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LIGHT HOUSES

Project Studio Piano & Rogers, Centre Pompidou, 1977, Paris. Sketch.

RENZO PIANO HAS DESIGNED more art museums than any other living architect. His compelling architectural language is recognizably his own but also elastic enough to adapt to all kinds of institutions, from the Centre Pompidou in Paris to the Art Institute of Chicago to his studio’s current projects in major cities on three continents. Here, as part of Artforum’s ongoing conversation series about museum architecture, senior editor Julian Rose speaks with Piano about the complexities of balancing art, light, and space. 

JULIAN ROSE: You are by far the most prolific museum designer in the world today. In retrospect, this affinity is somewhat surprising, because there was nothing about your education or early career that suggested a particularly close connection to visual art. Other architects who have become well known for museum design have gone to art school or spent formative years working alongside artists as part of the same cultural scene; you went to the Politecnico in Milan, Italy’s largest architecture and engineering school, and your earliest projects were experiments with new building technologies like modular construction systems. How did you progress from such a technical background to such expertise in museum design? 

RENZO PIANO: Looking back, I had a very different start than many architects. I was born into a family of builders: My grandfather was a builder, my father was a builder, my uncles were builders, my older brother was a builder. So I grew up in a kind of culture of construction. But I didn’t know much about art, or at least the things you would probably describe as art. For me, art meant the art of making things, of putting things together. 

JR: How was that understanding of art expressed in your work? 

RP: My father made very simple buildings, which were also very massive, because concrete was his material. So, as you do when you’re eighteen or nineteen years old, I set out in exactly the opposite direction. I became fascinated by lightweight structures, and by the idea that my architecture could fight against the force of gravity. I wanted to make buildings from the least amount of material possible. Stripping away the excess from architecture, refining it to its essential elements, became an art form for me.

Project Studio Piano & Rogers, Centre Pompidou, 1977, Paris. Photo: Michel Denancé

JR: These interests seem particularly unusual for the time. You graduated from architecture school in the mid-1960s, when the field was dominated by arguments about style. There was widespread acknowledgment that modernism was no longer sustainable as the dominant international style, but little agreement about what should come next. So-called late-modern approaches like Brutalism were pitted against the first stirrings of postmodernism. There were also emerging design collectives—like Archigram in the UK or Archizoom and Superstudio in Italy—that were questioning the importance of building itself by creating provocative paper architecture. Did your grounding in construction allow you to avoid getting caught up in these aesthetic debates?

“The competition for the Pompidou was only a few years after May ’68. We had the sense that our job was to break the museum.” —Renzo Piano

RP: It was a good beginning because I started from scratch. For me, architecture was not theoretical, not academic, not cerebral. It was about reality, about making shelter for human beings. Architecture is fundamental—after clothing, it’s the primary thing we use to protect our bodies. This is quite a simple understanding of architecture—a bit too simple, probably—but it saved me from falling into the trap of a kind of academic practice, of worrying about belonging to this or that style. 

JR: Is that approach still at the core of your practice?

RP: Well, eventually I grew up and started to understand that architecture is not that easy. It is those essential elements—shelter, structure—but it is also about community, about ethics, about utopia. And it’s about beauty, poetics, and desire, too. Architecture is about many things that don’t belong to the world of practicality. 

JR: You mention utopia, and I wonder if that is the concept that began to bridge the technical and the cultural in your work. In 1971, you and Richard Rogers won the competition for the Centre Pompidou with a design that completely reimagined both the form and the function of the museum: an unprecedented combination of programs housed in an overtly high-tech exoskeleton. Was it your sense that embracing a new approach to building technology would also open up new possibilities for social interaction, and new roles for the cultural institution?

RP: I have an office in Paris now, and every time I pass by the Pompidou I am amazed. I understand why we did it, but I still don’t understand how we were allowed to do it. It’s completely mad—it is a sacrilegious object in the middle of the city.

JR: Because of how it looks, or what it does? Or both?

RP: That building emerged from a special moment in the history of the modern world—a moment of rupture. The competition was only a few years after May ’68. We had the sense that our job was to break the museum. To say clearly and loudly that culture should be open and accessible instead of closed off and intimidating; that the museum should be a place for culture with a lowercase c, not a capital C

Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Whitney Museum of American Art, 2015, New York. Photo: Nic Lehoux.

JR: How did that mission fit with your own understanding of culture, and of institutions, up to that point? 

RP: Back then, I did not spend much time in museums. Neither did Richard. That was not our world. We were in love with music, especially the experimental music of people like Pierre Boulez and John Cage. We loved cinema. We loved the art and literature that we saw coming out of America because it had a sense of freedom. But we didn’t love museums, for the simple reason that we thought they were a place only for the few. Museums were sacred spaces, places of ceremony and ritual. 

JR: In fact, some two decades earlier, when Adorno made his famous comparison between museums and tombs—essentially arguing that the museum was where culture went to die—he had used another Paris institution, the Louvre, as one of his examples. It sounds like you were trying to bring the museum back to life. 

RP: One idea that Richard and I picked up was actually from André Malraux, who was France’s minister of cultural affairs under Charles de Gaulle. He had talked, well before, about decentralizing culture, and he had the idea of doing this in part through what he called the maison de la culture. Every city, even a small one, would get a building where people could gather and interact and experience different forms of culture—look at art, listen to music, read books, and so on. In a way, the Centre Pompidou was a kind of maison de la culture on a much bigger scale. But the size was not about grandeur, of course. It was about bringing all of these things together—a huge public library, as well as places for art, music, cinema. 

JR: But then you had to invent a new architecture for this new institution, and persuade the world to accept it. How did you do that? 

RP: The competition jury was so important. It was an amazing group of architects—including Philip Johnson, Jean Prouvé, and Oscar Niemeyer—who were willing to select the most radical solution. And it was also planets and stars crossing at the right moment, the involvement of Monsieur Pompidou and of his wife, who was very engaged with art. 

JR: How did you imagine your building communicating with the public? The Pompidou is often cited as one of the first built examples of so called high-tech architecture, but it also has a Pop, almost playful side. In some ways, the building’s relationship to technology seems largely symbolic—the color coding of the ventilation and plumbing on the exterior, the escalator snaking up the facade. You mentioned Malraux’s maison de la culture, but now I’m thinking of his Museum Without Walls. That book was about coming to terms with what happens when works of art circulate primarily as photographs, and of course that happens to buildings as well. In some ways, Malraux presaged the rise of an image-based culture that has also absorbed architecture—buildings circulate as images, and increasingly seem designed as images, too. Did the Pompidou, intentionally or not, recast the museum itself as an image? 

RP: That building is innocent. It’s not a celebration of high technology. If it was a machine, it was one like the Yellow Submarine. It was in the spirit of those times—a bit of May ’68, a bit of the Beatles, a bit of Archigram. To us, a machine seemed less intimidating than a marble building. It’s also not an image. You can call it what you like—a machine or a ship or a factory or a refinery—but most of all the Pompidou is a small town. And the escalator is like its main street. The building is about society and community and openness and accessibility. That is the real point.

JR: And has that emphasis on community carried over into your other museum projects? 

RP: The Pompidou was really the beginning. When I make a museum, I’m making a place of shared values, a place for people to meet. The first museums were only about art; today they are also social centers.  

“Any building is always in dialogue with its surroundings. But museums are essentially about that dialogue.” —Renzo Piano

JR: Much of the current discussion about museum architecture focuses on what happens inside. But it sounds like, for you, museum design is also an urban problem. 

RP: I have built twenty-nine museums in my career, and my studio has four more under construction now. Every one of those buildings is about making culture accessible to the community. This is not culture in the sense of an establishment; it is culture as a source of wonder, surprise, exploration, material for collective engagement.

Sometimes people ask me, “Aren’t you tired of making museums?” No, because each of those thirty-three buildings tells a different story. They are all connected by one idea about how museums can operate, but they all belong to different places, and each is woven into a unique civic life. Some of the places we build are challenging. We are working on the Istanbul Modern, which is right on the Bosporus. We are making a building in Moscow. We are building the Beirut City History Museum. These are not the easiest locations to work in, but the museums can become points within the cities that make them better places to live.

Project Studio Piano & Rogers, Centre Pompidou, 1977, Paris. Photo: Francesca Avanzinelli.

JR: Would you argue that cities like these are in fact the ones that need museums most?  

RP: Cities need so many public buildings. They need schools. They need universities. They need libraries. They need hospitals. They need courthouses. But yes, among those things, I think they also need museums. On one condition—the museum must be open and accessible and provide a place for people to meet. That’s the essential thing. 

JR: Of course, the problem is that, inevitably, a museum’s civic role depends in part on so many things that are outside of the architect’s control, from institutional policy to government regulation. What spatial or material moves can you, as the architect, make to influence the way a building connects to its community? 

RP: The building’s relationship to the ground is key. That’s why the plaza outside the Pompidou slopes down to meet the building. That’s why the building for the Whitney Museum of American Art flies, lifting up to let the street inside and to embrace the High Line. That is my philosophy not just for museums but for any public building. We just finished a new courthouse in Paris. It’s a building for ten thousand people, and of course it has to be secure, but even there, the ground floor is very accessible. Any building is always in dialogue with its surroundings. But museums are essentially about that dialogue. 

This is part of an evolution. The first museums in Europe, in the seventeenth century, were what in Italian we call quadreriae, picture galleries deep inside of palaces, and their purpose was essentially to preserve the artworks and keep them safe. At that time, culture was something that needed to be protected from the world outside. But museums today are not for protecting their contents—they are built to bring culture out into the world.

Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Menil Collection, 1987, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester.

 

JR: The idea that the museum is a place of refuge extended well into the modern era. As you said, your building for the Whitney brings the street into the museum. One of the things that interests me about that project is that it almost completely inverts the concept of Marcel Breuer’s Whitney, which was finished in 1966. In some ways, that’s not so long ago—it was only five years before you designed the Pompidou—but Breuer had a completely different attitude toward the relationship between the museum and the street. He spoke explicitly about the need to create a retreat from city life. And whether you love it or hate it, the building’s entry—some people call it a moat—is very clearly an architectural gesture of separation between building and street. Were you consciously trying to turn the old Whitney building inside out in your design?

RP: You are touching on an important point. I have always loved that building, especially the strength of its materials—the stone, the concrete. Part of the idea of a museum is that it is built for duration, and Breuer’s design is a beautiful embodiment of that. But just because you love something doesn’t mean you have to copy it. 

I was actually asked to do a proposal for expanding the museum on that site, but they were not going to be able to demolish the brownstones next door; it wasn’t feasible. Adam Weinberg and the board decided to postpone the project, and eventually we found the new site downtown. 

Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Palais de Justice, 2017, Paris. Photo: Michel Denancé.

JR: And was the downtown site more compatible with your philosophy of museum design? 

RP: Once you start working on a new building, you don’t just apply your principles. You forget the principles and find something specific in the site that the design can respond to. Sometimes that is the local history, or even another building to expand, as in my projects for the Art Institute of Chicago or the Morgan Library or the Kimbell Art Museum. But even an empty site will have something. When I was designing the new Osaka airport, we were building on an artificial island out in the middle of the bay, and even there, with only the water, there was something that I could work with. It’s the spirit of the place, what the Romans used to call the genius loci. 

I will never forget the day I visited the Whitney’s new site. The High Line was there, and the water, and the traffic on the highway, and the sun and the busy streets. These things are the essence of the building. There was already a double relationship, with the city on one side and the water and the traffic on the other. Then I thought about the logic of the street, and that maybe the building could rise up and the street could come inside in such a way that you wouldn’t even understand the distinction between inside and outside, so that the city and the museum could merge. And stairs and terraces on the outside of the building would allow you to play, because by walking up or down from one level to another you can see the city in different ways. 

Renzo Piano Building Workshop, GES 2, anticipated completion 2020, Moscow. Rendering.

JR: I can see how important the stairs and the terraces and the openness to the street are for the Whitney’s engagement with the city, but I wonder if there is a point when these kinds of design moves start to conflict with the galleries themselves. It strikes me that many of your early museum designs, starting with the Menil Collection in Houston, were one-story buildings on relatively open sites. That building, in particular, has been celebrated for its masterful use of natural light in the galleries—for essentially creating the perfect conditions in which to view art. Is there ever a conflict between connecting a museum to the city outside and creating ideal viewing conditions within? 

“ When it’s good, architecture is like an iceberg—you only see a piece of it.” —Renzo Piano

RP: Honestly, when I can, I prefer to make a horizontal museum, for the very simple reason that it allows all the galleries to have natural light. That’s why the Menil is one floor, the extension to the Kimbell is one floor, the Fondation Beyeler is one floor, and the Nasher Sculpture Center is one floor (with a basement). But there are situations when you just can’t do that, when you’re working in parts of the city that are obviously too dense.  

Again, it’s about responding to site. Texas thirty years ago was a place with very little history. There was not much to respond to in that sense. But I was always interested in natural light, from my very first buildings, and the magic moment came when I was talking to Dominique de Menil. She told me, “I want a building that is big inside, but small outside.” And then I thought, This must be about light! To make a building feel big inside even if it’s not monumental, you have to fill it with light. Dominique said she wanted to feel the day going by; she wanted to feel the clouds passing over. I began to understand that natural light is magical because it’s not stable. Today a museum can have technically perfect lighting with halogen bulbs or LEDs, but it’s flat, it’s plain. It doesn’t change. 

JR: So working with natural light can be one way to connect a building to its site. But the topic of light in museums also brings up an interesting paradox. I think one reason many people think sunlight is ideal for viewing art is because it seems not just natural but neutral. Even describing it as “natural” makes it sound like it has nothing to do with anything man-made—as if it had no connection to architecture at all. But of course you can’t just leave a painting out in the sun and call that natural lighting! In fact, the architectural elements that are required to mediate natural light are often extremely sophisticated and complex. The roof of the Menil is a perfect example. The Texas sun doesn’t simply pour into the building—you designed curved ferro-cement “leaves,” held in place by a steel superstructure, which filter and diffuse that light. This is an ingenious architectural solution, and it’s also highly visible from the galleries below. Do you ever find that the materiality and tectonics of your gallery architecture are in conflict with the vision of artists or curators who simply want museum architecture to disappear?  

RP: You are right that there are some people who believe that attention to architecture takes attention away from the art. I don’t agree. A white box kills art. 

Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Fondation Beyeler, 1997, Basel. Photo: Mark Niedermann.

JR: But the white box was invented because curators and artists and viewers have complained that architecture is a distraction. It is possible for architecture to be overly assertive, certainly?  

RP: When it’s good, architecture is like an iceberg—you only see a piece of it. But to make that visible piece you need hundreds of people: builders, fabricators, engineers, draftsmen. It’s important to make that labor, that craft, visible. I think, unfortunately, that sense has been lost in architecture. People make entire buildings that don’t show any trace of their construction. Of course, today we don’t make buildings entirely by hand, but you should still be able to see traces of how the building is made, how it comes together piece by piece. 

JR: And by revealing only the tip of the iceberg, you’re able to show that process without distracting from the building’s contents? 

RP: Yes, but I don’t see a conflict between the architecture of a museum and the experience of viewing art. I don’t want to sound moralistic, but, as an architect, when you design a museum, your job is to make a house for art. This is a noble job. When you design a concert hall, you start with sound. You think about noise, vibrations, clarity, how sound will travel through the space, how it will reflect off of different materials. In this way, music inspires the design. No one would say that because you are working in the service of music, your freedom as an architect is limited. So, when you make a building for art, it’s stupid to believe that you have to do white boxes because that is the only way to show art. And it’s just as stupid to believe that you should do a piece of monumental sculpture that overwhelms everything inside of it. You have to accept that you’re working for art. That is why thinking about light is so important. That is why working on the perspectives people will have within the space, how people will move through the space, and the sense of conviviality among the visitors is important. I don’t see any of these as limitations.

JR: Do you think artists understand your architecture in the same way?

RP: I have many friends who are artists, writers, or musicians. I like talking to them, because we all have so much in common. Every discipline has its own language, but the problems of creating are the same. Everyone is connected by the same need for clarity and structure, and the same sense of exploration. Take cinema and architecture, for example—or music. They’re all about sequence, about time. It’s just that in architecture, you move through the building. In music or cinema, you remain still and the sequence unfolds around you. 

Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Nasher Sculpture Center, 2003, Dallas. Photo: Timothy Hursley.

JR: So you’re actually giving two distinct reasons that the museum shouldn’t be a site of conflict between art and architecture. First, you’re arguing that setting up the right conditions for viewing art is in itself an architectural problem. And it’s true that by focusing on the design of lighting systems, of street connections, and so on, you seem to express your own architectural language in a way that doesn’t oppose the requirements of exhibiting or viewing art. But your second, more fundamental point is that art and architecture are on separate but parallel tracks, exploring many of the same issues but through different means. Instead of assuming that the work of artists and architects is competing for the same territory, then, perhaps we should be thinking about how each can extend the other?  

RP: That’s why when you talk about building, you can’t talk just about shapes or styles. It’s also how you do it. You don’t begin with some conceptual inspiration and then start thinking about nuts and bolts—you think about the two things together. And this is true for everybody. Maurizio Pollini, the great pianist, is a close friend of mine. Every time we talk, we talk about Steinways. You can’t disconnect the music from the force of fingers on a keyboard. That is the power of technique: It is the link between idea and execution. Art needs that kind of depth, and so does architecture. That need will always connect them.