The scope of the Louvre was so vast. You literally went through layers of history as you exposed and joined its lower levels, as well as designing an immense addition, and all with as little disruption as possible to the institution. No one ever focused on that—everyone just talked about the glass pyramid.
You’re absolutely right. Everybody points to the pyramid, but the total reorganization of the museum was the real challenge. Mitterand understood that. Few people know, for instance, that the French Ministry of Finance used to occupy the Richelieu Wing [north wing] of the Louvre. Mitterand was very aware of the importance of the Richelieu Wing, because without it, the Louvre is just a long
L-shaped building instead of a U-shaped building. Soon after he became president in 1981, Mitterand commissioned a competition for a new building for the Ministry of Finance in Paris. That gave him justification to move the agency to a new location, and therefore enabled us to claim that space. Without it, I would not have been able to do the project. I probably would not have accepted the commission—I could not have done anything for the museum.
And the biggest challenge of the Louvre was beyond merely architecture. When I first went there in 1983, it was divided into seven departments, and each was totally autonomous. The department directors would not even talk to each other. They were very competitive for space and money. So, architecturally we had to change this situation—make seven departments into one and unify them as a single institution. I’m not so sure Mitterand realized how big a challenge this was; I certainly didn’t. But the result worked out. Today the departments are all unified under one president, and they’re also unified architecturally. The fact that people don’t realize this huge challenge of the Louvre is totally mind-boggling to me.
Let’s discuss form for a minute. We talk a lot about form—it dominates the discussion of architecture in the media these days. You yourself are a master of form—the East Building of the National Gallery, for instance, is a superior example of your skills, as the AIA recognized this year. But everything you’ve talked about so far is about the programmatic, complex, deeper issues that reside within projects. How do your formal skills interplay with this programmatic thinking?
Ever since 1990, I haven’t been all that interested in form, not at all. To create a work of architecture that looks exciting and different is not the challenge for me anymore. The challenge is for me to learn something about what I’m doing. I’ve been more interested recently in learning about civilization. I know something about the civilization of China, with my background, obviously, and I think I know something about American history. But that’s about all. And I’ve traveled all over the world, and for a long time I didn’t know very much about it, really. When I got the opportunity to do the new wing [the Schauhaus] for the German Historical Museum, for instance, I didn’t see it as an opportunity for my own ego, to do something so exciting that every architectural publication would want to put it on the cover. I accepted it because I knew it was going to be a very difficult project, and I wasn’t sure I could do something exciting there. Originally the building was to have been located near the Reichstag, a very prominent site. But ultimately they decided to site this tiny little building behind an enormous military museum [the Zeughaus] dating from the early 18th century, which is very Prussian. I visited that museum, and you’d think that any collection of military artifacts would be all guns and cannons and whatnot, but there’s a lot more than you’d expect there—a lot about Prussian history, which of course is the foundation of Germany. [The Zeughaus, a weapons depot before becoming a museum, is now undergoing renovation to house the permanent collection of the German Historical Museum]. This location has much less visibility. I had the idea to do something helical and transparent with the new wing, something that would be symbolic of the unification of East and West Germany. The prime minister personally asked to see some sign of this in the building. When you’re asked that by a client, it’s an opportunity you just don’t waste. So, while it was an exciting challenge, form-making is not the reason I’m still engaged in projects. One of the reasons I took this on was that I wanted to find out as much as I could about Germany’s architectural history. The name that kept popping up was Karl Friedrich Schinkel. I’ve seen his museum, the Altes Museum in Berlin, but I hadn’t visited any of his other work until I began designing the new wing. I think his greatest skill was the diversity of projects he achieved, from the very monumental, like the colonnade at the Altes Museum, to the small, domestic skills he brought to the villas he designed in Berlin and elsewhere.
How did your museum project in the Middle East come about?
How do I begin? Qatar does not have much history, it’s a new emirate. So I couldn’t draw on the history of the country; its history is really just being a desert. But I thought, the one thing I must learn about for this project is the Islamic faith. So I read about Islam and Islamic architecture, and the more I studied the more I realized where the best Islamic buildings were. At the beginning, I thought the best Islamic work was in Spain—the mosque in Cordoba, the Alhambra in Granada. But as I learned more, my ideas shifted. To begin with, the climate of southern Spain is not at all like desert, where most Islamic architecture is built. I kept searching. I traveled to Egypt, and to the Middle East many times. I saw early Islamic architecture in Damascus, Syria, where they took some early Christian churches and transformed them into mosques, so they were not pure Islamic—just as in southern Spain, it’s no longer pure Islamic architecture either, because it gets mingled with Christianity. Or in Turkey, where the Ottoman influence is felt, too—it’s Islamic but not pure Islamic.
I found the most wonderful examples of Islamic work in Cairo, it turns out. I’d visited mosques there before, but I didn’t see them with the same eye as I did this time. They truly said something to me about Islamic architecture. The museum I’m designing is more influenced by the Mosque of Ibn Tulun than any other building. This mosque is very austere and beautiful, its geometry is most refined. You think of Gothic architecture, it’s so elaborate. This is the opposite—so simple.
It’s inspiring to see that you’re so engaged with these issues. You’re still a student!
Yes, I am. You always should be. That’s what makes life interesting.
We’ve talked a lot about museums, but there are other building types that you’ve been involved with. The Bank of China building, for instance, in Hong Kong—a tall building. The issues you faced with that project are a very different set of concerns from those of museums, aren’t they?
That’s very true. Actually, many of the projects I’m most proud of are tall buildings, especially the housing projects. In New York I have two: one in Kips Bay and one at New York University. At that time, those projects were most challenging, architecturally—how do you enable redevelopment, foster urban renewal with a tall building? For Kips Bay, I had a wonderful client, William Zeckendorf, who was willing to gamble with me on using concrete and not brick for a high-rise apartment building. That was very innovative at the time.
How old were you when you got the Kips Bay project?
I came to New York and worked with Zeckendorf in 1948. I was 30 years old. Kips Bay came to me two years later, in 1950. Later I got my first museum project, the Everson Art Museum in Syracuse. That was about 1960, 1961. I was very busy back then. You don’t really get a chance to do anything until your mid-40s. I told my sons that: Don’t expect to accomplish too much in the early part of your life. I was fortunate—after the war, I left China, in 1944; there was nothing going on for me at the time. I went back to Harvard to teach and to get my master’s degree. I thought teaching would give me the most flexibility in case I had to return to China to be with my family. I didn’t really practice architecture until I got to New York; I didn’t have many qualifications or much experience at all. Becoming a designer is a long process of learning. You make mistakes when you’re young. It’s important to have the opportunity to make mistakes.
What are your days like when you’re not at work?
At home, I have a wife, fortunately, and my children are all grown, and I have many grandchildren. I spend weekends with my grandchildren; I adore them. On a daily basis, my home life is very simple. I spend about 2 hours every morning reading the newspaper. As my two assistants will tell you, I don’t come to work in the mornings, for two reasons. First, I want to be informed—that means I go through The New York Times every day, and then I watch some news on television. The second is, mornings are the best time to communicate with my clients abroad. So I communicate with Luxembourg, with Berlin, with Paris—I continue to do work on the Louvre, it didn’t end in 1993. So I’m on the phone a lot to my international clients in the mornings, after I get through the news.
Two afternoons a week I come to my office. If I’m not here, I go to my sons’ office. I still have two of my projects working through them—the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar and the Suzhou Museum.
Did you do any conceptualizing for the redevelopment or the memorial in Lower Manhattan?
No. That project probably will take 10 years, and I didn’t want to think about a project that I couldn’t finish. That’s a kind of temptation. It was the same reason I declined to submit an entry for the U.N. addition in New York, the one that [Fumihiko] Maki is now working on. I thought I wouldn’t be able to finish it. One has to realize one’s limitations. Why kid yourself?