Renzo Piano

We thought, ‘maybe we do something that looks more like a factory, an open space, accessible.’ Someone would stand there and say, ‘It’s a factory.’ And we were very happy about that, because that’s much better than a monument. renzo piano

Manhattan is currently undergoing a construction boom so extensive that not since the skyscraper rush of the 1920s has the city’s skyline been faced with the potential for so much massive transformation. But we are living in a new Gilded Age, and not surprisingly, most of the pencil-thin, sky-high constructions rising from the street, and designed by the latest international “starchitects,” are reserved for the world’s billionaires. In other words, these superstructures remain inaccessible to most of the city’s populace. But one just-completed construction, opening this month along the Hudson River in the Meatpacking District, proves to be a thrilling exception: Renzo Piano’s dynamic, hyper-industrial, asymmetrical, glass-and-steel building floating above the ground alongside the High Line. It is the new Whitney Museum, an explicitly public cultural institution complete with an open-air largo, or square, on the street level that invites people into this shared zone of contemporary art.

Piano might be the master of our time at building vital connective tissue in his open, environment-permeating structures. After all, he was only in his early thirties when he and Richard Rogers began working on the jarring, iconoclastic Centre Pompidou in Paris, with its trademark structural elements—pipes, cables, and escalator bank—appearing on the outside like the exoskeleton of a living mammal. And perhaps that’s what Piano does best: He makes buildings that are alive, available, transparent, participatory. In his five decades of rethinking the bones of public institutions, he’s transformed a wide variety of monumental and quietly majestic places: the expansion and renovation of New York’s Morgan Library (2006), Houston’s Menil Collection (1986), San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences (2008), Amsterdam’s NEMO science center (1997), Osaka’s Kansai International Airport Terminal (1994), the New York Times building (2007), the renovation and expansion of the Harvard Art Museums (2014), and Paris’s Pathé Foundation (2014), just to name a few.

Of course, the Whitney was a specific animal to tackle, made all the more complex by the enduring public love of its former home, the boxy, Brutalist Marcel Breuer masterpiece on Madison Avenue and East 75th Street. Piano brought some of the Breuerian touches down to the new Whitney, along with far more gallery space, necessary facilities, and a column-free special exhibitions space. It is also, in many ways, a homecoming: The museum’s founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, began exhibiting avant-garde art in 1907, first informally in her studio on MacDougal Alley and later in a row house on West Eighth Street. No doubt there will be much debate about Piano’s latest achievement—from the extremely positive to the vehemently negative—just as there should be with any public structure that attempts to capture the imagination and move the conversation forward. Thank God we still have them.

In honor of the new building, Piano’s longtime friend, the great sculptor Mark di Suvero, stopped by the architect’s workshop, not far from the new Whitney, in March, and over lunch and a bottle of Malbec, talked about the shock of the new and the optimism of building monuments that could last forever. —Christopher Bollen

MARK DI SUVERO: Renzo, I have some questions for you. I would like to ask you why you do so many museums? [laughs]

RENZO PIANO: I don’t know why. Because they ask me. Also, Mark, really, I do much more than museums. What I really long to do are public buildings. I love that—a concert hall, a school, a library, a hospital. Everything that is public makes a city a better place to be. Because you make a place where people share values: they come, they stay together. It’s much the same as a museum.

DI SUVERO: But the museums that you’re known for …

PIANO: Museums tend to do a better job. It’s about wondering.

DI SUVERO: Imagination.

PIANO: Yes, it’s about imagination. But take, for instance, something I was working on this morning: We’re making a big building for Columbia University for the Mind Brain Behavior Initiative. It’s about the structure of brains, and we’re working with the scientists there. And those people are equally queer, like artists. 

DI SUVERO: They have very little imagination, though.

PIANO: The scientists I’m talking about have Nobel Prizes, like Richard Axel and Eric Kandel. They have open minds.

DI SUVERO: So it’s not just museums you do.

PIANO: Museums are especially interesting because it’s about beauty, it’s about art, it’s about wondering, it’s about discovery, it’s about exploring. Also, the museums are never the same. If I take the last ten museums I’ve made, there’s not one like the other. They’re all different. The Whitney is like a monolith landing in the middle of New York.

DI SUVERO: It’s not a monolith, it’s multifaceted. But I remember you once telling me a story of how you were hit in the face with a tomato when you proposed Pompidou. They don’t do that to you anymore. [laughs]

PIANO: That’s a long time ago. We were young bad boys, both Richard and myself. I was 33. You know why we were able to do that building? Because nobody understood what we were doing.

DI SUVERO: You were turning the building inside out. And they love it now.

PIANO: The opening day we got kings and princesses coming from all over the world, and half those people thought it was still to be finished, “Ah, so, Finito? Very interesting!” But we knew what we wanted to do. We wanted to break the logic of it in its position and in its intimidation. Don’t forget, we proposed it only three years after May ’68. After the ’60s, museums were a fantastic place, but they were only for the elite. Nobody really went to the museum except people in love with art. So, as bad boys, we thought, “We must bring art to anybody, even people who don’t care about art.” So we had to break that sense of intimidation, break the monumental—like stone, like marble, like steps, like cold. We thought,  “Maybe we do something that looks more like a factory, an open space, accessible.” Someone would stand there and say, “It’s a factory.” And we were very happy about that, because that’s much better than a monument. This was the idea that a museum must be a place for people. If you are not a cultivated person, you will become one, because that’s what art makes. Art makes a miracle. I’m not talking about artists; I’m talking about art. When you are in front of a piece of art, it’s about the untold; it’s about something almost mysterious. There is something coming out, something that causes you to dream or think in a different way. Art and beauty switches on a special light in your eyes. You think differently, almost meandering. This is why art makes people better. It makes people more curious, more demanding. And that’s what is interesting about the museum: Just as art makes people better, a building for art makes a city a better place to live.

DI SUVERO: Yes, it’s true.

PIANO: And for centuries to come, this becomes a place for someone to go. I mean, why live in a city? You live in a city because they have interesting places.

DI SUVERO: The whole world is going into cities now, right?

PIANO: I’m not sure if that’s good news or bad news. But in Italian, città and civiltà are practically the same—city and civilization. Cities are a human invention, they don’t exist in nature. So it’s the idea of staying together and both sharing values and accepting diversity. That’s the typical idea of the civilized place. That’s why cities are interesting, and they’re more interesting if you can find places like museums in a city.

DI SUVERO: There’s a moment in the new Whitney building where you see the Hudson and you feel like you’re flying over the water. I think the building is great because it has the capacity to show what one never knew before about the city. When you walk up there, you see the Village in a new way. I think that everyone is very happy with the building. Other times they throw tomatoes at you.

PIANO: You know what people who have seen the building go on about? They say it’s like the Whitney—like the Breuer building. People loved that building. And when something’s loved, you have a big duty to perform if you build a new one. And I think artists love it too, because it’s a space for art; it’s unpretentious and open and flexible and also still a bit rough. We didn’t make the floor rough with stone like in the Breuer building. We did it with pine. So it is a bit like the old Whitney. But it’s much bigger, of course—bigger exhibition space and bigger galleries.

DI SUVERO: How much space is it?                 

PIANO: It’s almost double, and very open. And where it is situated, you see east and west.

DI SUVERO: There are views of the east that have never been seen before.

PIANO: I was talking to you about something similar once with terraces for a building I was designing in Genoa. We talked about the fact that every time you have a factory or you have a studio, then you have a backyard space. And I love to call it the testing floor, because every factory has a space outside where you put things together. So we wanted those terraces—one, two, three, looking at the city—but they are also galleries with sky. And because they step down, they break the scale, and you have this gallery between the interior and the city. And there’s a funny staircase on the east side. That’s about the idea that you actually fly above the city. Of course, you can also take elevators. But this is about being able to walk into the city. It’s kind of flirting with the city and the river.

DI SUVERO: The river is great.

PIANO: Yes, you see the river, and if you look carefully, you can see L.A. You have to look carefully, but you’ll find it.

DI SUVERO: [laughs] Well, what other questions should I ask?

PIANO: Can we talk about ladies? About food?

DI SUVERO: No, not about food.

PIANO: You may not remember, Mark, but we talked a lot in the beginning when I was designing the space.

DI SUVERO: Oh, I remember. And I thought it was terrible, the way the neighborhood treated it at first. They didn’t want art potential here.

PIANO: But in my opinion, Gertrude Whitney started this whole adventure downtown. She made the pub for artists in 1914 in Greenwich Village [the Whitney Studio]. And then somebody got the brilliant idea to bring the adventure uptown. That was probably not the most intelligent move, because the Breuer building is fine, but the context is not very fine. So, actually, it is coming back home.

DI SUVERO: Down here is a very strange place. You have the meat market and the Standard, which is not standard at all. The whole neighborhood is changing. And you have the High Line, this link to the industrial past that has now blossomed into a park, which the tourists and citizens love.

PIANO: I hope people will adopt this place as a place to go, a destination. But one of the reasons why the museum doesn’t touch the ground is it’s actually lifted, because I wanted the ground floor to be like a piazza. So when you go underneath, it’s partially open; it’s so transparent you don’t even understand where you are at first. Are you in the street or are you in the building? That’s something that Mr. Breuer could not do, because he’s got this tiny place and he’s got Madison Avenue. So he was obliged to make a ditch there, and even a little bridge. Here we did the opposite—we actually opened the ground floor completely, so the ground floor becomes a piazza. I call it a laboratory. In Italian, there are at least ten different names you can give piazza. This modern piazza is a largo. It’s like a street becoming wider. But it’s a public space. So this is the other thing that I’m very keen about: I hope this will become a natural place for people to come and enjoy a coffee, to stay together, eventually to go out to see art. But this is exactly what I always try to do.

DI SUVERO: People meet outside the Pompidou.

PIANO: And then they go see the art. And art is a kind of secret garden. It must be done in such a way that people fall in love with it sooner or later.

DI SUVERO: Oh, I like that. [laughs]

PIANO: I can see people coming, enjoying the piazza underneath for maybe many, many years without really thinking about art. But sooner or later they will fall in the trap.

DI SUVERO: It’s not a trap!

PIANO: It’s not a trap, of course. It’s pleasure.

DI SUVERO: How is the project going in Australia? Again, I tried to work with you there but they don’t like Americans. [laughs] You’re doing a museum there, yes?

PIANO: Not a museum, a tower.

DI SUVERO: You’ve done the Aurora Place tower [in Sydney, Australia], already.

PIANO: A long time ago. Now I’m making another one in a different place, just by the Botanic Gardens, the Barangaroo South residential tower.

DI SUVERO: The Botanic Gardens are gorgeous. They have these fruit bats that fly around. It’s terrifying, but they don’t attack the people. So what other museums are you doing? Quanti museums?

PIANO: We finished the museum for the art center for Harvard a few months ago.

DI SUVERO: And you are doing the Broad museum in L.A.?

What’s good about a concert is that you’re enjoying the concert, but you’re enjoying being together with the other 1,000 people enjoying the same thing. That’s what I call sharing values. Staying together. This is what an architect makes most saliently. renzo piano

PIANO: That one’s done. But not far away from there, we are building the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. It’s not about art, it’s about cinema. So, again, it’s not just museums. I love all those buildings that have a strong connection to the community. They become a place to share values, to stay together, to enjoy the same things. What’s good about a concert is that you’re enjoying the concert, but you’re enjoying being together with the other 1,000 people enjoying the same thing. That’s what I call sharing values. Staying together. This is what an architect makes most saliently.

DI SUVERO: Chin chin!

PIANO: Saluto. [toast glasses]

DI SUVERO: I like the eastern facade on the Whitney. The openness is very much like what you did with the Pompidou, with its escalator. The Parisians fell in love with the escalator.

PIANO: The escalator is the visible movement. It makes movement visible. It’s about moving.

DI SUVERO: The view in the Pompidou is of the rooftops. And the rooftops of Paris are where they can never go; people are never allowed on the roofs. So they have this vision of floating beyond it. And usually escalators are a way of moving the product from one level to the other level, nothing about vision. What happened with that escalator is they fell in love with the building because of it.

PIANO: I was told that we got over 200 million people coming in the first 30 years. That escalator was a quite childish idea. Like, if you give a pencil to a little boy or a little girl, they draw a building like this. You make a building out of one, two, five floors. Then you inevitably put columns, otherwise the building doesn’t stand. Then you put some bracing, otherwise it falls. And then, shit, how do you go from one part of the building to another. You put on a little machine to transport them, and then you’re finished, done, end of transmission. So Pompidou is not a very complex thing; it’s very basic.

DI SUVERO: Here it’s all different.

PIANO: It’s different but it’s still about doing something that is solid and that can stay forever. Of course, here we have elevators inside. Then we have those funny stairs outside, like birdmen stairs.

DI SUVERO: It looks like a fire escape. I think the vision of space is totally different.

PIANO: One side of the building is fragmented. On this side, it’s more massive. But because of the traffic, it’s more closed. Otherwise, it’s very noisy. And then from the river side, you see the sunset.

DI SUVERO: The river, the sunset. You did not get to see my sculpture show at Crissy Field, which is underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. I think it was almost a hundred tons of steel. I look at the way architects use steel as terrible. At 57th Street and Park Avenue, there’s this steel building that’s going up. But it’s built like bricks on top of each other.

PIANO: But you love the crane. I tell people you are a crane.

DI SUVERO: I’m a crane operator. My membership in the Operating Engineers union means that I can run a crane. I’m the oldest member of the union. But all you have to do is go across the Golden Gate Bridge and you see what steel and tension can do, instead of just piling it on top of each other. 

PIANO: I love that.

DI SUVERO: I had eight pieces out there. Next to the bridge they all became miniatures. I like the sense of change of scale.

PIANO: And Crissy Field is where the kids go with—

DI SUVERO: The kites! Right. That’s where I came with my family from China as an immigrant. We were fleeing the fascists, the Japanese, who were killing millions of Chinese. And we arrived, and there was the bridge. I still remember it. I was 7 years old. And behind it was Alcatraz. The sailors said to me, “How do you like it?” I said, “I want to live there.” And I pointed to Alcatraz. And they said, “Oh, you have to kill somebody to live there.” I thought, “What country are we coming to?” [Piano laughs] Now there is a great show of Ai Weiwei in the destroyed prison. And it is just heartbreaking. He has the imprisoned people who tried to get free speech in different places in this ruined prison. And there is a place where you can write postcards to people in prison.

PIANO: I’ve sailed around Alcatraz many times, but never stopped at it.

DI SUVERO: Vale, Italiano.

PIANO: Because I’ve been working in San Francisco for the California Academy of Sciences. I did the science museum.

DI SUVERO: I like that museum. I like that museum best when you look down onto people that are underneath the water. [laughs]

PIANO: Exactly. I have the rainforest sphere with everything flying about, but the roof is made of glass. When was your show in San Francisco?

DI SUVERO: Last year. Finito. Shows disappear. And maybe sometimes that’s the difference between architecture and sculpture.

PIANO: They become archives.

DI SUVERO: Awful archives.

PIANO: But the beauty is something that remains. I’m not joking. I have so many friends who are musicians, and they say, “Oh, but my music goes away.” It’s not true, because they record music. And this remains for a long time.

DI SUVERO: After Beethoven’s Ninth, when you walk out of the concert hall and you’ve gone through that emotion, you carry something with you.

PIANO: But museums are places where you build longevity. What you are talking about, making exhibitions go away? Forget it, there’s nothing more durable than a piece of art. [di Suvero laughs] And you have a habit of making immense pieces.

DI SUVERO: They’re not immense, they’re just the right scale to make you feel more capable to walk around them and look up and see art that makes you feel like looking up at birds.

PIANO: It’s just an opportunity for you to enjoy the crane.

DI SUVERO: [laughs] To enjoy the crane. Yes. Power. Power is what I’m dealing with a lot in the new book that I’m writing. You have my Dreambook [the 2008 book of di Suvero’s works, with short texts by the artist and other writers]. In the new book, I deal with power. There’s psychic power, there’s sexual power, there is money power, there is strength power. There are many different kinds of power. People like Foucault think about prisons as an exhibition of power, but that’s just the cops, that’s just the enforcing part. There is power if your son on violin plays absolutely purely—at that moment, that is a different kind of power. But if he plays badly … [laughs] The hammer that Nietzsche loved so much can destroy, but it can also build. You put a nail in and it stays together.

PIANO: That is the right power, you’re right. The one you love is horsepower.

DI SUVERO: [laughs] It’s down to horses? You know, horses are gorgeous animals, and they changed the world for human beings. But horsepower, what does that have to do with the physics of neutrons and protons? This is a different kind of power, like gravity. It is totally different. And I think that there are buildings that are built to impose power too. Like the building at Columbia would be intellectual power.

PIANO: It’s about the power of the structure of the brain, with my friend Richard and Eric, two Nobel Prize winners.

DI SUVERO: Do you have a Nobel Prize?

PIANO: I have a Pritzker prize. Clinton gave me that.

DI SUVERO: Obama gave me a prize. That’s power.

PIANO: The brain has an electric field of power. I think there are about 80 billion to 100 billion neurons in your brain. They are so small that no one could see them until the new technology came out to make it possible to measure. And you measure not just the size but also the electrical power. So there is a power there.

DI SUVERO: But there is that other thing that is not measurable, which is aesthetic power. You see a Rembrandt, and you look at those eyes and it’s incredible. It isn’t that he’s alive, it’s only paint. We know that it’s only paint, and it radiates something; it catches you.

PIANO: This is beauty.

DI SUVERO: Beauty is such a hard word.

PIANO: It’s unreachable. I had a friend, a philosopher, who used to say many times, “I reached many times the door of the temple, but I’ve never managed to get in.” There’s something mysterious that human beings try to reach, but the arm is too short.

DI SUVERO: I think it’s easier to talk about sexuality, but I think we are driven by what we consider beauty. And the museum is where they show you a different vision than what you thought. Some people don’t like it; they’re used to one thing and they don’t want to be disturbed.

PIANO: But a building is about duration, and they will eventually come to it. And not just museums: For the buildings at Columbia, it is a place for 900 people working there—and they want young people to be the workers. Because Richard and Eric want those people to still be alive in 50 years. [di Suvero laughs]. I’m not joking. The truth is that they say that nothing important in the world happens in less than 50 years.

DI SUVERO: No, things can happen overnight.

PIANO: I mean big change like energy change. Nuclear change.

DI SUVERO: What about Galileo or Newton? The imaginary dimension is the essential dimension of art, and in a moment those people were able to visualize and imagine something different. And that happened in a very short time. Galileo. Un momento! It changes everything.

PIANO: I know. That took about 30 seconds. But then it took a life.

DI SUVERO: Anyway, I think it’s wonderful that you did this building. Marcel Breuer’s building is very much a castle. Castello forte.

PIANO: Una roccaforte.

DI SUVERO: Esatto. Did you know that Marcel Breuer did not want to put in that window?

PIANO: I knew that.

DI SUVERO: And they made him do that, and the window’s one of the best things about the facade of that building.

PIANO: You remember when we tried an extension of that building? We went out for lunch and discussed that. The problem was, how many old ladies with dogs walk the streets up there?

DI SUVERO: They own the place.

PIANO: I love dogs, by the way, but the Whitney was a bit out of context up there.

DI SUVERO: There’s no context. It’s all changing. This city changes; they tear down, they build. 

PIANO: So here we are in a real place of transformation. Transformation and conservation. I have nothing against conservation, but I prefer transformation.

DI SUVERO: Transformation is what we believe in. Yes, that’s what we do.

PIANO: And this is transformation. By the way, I’m so pleased to be here to talk with you.

DI SUVERO: I came back from California early just to do this. 

PIANO: I will be in Los Angeles some time in the end of April. If you are there, we can go sailing.

DI SUVERO: We can go near my sculpture on Venice Beach. They’ve built a skate park there. Do you know what a skateboard park is? 


DI SUVERO: For people our age, very dangerous. But not for the young ones. Unbelievable use of gravity, of wheels, of physical involvement. You look at what used to be America, and it was baseball, football. In football, they would all charge against each other, but there wasn’t this kind of motion. The motion in the skateboard parks is fabulous. We can appreciate it because we can’t do it.

PIANO: Venice Beach. I will go.

DI SUVERO: Do you like Los Angeles? 

PIANO: They are nice people there. People like Steven Spielberg, he’s a nice guy—very intelligent, very interesting. There are a few actors, Annette Bening, Tom Hanks, who are working with us for the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures building. It’s different than building an art museum. Cinema is something else.

DI SUVERO: Fantastiche proiezioni di luce. It controls so many people’s subconscious life; the films that they have seen that they want to reenact that have expressed what they have hidden in terms of desire—all those things that movies do. But when it ends, it has a lot less resonance than great music. You go to the Bach Mass in B minor and you come out and feel like you’re stoned or something.

PIANO: Making movies, like making architecture, is a big, complicated matter. It’s about money, it’s about time, it’s about teamwork. It’s about silence but it’s also about communication.

DI SUVERO: Are they going to make a movie about Renzo Piano?


DI SUVERO: It would be a great movie, come on!

PIANO: My job is that I make a model. And then I work and work. 

DI SUVERO: Right, and then it changes; it becomes real.

PIANO: And then there’s the force of gravity. I like the physicality of something. At the end of the day, architecture is about making structures, making buildings, buildings that mean something, buildings that last thousands and thousands of years. That’s what you’ve got to do.

DI SUVERO: Not in this city. They tear everything down.

PIANO: You are right, of course. But at the same time, museums are about longevity; museums are, by definition, for longevity. They build duration. I know this is a young country, but Europe is full of old buildings. You go to Rome and you see buildings that were built 2,000 years ago, or more than that.

DI SUVERO: The Colosseum.

PIANO: Solid, safe, it was not destroyed. But it depends on what is the purpose of a building. If a building like this is for American art to be preserved forever, I’m pretty ready to bet with you that in 2,000 years, it will be still there.

DI SUVERO: Really?

PIANO: Why don’t we bet?

DI SUVERO: The reason that we don’t bet is there is a city called Detroit, and they have built millions of cars there. Everybody drives a car, right? Everybody in America is always driving a car from one place to another. They’re always moving, moving, moving. The idea of that kind of motion—they’re not just companies making them, but hundreds, maybe thousands of demolition centers where they’re demolishing the cars as fast as they’re building them. It’s the mother that eats her own children. It’s self-destruction.

PIANO: I know, but I think something will remain.

DI SUVERO: I think you’re a real optimist.

PIANO: You can’t be any other way. You can’t be a builder without being an optimist.