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Renzo Piano


RPBW, Renzo Piano Building Workshop 

Genoa, Italy


Interview by Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi

Jean-Marie-Tjibaou Cultural Center, Noumea, Nouvelle-Calédonie - Architects RPBW, Renzo Piano Building Workshop © Pantz Pierre-Alain
Architect Renzo Piano

As far as Renzo Piano is concerned, a successful architect must be at the same time a good engineer, a good sociologist, a good economist and a good geographer.

But if he wants to go further than this and create poetry, he needs to know how to work with wind and light.

Why did you decide to become an architect?

It was the natural thing to do: I came from a family of builders. Perhaps I could have chosen to continue my father’s job and work in the company, but being an architect seemed more interesting to me. And, to tell the truth, I did it to get away from home. In Genoa where I lived, there was no School of Architecture, so I went to Florence, which is a beautiful city. Perhaps too beautiful. 

But I preferred Milan: it attracted me because it was more lively and dynamic. While I was a student I trained with Franco Albini. I still remember that I designed the details of the flooring next to the Rinascente building in Rome, then some televisions for Brionvega.

To begin with you focussed on technology…

I was fascinated by Jean Prouvé, and sometimes I used to go to Paris to hear his lectures. I was also very enthusiastic about the work of Frei Otto; his structures seemed to defy the law of gravity. I graduated in 1964 with Giuseppe Ciribini, a professor who was responsible for modular co-ordination. In 1969, I had designed a building with a light reticulated cover for the Osaka Exhibition which was inaugurated the following year. In 1970 I started up a design company with Richard Rogers, and the year after that we won the competition for the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

Were you surprised about that?

There were many competitors, and it was a prestigious job. We were young – I was 33 and Richard was 36 – and we had little experience. The Jury consisted of Jean Prouvé, Oscar Niemeyer and Philip Johnson, who admired the innovative nature of our proposal. This was a time when people were receptive to innovation.

It is thought that Ove Arup had put his trust in us by financing our participation in the competition. He considered us as youngsters with a certain talent which ought to be promoted.

What does sustainability in architecture mean to you?

I like to associate the word sustainability with elevation. The more I remove whatever is excessive, the more I economise in materials. The more I reduce the material, the closer I get to nature, and enter into a relationship with light and the wind. The quality of a building depends to a large extent on good lighting and the pleasant effects of the ventilation. This is particularly apparent in museums. I am thinking for example of the Menil in Houston, where the roof allows sunlight to filter through, or the Beyeler Foundation in Basle, where I worked on the same concepts so as to obtain a building with reduced energy consumption.

I am aware of the fact though that it is not always energy efficiency which provides lightness. Sometimes weight can be used to achieve good thermal inertia. At the recent California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco I tried to balance weightiness and lightness. The roof was made heavier in order to accommodate 2,000,000 different species of plants which guarantee that the building functions well from a climatic point of view. Light is brought into play by means of some porthole-type windows: during the day natural light enters, and by night artificial light is emitted.

So the roof became an integral part of the museum?

In a period of six months the museum has welcomed over a million visitors, and they all go onto the roof to see a fragment of California’s vegetation. Other factors which are less apparent also contribute towards guaranteeing the sustainability. For example, the thermal insulation of the walls was obtained by filling the cavity with the scrap from jeans salvaged from nearby factories. We also used recycled iron materials for the masonry and frameworks.
Jean-Marie-Tjibaou Cultural Center, Noumea, Nouvelle-Calédonie - Architects RPBW, Renzo Piano Building Workshop © Gollings John

Can you tell us about the J.M. Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Noumea? 

In New Caledonia I tried to create a building which breathes by coming into contact with the winds which exist there. The wooden bars of the ten hut structures we created vibrate when the trade-winds blow, and each one of them produces a different sound. We tried to interpret the spirit of the place and the culture of the Kanachi, a people who have always been in close contact with nature. The light filters between the bars and casts a landscape of shadows onto the ground which recalls that of the forest.

How do you relate to other lighting specialists when you are aiming for sustainability? 

I like working with them. For example, we have carried out numerous projects with a lighting manufacturer, some of which led to the development of lighting devices which were then put into production. The objective is efficiency, long-life, and restriction of consumption, and modern technologies help us in this respect. Previously a halogen lamp would last for 1,000 hours, and a sodium and mercury vapour one would last for about 10,000 hours; LEDs can now last for as long as 60,000 hours. If the service life changes, you can also vary the way in which you design the object, in relation to the way in which it lasts over a period of time.

How do you alter the form of the building in relation to the climate?

Personally, I have a broad view of climate. I consider it as the context in which the building will be located, so this involves both the atmospheric and cultural climate.

The worst mistake an architect can make is to create a building which is out of place and out of scale, which does not capture the light or take into account the spirit of the location. However, and I am thinking for example of Beaubourg, this does not mean being mimetic and imitating the forms of nature.

What are your plans for the future?

They involve the students who come to my company thanks to a programme we are developing together with Harvard University. You don’t need to worry about not giving anything to young people, they can take of themselves. If the experiment is a success, you know from the light in their eyes.
Interview published in Luminous Magazine 3/2009

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