Piano Grande

Architect Renzo Piano has been behind some of the world's most inspired buildings. Now he's ready to make his mark on the Manhattan skyline.

In Renzo Piano's native Genoa, the contrast between the city and harbor is stark. "The city is really solid, like a piece of carved stone," explains the 66-year-old architect. "The buildings are made of stone, the piazzas are small. Genoa is about introspection, implosion, protection."

But travel to the edge of town and you find yourself at Italy's largest port, where everything is just the opposite. This is Genoa's open face, its mutable, fluid side that has always fascinated Piano. "The harbor is adventure and openness," Piano says. "And it is always changing. I was in love with it from when I was a child. Even the light changes, because the water reflects in a funny way." As a boy he would stand on the dock and gaze at the ships being loaded by crane. "It was like a miracle to watch," he says. "The next day you come it is gone, even the ship is gone. The city is stable. The harbor is changing all the time."

Piano wholeheartedly cast his lot with the harbor. For the last quarter century he has practiced a style of architecture that explores light, transparency, change—and in so doing has become one of the most acclaimed architects today. In 1998 he won the Pritzker Prize, architecture's highest honor. The Renzo Piano Building Workshop, over which he presides, is a thoroughly international practice, with offices in Genoa and Paris and a 100-person staff. Trim and handsome, with a close-cropped white beard and bespectacled bright-blue eyes, Piano has an enviable energy level.

He needs it. Even though he accepts only five percent of the jobs offered him, in America alone he is currently designing major expansions of the High Museum and Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta, the Morgan Library in New York, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor, and the Art Institute in Chicago. Abroad his projects include the Paul Klee Museum in Bern, Switzerland; the Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church in Italy; and the 1,016-foot-high London Bridge Tower (which, if constructed, will be the tallest building in Europe). In 2000 Piano was chosen to build his most high-profile American project yet: a 52-story skyscraper for the midtown Manhattan newsroom and offices of The New York Times, scheduled to open in 2006 or 2007. Unlike Daniel Libeskind's jagged scheme for the World Trade Center site, Piano's classic facade, topped by a graceful 300-foot mast, places the Times headquarters in a clear line of succession from the city's most beloved towers—the Empire State, Chrysler, and Woolworth buildings. "It promises to be what not a lot of recent New York skyscrapers have been—very well built and beautifully engineered," says Terence Riley, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art.

Unlike, say, a Frank Gehry or Norman Foster, Piano has no signature style, other than the elegant self-restraint of all his mature works. Piano uses each new building as an opportunity to explore lightness and transparency. For the New York Times building he plans to construct a skyscraper that will seemingly dematerialize at both ends. The bottom of the building will be made of glass. At street level a transparent wall will reveal an interior courtyard planted with white birches and a small auditorium. One floor above, a 24-hour newsroom—glowing at night like a lantern—will be open for pedestrians to peek in. Higher up, the tower will be clad in a "double skin," a device Piano has been using since the 1980s, when, for a mixed-use development in Lyons he wrapped buildings first in terra-cotta panels and then in a louvered-glass wall. (There, the double skin served two purposes: functionally, it provided heat conservation and a shield from foul weather; aesthetically it refracted light, lending depth and animation to the buildings' long facades.) For the Times design, Piano used the glass panels as the interior layer, protected by a carapace of horizontal white ceramic rods. "I like the fact that the skin breathes and vibrates," he says. "If you make a building like that with the capacity to capture the light, it becomes very atmospheric. It changes with the weather. After a rainstorm it will look bluish, on a sunny day, blond. The presence of this building will be not about arrogance. It will be about the capacity to breathe and change." As if to underscore that point, on an overcast day the spire of the mast will disappear into the clouds.

Every decade or so, Piano designs and builds himself a new sailboat, often from a material that he is also using for a new project. The first boat he constructed in his garage out of plywood; the second, from a thinner plywood. He built the third of ferro-cement, a substance he was also using to create the gracefully curved "leaves" of the sun-filtering roof of the Menil Collection in Houston, which opened in 1986. The fourth yacht was made of wooden rods embedded in adhesive. The latest model, which he launched a year and a half ago, is fabricated from a very light carbon-fiber composite. Even Punta Nave ("ship point"), Piano's magical studio west of Genoa, recalls a sailing vessel. Hidden from the road and built almost entirely of glass on a slope overlooking the bay, it can be reached only by a funicular that scales the steep hillside. Once inside you take in partial views of the architects working on different levels, as well as an exhilarating expanse of water, vegetation, and sky. "The place we are in now, simple as it is, is about allusion—to nature, transparency, a sense of lightness, and no barrier—to destroy the limit between inside and outside," Piano says.

Piano's rejection of heaviness and love of boats constituted a "kind of rebellion" against his father, who was imbued with that Genoan instinct to seek shelter from the violent sea. "He was terribly against a boat," says Piano, whose father, older brother, grandfather, and uncles were all builders. His decision to practice architecture also baffled his relatives. "My father told me, 'You can make things, why would you just design things?' " The family business constructed "normal buildings, nothing special," out of brick and concrete. In other words, not at all what Piano builds today; and yet, in his approach to architecture, Renzo retains the imprint of his family's artisanal tradition.

"We work as craftsmen," Piano tells me at the Workshop. "And for each piece we do a test." Nearby, builders construct full-scale mock-ups to determine whether an unconventional engineering approach will succeed. It doesn't always. For example, the roof of the Beyeler Museum near Basel, Switzerland, was meant to be built from large sheets of structural glass, but the glass shattered under the stress of the day-to-night temperature variations. And for the Tjibaou Cultural Center on the remote Pacific island of New Caledonia, the towering curved shields conceived as wind scoops for ventilation were later redesigned to function as exhaust chimneys after they failed to perform in a wind-tunnel test.

In the Punta Nave offices, models of roof trusses hang overhead like dinosaur skeletons in a natural history museum. Most are relics of Piano's largest and most impressive project, Japan's Kansai International Airport Terminal. He worked on the airport, built on a manmade island in the Bay of Osaka, from 1988 to 1994. The sleek, swooping form of the terminal was determined partly by the fact that the tails of all parked airplanes had to be visible from the control tower. Not that there weren't aesthetic considerations as well. Piano, who had journeyed to Osaka with a couple of colleagues and chartered a boat to visit the site before the island even existed, felt that such a huge building resting on a flat surface needed a strong and organic topographic profile. The expressive form that he eventually developed was further shaped by an unconventional air-conditioning system, requiring that the roof slope downward to follow the pattern of decelerating air blown out of a jet nozzle.

To support this complex structure, he and the late engineer Peter Rice devised a series of arched trusses that varied in size and form. Rice had begun his distinguished career by composing a repetitive tiling system for the roof of the Sydney Opera House. However, thanks to computers, component parts no longer need to be interchangeable. Computers, Piano says, "are the single most important revolution in the last fifty years." The computer provides an "almost medieval freedom"; the architect is able to conceive structures as intricately engineered as a Gothic cathedral, knowing that their realization won't require unreasonable amounts of time and labor.

Though Piano has become more and more technologically ambitious, he is probably still best known for the Pompidou Center, an early project built in the seventies with architect Richard Rogers that screamed high-tech. But despite the frippery of the oversized exterior ductwork and escalator, the Pompidou Center's engineering is hardly revolutionary. Conversely, the buildings that Piano is producing today really do incorporate the most advanced technology—but quietly, in ways most observers never notice. "He's always understood very well the relationship between architecture and construction," says architect Bernard Tschumi. "That side of him never changed. At the same time, the work now is far more polite and polished." Consider Padre Pio Church, which is nearing completion in San Giovanni Rotondo in southern Italy. A stone structure that is the heir to centuries of tradition, this enormous pilgrimage center (able to accommodate 7,000 worshipers within and 30,000 outside) could not have been built without computers. Its main stone arch may well be the longest ever constructed, achieved only through the use of computer-guided stonecutting, which equalized the stress in each block.

The Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, which opened in October, also alludes to ancient forms. "Renzo's idea was to suggest a kind of Roman archeology, like the site was already there and you dig out and find a solid stone," says architect Shunji Ishida, who has been working alongside Piano since the Pompidou Center days. The five large bays of the museum are faced in travertine, which has been water-blasted to give it the patina of antiquity. Placed within a 1.5-acre garden, the museum is visible from two sides. "For moving sculpture and waste and every kind of service, normally you have a back entrance and get that out of the visual aspect," says Raymond Nasher, the Dallas real estate developer who commissioned the museum to display his major collection of modern sculpture. "In this particular building it would have to be ramped a long way." Instead, Piano suggested truck elevators that would allow loading underground. Nasher initially resisted the idea as unconventional and expensive, but Piano prevailed. The lifts were fabricated by a company that works on aircraft carriers—a high-tech solution that enables the museum to retain its classic simplicity.

Some architects famously try to intimidate their clients intellectually into accepting a scheme. Others have tender egos that swell when pricked. Piano gets his way more often than not through a congenial charm. "It's reflected in the projects themselves," Tschumi says. "Koolhaas and Gehry will try to have an abrasive edge in their work. Renzo is not abrasive. He reassures clients. They feel Renzo will find a balance."

The best buildings are produced through the collaboration of a gifted architect and a passionate client. "A good client has strong feelings about things, but also a light touch," Piano says. "It is about understanding what you want to do or I want to do, not just trying to convince the other person that you are right. It's like Ping-Pong. If you don't have a good player on the other side, it's terrible."

Piano himself is extraordinarily persuasive, in part because he is such a good listener. Even when he doesn't respond, it is clear that he is paying attention. He is also extremely well organized, as anyone monitoring 20 projects has to be. He has a residence just a few steps from his offices in both Genoa and Paris (he spends a week in each every month), and a color-coded schedule that tells him at a glance where the next week will be spent: days in Paris are labeled blue, those in Genoa, green, and those dedicated to visiting sites and clients are in red. At Punta Nave, his conference-table-sized desk is always immaculate, and a wooden wall rack in front of it has a different slot for each job.

As his color-coded schedule attests, Piano works hard to strike a balance between the demands of his peripatetic work schedule and his private life. Since 1992 he has been married to Milly Rossato—40, slender, and gray-eyed—whom he met when she came to work as an architect in the Genoa office. By that time, he had been long separated from his first wife, with whom he has three grown children. (Two sons and a daughter, they all began studying architecture but switched tracks before earning their degrees. However, the second child, Matteo, is an industrial designer; he has a desk at Punta Nave and sometimes collaborates with his father.)

Four years ago, Piano and Milly journeyed to Austin, Texas, to adopt a newborn whom they called Giorgio. "He is very Texan," Piano says. Living in a house just above the Genoa studio, Giorgio has free run of the office. One evening when I was there, he blasted through like a Texas tornado, wielding a wind-up airplane that he sent flying off his father's desktop. "Papa, guarda!" he shouted, as his beaming father cried, "Giorgino, fantastico!"

Practicing architecture at Piano's level requires a bipartite mind that can both administer and create, that can focus on the big picture and the fine points. "He is like a very good orchestra master, but at the same time he is able to play solo," says his colleague Ishida. "He is always looking at a global view with all the small pieces in detail—at the same time, both ways. He is able to judge who is suited at the right moment to do a certain thing." Piano's creative process combines intuition and observation. He will visit a site, preferably for several days, and sketch constantly with his ever-present green felt-tip pen. When he was considering taking the Morgan Library commission, he paced around the square block for a couple of hours, marking out distances and scrutinizing the three historic buildings that anchor the complex. Then he went out to dinner with the Library's executives and, on a napkin, outlined in green ink the expansion's guiding scheme. "He thought three new buildings should be inserted as quietly as possible between the three existing buildings," says Charles E. Pierce Jr., the Library's director. "It would become like a village of old and new buildings, with a central piazza or court that functioned as a center of a Renaissance town."

The new buildings will be unabashedly modern—all glass and painted steel—and will include a 20-foot cube in which the Library's medieval collection will be displayed. Piano says that he was eager to take on his first New York assignment (the Morgan commission predates the Times tower) and to address the challenge of protecting the Library's collection of rare books and manuscripts. What convinced him to accept the job, however, was that revelatory moment in which he surmised how it could work. "I loved the idea of making this little Crystal Palace playing with the three buildings, and to protect the books by cutting the Manhattan schist and putting the books in a vault down in the rock," he says. "It is the safest place, it is good sense in practical and symbolic terms." The transparent crystal will be the light, airy counterbalance to the stone bunker below.

Piano's impulse to safeguard rare books underground, "where they will survive everything," predated the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. On that day, in fact, he was in New York when the jets hit the World Trade Center. "I knew the towers were going to collapse," he says. "A fire made by gasoline is about double the temperature of a usual fire. No building can survive a fire like that." He had arrived in New York on September 10, with his family, to meet with Morgan Library officials and to discuss the New York Times commission, which he had recently received. On the night of September 11 he dined with Frank Gehry, who is an old friend. "We were saying, 'What is going to happen?' " he recalls. "We never talked about the profession. It was about humanity."

Although Piano believes that the World Trade Center towers "honestly were too big, too crowded," he is as committed as ever to building skyscrapers. He is reassured by calls that he received on September 11 from Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., the Times' publisher, and his cousin, Times vice-chairman and senior vice-president Michael Golden, who is overseeing the project. "They said, 'We will never give up,' " he remembers. As Piano sees it, there is no alternative. "You cannot design a building or a city to withstand terrorism," he says. "The only model for architecture that can survive that is the cavern." For an architect who celebrates openness, transparency, and lightness, the idea is unthinkable.


Sign of the Times

Piano won the highly coveted commission to build a new New York Times building, after entering a competition, something he rarely does. A collaboration by David Childs and Frank Gehry was thought to have the inside track, but at the last minute Gehry and Childs backed out. Michael Golden, the Times' vice chairman, says Piano's plan was chosen for its "sense of humanity. A skyscraper doesn't have to be a slick, opaque building that can be translated as arrogant. This is a newspaper. It needs to be transparent." Building on the project, to be located on Eighth Avenue between 40th and 41st streets, is to begin early this year.


Art and Design

Many of Piano's best-known structures are public spaces—museums and galleries—which means you can admire them both inside and out. Among the most famous are the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, which was completed in 1977; the Menil Collection Museum in Houston, which was completed in 1986; the Beyeler Foundation Museum outside Basel, Switzerland, which opened in 1997; the Giovanni & Marella Agnelli Art Gallery in Turin, Italy, completed in 2002; and most recently, the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, which opened in October.

Piano also has a number of works in progress both in America and abroad: In 1999 he began work on the Paul Klee Museum in Bern, Switzerland, and he is at work on expansions for the Art Institute of Chicago, the Morgan Library in New York, and the High Museum and Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta.