist at the Madison Avenue location. Breuer’s building is beautiful but logistically impossible to work with. Here, with the new building, on one side you have Chelsea—a special part of the city—and on the other side you have the Hudson River with the sunset. It’s magical! So it’s different and the function is different.

There are few professions in the world that allow you to make something beautiful, and architecture is certainly one of them. Unless you’re stupid, you should have a story to tell when you’re starting on a new project or an invention. You’re accessing your own storage of experiences and creating new forms out of repetition. Each new project is going to tell a different story, but you need to recognize that there’s room for continuity. This can come down to things that have very little to do with the form and more to do with an emotion that you connect to through openness, transparency, lightness. With these two projects, they aren’t light buildings, they’re quite bulky in some ways, but I do think they have a sense of lightness anyways.

Whatever continuity you see in my work is not ‘a style.’ For me, style is something that sticks ideas in a cage. It’s more interesting to try to understand from each building what is being expressed in its function and the way people are using it. There’s introspection in the work, an attitude.

The Guggenheim Bilbao is typically seen as the origin of today’s wave of museum architecture, but we can easily trace it back to the Pompidou. What’s changed about people’s expectations of museums since then?

Pompidou was the first. Museums at the time were for the elite. I certainly didn’t want to become an aristocrat just to go to a museum! Our design was not just about culture: it was about freedom.

I shouldn’t understate the importance of the Pompidou’s architecture, but the truth is that when Richard Rogers and I designed it we were very young, in our 30s. You needed young people to do a project like that. It wasn’t that we were changing the world of art. Art was changing because the world was changing. It was only a couple of years after May ’68 so it was a different moment and someone had to do the dirty job of expressing that. It was one thing to pick up on that shift but something else to actually turn that into a building. It was like making a photo or a poem of a moment: Something’s happening and you just happen to be there. The shift was inevitable.

Museums have changed so much since then, probably the most of any major building type. Office buildings haven’t really changed much but museums do completely different things now. There are greater expectations regarding programming and education, but also how they interact with their surroundings.

The new Whitney Museum of American Art opened in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District in 2015. (RPBW)

Do you notice a general shift in the values or expectations of museum clients from 20, 30 years ago?

Yes, I do. Within the first few minutes of meeting a client, you understand what the element—the new thing—is. If there’s no new thing, then you’re in trouble!

We draw everything in my office, all the nuts and bolts, so we try not to take on more than what we can handle. Sometimes a client will ask us to do a museum but you figure out pretty quickly they’re asking you because they’re expecting a special shine, your own special brand. I’m not blaming anybody for that but it’s like, ‘where’s the story here?’ If there’s nothing to say, then there’s nothing to build! A good project will take the invisible part of the client’s idea and make it visible. If you don’t have that, you have an impossible project.

In New York with the Times building right after 9/11, or with the Istanbul Modern today, how much do clients push back on your ideas because of security concerns?

I’m dealing with that right now in Istanbul, certainly. Going back to The New York Times, security was a big issue but we agreed that it would be mad to build a bunker. Our building was about transparency and openness because, as far as I’m concerned, it’s safer. I’d say our designs became even more about transparency after 9/11. With the Times building, you can enter it easily right on the street. Same for its restaurants and stores. This idea of openness as an antidote to terrorism is part of the building’s story.

Security is something that matters for projects we’re doing all around the world now. My office in Paris isn’t far from where the November attacks took place, so we’re aware of the paranoia that can take hold after something like that. But we will always be resistant to the idea of making bunkers. This is why it’s so important to pay attention to the way streets and buildings function together. It’s the starting point for understanding how an entire city functions.

I believe that humanity gravitates towards cities while monsters grow in darkness and isolation. You have to combine città e civiltà [“cities and civilization”], cities where you can create and experience a miraculous mix of places and scenes with every type of possibility for every type of person. I want to build every kind of building!

Well, except for a few kinds, which I’ll never do.

Like what?

I can’t tell you! But you can imagine.

This is related to my interest in urban peripheries. Architecture can fertilize these areas, cross-pollinate if you will. You need that. That’s why the House of Justice project we’re doing in the northern banlieue of Paris is important to me. It’s a tall and ambitious building on the edge of a very rough part of Paris. With the development happening there now (including our project), these are only drops in a bucket—but they’re big drops. Eventually, you will have helped create a better place.

Your projects seem to be pretty sensitive to the sites they inherit. The Shard faced quite a backlash, mostly because of its height. How did you approach that site, and are you surprised by how many people dislike it?

I wasn’t too surprised. If you’re an architect in the right place and time, you don’t change the world but you do get to build something that reflects the changes that are happening.

A sectional drawing of the Shard. (RPBW)

The Shard didn’t come up from sketches as much as it came out of the mind of then-mayor Ken Livingstone. He wanted to make a more vertical city and to use the site for something that wouldn’t empty out by 6 p.m. At the Shard, everyone can arrive by public transit. It only has 48 parking spaces all together. Railways are there, Tube lines, bus lines, so I just needed to design a tall building to put in office, restaurant, hotel, and some commercial space—just some commercial, not a shopping mall—and so I ended up with a building that is quite fat at the bottom and could have been even taller. If you look at how it changes as it moves up, the crown at the top isn’t a lazy gesture—as the tower gets narrower it still looks like it could keep ascending another 100 meters. And, of course, just being along the Thames, it makes quite a statement to the other side of the city.

When it was finished I heard people say it was great, fantastic, beautiful. I was in London the other day and I saw it unexpectedly. It was like seeing your wife or your fiancée in a new light and you’re just in awe of how beautiful she is! But for some, they say, ‘Oh my god! You’re a tyrant! You’re destroying the city!’ This was exactly what happened with Pompidou! People were acting like I had ruined Paris forever.

I don’t necessarily enjoy that. You don’t make a building different for the sake of being different. That would be stupid. If someone like Ken Livingstone comes to you and says, “I want to create a denser, livelier city. Can you help me?” You sit down and say, “Why not?” I want to make buildings that have life 24 hours a day. I hate new buildings that act like a mysterious neighbor—closed off and antisocial.

So, some people look at the Shard and say, “Wow, that’s fantastic!” In fact, I think many people do. Others—not to my face yet—say, “What is that?” The truth is that buildings need time—a long time—to tell their story.

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