Piano comments on the WTC disasterIn an interview published in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica on September 21, Piano spoke about skyscraper design in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks.

When asked “Is it possible to build safer skyscrapers?” he replied, “We already know how to build skyscrapers that can resist earthquakes. Now we must devise ways to protect buldings from the kind of fires that occurred at the twin towers. The necessary technology exists and is employed at offshore oil-drilling platforms where protective coatings such as polypropylene fibers are used. There’s a need to rethink security systems and make fire egress easier.”

Asked what should be built on the WTC site, Piano said, “Whatever is built, there should first be a great deal of thought and reflection. It’s not only an economic issue but a cultural one. What is at stake is saving the soul of a city, its spirit.”

The recent destruction of the World Trade Center in New York casts an ominous shadow on high-rises everywhere, especially those that aspire to landmark status. Earlier this year, well before the tragic events of September 11, Record's editor Robert Ivy spoke with Renzo Piano at his glazed-roofed offices overlooking the Ligurian Sea outside of Genoa. Although the topic of terrorism and its impact on skyscraper design did not arise, Piano discussed his views on building in New York, his approach to design, the problem of urban sprawl, and the role of memory in architecture. What follows are excerpts from that interview.

Architectural Record: You have worked in many great cities in the world—Berlin, Paris, Turin, Osaka—and now you are designing projects for New York, San Francisco, and Chicago. Do you think it's going to be hard to achieve what you want in a city like Manhattan, which has the reputation of being a tough place to build?

Renzo Piano: This is what architecture is about. Architecture is not an art independent from reality. Real architecture, real painting, real poetry, real music is never detached from physicality. In architecture, that’s it. Architecture is at the edge, between art and anthropology, between society and science, technology and history. Sometimes memory, too, plays a part. Architecture is about illusion and symbolism, semantics, and the art of telling stories. It’s a funny mixture of these things. Sometimes it’s humanistic and sometimes it’s materialistic.

So you’re not worried about working with tough New York developers on a project like the New York Times Tower?

No. Of course they are developers. But what is wrong with that? In some ways the best client is a tough client who knows what he wants. That doesn’t mean you give the client exactly what he wants. You are responsible for doing your job well. But a good building needs a good program. I don’t think there is one single good building without a good plan. It’s impossible. Certainly you need a good architect, but that’s not enough.

You have studied ceramics and tiles more than most contemporary architects. How will you use them in New York?

Ceramics are metamorphic materials. They have a great ability to bleach and change, to echo the weather. For me, the most beautiful quality of Manhattan is its ability to change with atmospheric changes. One of the most poetic views of Manhattan is of its forest of buildings as they take the quality of the weather. New York is a peculiar place because it’s very hard, very tough when you touch the ground. It’s made of stone and steel. But as soon as you break from the ground and go up, you can see it’s one of the softest cities in the world.

What will the New York Times building do to advance your thoughts and work? Where is it going?

This is exactly the question we ask each time. We are lucky to be able to decide what projects we want to do—not because we are snobs but because we are in a lucky position. Let’s talk about expression in architecture. I like fighting gravity. Magic is essential in architecture. Working in Manhattan, I love the idea that we accept the clear and simple geometry of a building. We accept that logic. But complexity comes from texture, from vibration, from the metamorphic capacity of the building to transform, to change, to breathe. Sometimes buildings even make sounds. You know, in New Caledonia we learned from the local culture that buildings sing. And we were actually able to do that, to make our building [the J.M. Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Nouvéa] make a sound when the wind blows. So the complexity doesn’t necessarily come from geometrical complexity. The building is actually very simple. But the complexity comes from the skin, the surface of the building actually vibrating, working with the weather. In Manhattan, I think the Times building will be tough when it touches the ground and then become more light, more vibrant, more metamorphic as it disappears in the clouds. I’m working on the idea of putting a garden on the roof, so there’s a garden in the sky. On the street level there will be a lot of activity: a small auditorium, a small museum for the Times collection of pictures and documents, shops—lots of street life.

Your work often centers on complex issues that are resolved simply. Can you explain your approach to design?

I came to architecture as the son of a builder, so when I was a young architect I was devoted to developing objects. I was attracted to the physicality. The piece-by-piece approach was essential to me. Then I began to understand that this is not enough. Architecture is more than just putting things together. It’s about the organic, about illusions, a sense of memory, and a textural approach. I must admit, though, that I still love the idea of putting parts together. That is why my office is called the Building Workshop. I love the idea that you go from the general to the detail and then from the detail to the general. It’s a double process. You cannot think about the presence of the building in the city without thinking about materiality. And when you think about materiality, you start to think about detail.

There is a lot of talk about architecture becoming virtual. What is the role of the computer in architecture today?

The computer is essential. When you make a building like, for example, Kansai Airport in Osaka [RECORD, JULY 1994, Pacific Rim section], you need a computer to optimize everything—the structure, the form. You know, computers are getting so clever that they seem a bit like those pianos where you push a button and it plays the cha-cha and then a rumba. You may play very badly, but you feel like a great pianist. The same is true now in architecture. You may find yourself in the position where you feel like you’re pushing buttons and able to build everything. But architecture is about thinking. It’s about slowness in some way. You need time. The bad thing about computers is that they make everything run very fast, so fast that you can have a baby in nine weeks instead of nine months. But you still need nine months, not nine weeks, to make a baby.

Let’s jump around a little here. What do you think of the role of the architect in today’s world? Where do we stand as a group?

This touches on the ethics of the profession and how we go about our work. Can I confess one thing? I take pleasure in what I do. Pleasure is one of the most important things. You may say this is selfish. It is not selfish.

When you accepted the Pritzker Prize in 1998, you described architects and yourself as explorers. Do you take an idea or a line and rework it or are you always looking for the new?

I think it’s important to note the difference between style and coherence. If you’re talking about coherence, I love it. If you’re talking about style, then I start to be more suspicious. Coherence is about the experience, about using what you’ve been learning and reapplying it. It’s not about making yourself recognizable. But architecture is necessarily about exploring. Every place is different, every client is different, every society is different. Culturally, historically, psychologically, anthropologically, and topographically, every job is different. So the real risk is that as an architect you end up imposing your stamp before you understand what is the reality of a place. I never take a new job without visiting the place, without trying to understand, without trying to get a basic, fundamental emotion. Because that’s what it’s all about—building emotion. I try to understand what is the real nature of a place, what is the context. My goal is not necessarily to integrate with the context. Sometimes architecture should not integrate but should make a contribution to the context.

Do you ever worry that you won’t find the genius of a project or make it work?

Oh, yes, you worry about that. And the next thing you worry about is staying on track, because architecture is a very long, complex process. There are two things I worry about. In the beginning, it’s finding the emotion, the basic emotion. But then, you need to find the direction and stay with it for sometimes five or six or more years.

Tell us a little about how your firm operates. What is your role here?

One of my favorite roles, though not necessarily the main one, is spending time—my colleagues might say losing my time—in the model-maker’s shop. I love watching things and touching. If you look around my workplace here, I have all my small working models on the wall. What I do is mentally I touch each one. They’re like my children, and I go and touch each one to understand what is going on.

You’ve spent a lot of your career working on cities such as Genoa and Berlin. What is the state of the contemporary city today?

Right now I’m working with Milan, helping it plan its peripheries. This is going to be one of the biggest challenges in the next 50 years. How do we transform the periphery? It’s not just about form, it’s about content. The real trouble is that these urban peripheries are monofunctional, they’re all about just one mode—production or business or housing. But after the city’s big explosion, now we’re seeing it start to implode. I like the idea that sustainable growth is about implosion not explosion.

There are some architects who have made careers of mostly talk.

Yes, there’s nothing wrong about that. But for me, I prefer to build.