Renzo Piano is a Pritzker Prize-winning Italian Architect known for buildings such as the ground-breaking Pompidou Centre in Paris, the London Bridge Tower (also known as “The Shard”), and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. In an interview with Louisiana Channel on YouTube, Piano opens up about his early days as a young boy in the quaint port city of Genoa, his (non)transition into architecture, his views on travel, his philosophies, and insights into architecture, among many other things. He also sheds light on his practice and offers advice to young professionals entering the field.
On His Roots and Early Influences
To Piano, looking back at the past is a “dangerous exercise.” He says that to move forward, one should look to the future than revel in nostalgia. However, he does point to certain important markers in his life that he believes set the tone for the years to come. Renzo Piano’s father was a builder- and so, becoming a part of the construction industry was the natural order of things for him. His identity is rooted strongly in the sense of place where he grew up. The vast seas inculcated in him a desire to “run away” and see the world, and the builtscape of the city, with its narrow streets built in stone, offered a sense of shelter and protection.
Piano emphasizes that architects should travel for three reasons. Firstly, it helps one get away from what one has been working on at the moment. “Even if you are making a fresco, or a painting, or a mosaic. Then you need to get close, and from time to time go away to understand and go back…”
The second reason is that traveling, in the sense of “going away”, helps us understand the value of the place to which we belong, the value of its beauty and culture because being in one place, one gets used to it and so stops recognizing it.
Traveling also helps us “learn civic values”. It causes us to interact with, and understand various cultures around the world. “Diversity is a value, not a problem. It is a way to grow to learn, to steal, and to take.” “Stealing”, according to Piano, is not a problem as long as one always strives to give back after having taken away, to always add a bit of one’s own, to build on what has been.
On the 2nd World War and its Influence On Him
Having been born in 1937, Piano says that he was too small to have realized the gravity of the situation. His parents always protected him. But looking back, to him, a building has always been a “gesture in peace.” Buildings are made for people to ” gather, stay together, and to discover tolerance and enjoy diversity. Being born in the war, in time you grow up with this idea.” Piano is also very careful in suggesting that architects cannot change history, but they are certainly witness to it. “…You can give shape to the change. You make a building to give shelter to the change. That is why making public buildings is so important.”
On the Profession of Architecture
Piano describes three important characteristics of architects. Firstly, an architect must be a good builder and craftsperson. They should know how to “put things together.” Secondly, architects also need to be “civic people”, “You make buildings for human beings and communities for people who stay together and share values…its the beginning of making a better world…”. Thirdly, architects must build upon the “profound idea of beauty”, rather than the cosmetic idea of it. Beauty as a “profound idea” has to do with the “discovery of light, with space, with compression, with expansion, with shadow and light…, and a sense of lightness. ” To Piano, beauty is a form of language one cannot simply miss.
On Being An Architect, Creativity, and Sketching
“It is a complicated, funny job…”, says Piano in the sense that an architect has to wear many hats. He/she needs to be a poet, a builder, a social animal, sometimes think about the budget and running a team of people, all in the course of a few hours. “You keep changing but you are still the same.”
Piano elucidates that “creativity is only possible when you share creativity.” To become creative one merely needs to decide to become creative and keep trying.
Reiterating the value of computers and technology in architecture, he also points out that “computers are a bit stupid… you have to tell them exactly from where to where to go when you make a line…” Piano says that when one starts a job one doesn’t know, one needs a pencil and a paper to “explore”, rather than resorting to perfection from the very get-go, “the imperfection of that is exactly what you need because it is in proportion to the fact that you are beginning…”
Advice to Young People in the Field
In his concluding remarks, Piano highlights that architecture is about “making a better world” and at the same time, it is also “about beauty.” According to him, adding a sense of beauty to space can make people better versions of themselves. “If beauty is there, beauty can change the world. It will do it, one person, at a time, but it will do it.”
Renzo Piano, being the master architect that he is, has freely shared his years of accumulated wisdom and experiences in this interview. His ideas can give architects a good sense of direction as to where they should go with their values and practices- to always observe, and to never lose the sense of poetry in a world focussed on technicalities and efficiencies.