By kind permission of Electa we are publishing an extract from "Dialog on Cities". An interview that Renzo Piano gave to Fulvio Irace, Professor of History of Contemporary Architecture at Milan Polytechnic, on the occasion of the publication of the catalogue for the exhibition "Renzo Piano Building Workshop " which opened the fourth edition of the Festival for Architecture at the Triennale in Milan. The interview is taken from the catalogue of the exhibition Renzo Piano. Visible cities , the illustrations from the book Renzo Piano. Gli Schizzi , a selection of about two hundred original sketches by the Genovese architect, concerning his most famous architectural works from the Museum Menil in Huston, to the Auditorium in Rome and the Morgan Library in New York.
RP: (...) The city is a place where the exchange is physical, intense, not virtual. A lot of talking is done about the virtual culture, how newspapers will give way to videos, but the city still remains the space where people live together. When I imagine a city, I imagine it as being compact and dense, capable of generating intense relationships. I'm not able to imagine a city as being the setting for a virtual life. I think the idea of the city as the place for intense exchanges and physical relationships is wonderful. In this sense, Beaubourg has always been the metaphor of a small city, because it's a place where there are bridges, streets, and alleyways. Beaubourg is a cultural place, and it's not by chance that it was born last century in the Sixties, when the idea of cultural exchange was physical exchange, the perception of all being together. One of the most important qualities about the city is the element of surprise, the unexpected, the unplanned. When you make a piazza in a city, you don't have to plan it perfectly, because a piazza is an empty space. Because it's just these empty spaces that then, in reality, get filled up with the unexpected, with surprises, with the ephemeral, with the moment of relation. When we did the piazza for the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, before the realization, we had long discussions with the mayor of the city, debating about the difference between a piazza and a plaza. A plaza is a place where you organize everything, so that there will always be an activity, like the set for the Truman Show. Shirley, the mayor, had understood, but she was surprised by the fact that I continued to insist on wanting that piazza to be empty. And yet, the emptiness is useful, so that the piazza can become a place that gets renewed every day: the element of surprise is the element that's not planned, linked to the nature of the place for exchange, typical of the urban function. One of the most common errors in planning urban spaces is that of designing them and filling them up too much, because the city also needs its moments of silence, of pauses, of discontinuity, of diversity, that will trigger the spark of a tension of knowledge and interchange. For example, in the little central piazza of the Morgan Library , you sit there among the trees and the works of art, in view of the Madison Avenue traffic, the gardens of the houses between Thirty-Sixth and Thirty-Seventh, and above, the peak of the Empire State Building. In the New York Times Building , it's the same thing: inside there's a garden of birch trees, and there's the Times Center, an auditorium for four hundred people, where the rites of the city are celebrated. Many of these buildings, and even more so, the Columbia University project, contain fragments of city, and have the pretext of establishing a relationship with the street in a manner that is permeable and open, transparent.
FI The urbanistic legacy of Modernism has been accused of social failure. The free floors on piers according to Le Corbusier's intentions were supposed to realize that fluidity of public space that today is the object of a profound revision, because of its lack of security. The opening, the flexibility, the idea of the ground as an indeterminate park, arouses diffidence, if not outright rejection. What remains from this legacy in your architecture?
RP I admire Le Corbusier very much. These days, I'm working on the project for a convent for twelve sisters beside the Chapelle de Ronchamp . The only person who did anything at Ronchamp after Le Corbusier was Jean Prouvé , who added the bells: now we are going there to play in the middle of the trees, taking along with us twelve Minoresses. Le Corbusier was a personage of extraordinary creative generosity: Ronchamp has nothing in common with the piers or with the buildings that fly, rather it is related to the space that is closed, silent, protected. He played a lot with strong
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Francesco Dal Co
Renzo Piano is one of the artists who took part in Detour New York
FI This reaffirming of the centrality of the public space, at a time when, in Europe as well, the tendency is toward privatization after the models of theme parks and shopping centres, does it have the value of a civil resistance?
RP At this time, we are following two very complex projects, testimonies of the idea of the city as a mix: Columbia University in New York and Sesto San Giovanni in Milan. Both present numerous unknowns and confirm my conviction that the architect's profession is filled with risks, when you avoid hiding in the golden cage of an academic exercise. Columbia is in Harlem, a part of New York that has nothing commercial about it, but it preserves a strong ethnic character; of Black tradition, today Harlem is half Latin American, and more Spanish is spoken there than English. The typical American campus is immersed in a paradisiacal, uncontaminated nature, foreign to the city. We, on the other hand, took up the proposition to invent, in the twenty-first century, a university campus that is integrated into the urban fabric. Columbia University in New York City has always been an example of the urban university, in contact with a complex social reality. The university of the twenty-first century is not a fortified citadel, rather a centre where three missions live together: research, teaching, and new professions. For this reason, we are planning "incubators," where research is being developed that will allow the scientific discoveries to be applied to the production system. In Harlem, the city's pagan rites are bound to the street culture, and for this reason, we are trying to lift the buildings off the ground, to free up the ground floor, so that it becomes a place of exchange. We chose to put underground all the functions that normally foul the ground floor levels, like the entryways into garages, and the garbage bins, to leave the ground floors open, with a square in the centre to assure proper ventilation. We're designing a laboratory for research into the behaviour of the brain, which will be called "Mind, Brain, and Behaviour." Here psychiatry -- until this point considered a border science -- comes into contact with nanotechnologies, to delve deeper into knowledge of the human psyche. From the microscopic level of the scientific environment to the macroscopic of the relationship with the city, the great challenge is how to make the various requirements coexist without renouncing dialog, without being bound to the constraints and the narrowness of the privatization of space. You can't make a laboratory for research on brain behaviour in the middle of the street, but we can insert it into a world that is transparent and not self-referential. In quite a different context, we can have the same discussion about Sesto San Giovanni, the intense city of factories that invented modernity last century. Here, too, the theme is how to have the old city coexist with the new and to develop the grand themes of energy, as with the subterranean strata. We'll have the "Elfis" running, about sixty small electric, solar-panel buses we're designing with Fiat. They move slowly but continuously, so people never wait more than two and a half minutes; the only problem is that, for now, we can't make an automated system, so they have to be driven. The themes of Sesto San Giovanni are, once again, the complexity of the new upon the old, and tolerance, and certainly not the tendency to be isolated. We want to preserve the great industrial cathedrals of Sesto San Giovanni, because they constitute the memory of the place and because we think that a large park of a million square metres will metabolize what remains of the factories. We want to take young people there, inserting activities connected with the university there, and some research institutions, one for botany and another on energy, with Rubbia. There will also be stores, but not the compulsive rite of consumption, that they have to give life to a part of the city. When it's the right time, I would like to develop certain themes through some competitions, perhaps with the Triennale. The project provides for about forty small residential towers on a square plan, tall houses that don't touch the ground. The element that connects the project physically and visually is the green, because through some miracle, in that zone, the greenery grows well, maybe because in Milan a tree is truly grateful for having been planted. By contrast with the saline environment of Genoa, Milan has the right habitat for trees; so, even if Sesto San Giovanni is not exactly a city, if you go there in spring, you realize that the greenery is widespread, even in the Falck factory, after ten years of inactivity. Greenery is a very strong connective; these forty houses floating above the ground, they don't touch the ground in a heavy way, creating a visual continuity along the line of earth, suggesting a vision of a "light" city, but at the same time, tolerant, meaning hybrid and susceptible to being contaminated by what is already there. The city renews itself continually, slowly, homeopathically, finding strength in its own organism. The grand Viale Italia, which we call the "Rambla," was the backbone of the factory, and in the project, it became a large throughway with many activities that get the city started up again, without the pretense of doing everything all at once. (...)
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