Old towns and contemporary architecture. A 1992 conversation with Renzo Piano

We repost a 1992 interview with Renzo Piano by Bruno Zanardi on the topic of historic center preservation, because many issues are still relevant today, just as Renzo Piano's thinking is relevant today.

This interview was published in November 1993 in Il Giornale dell’Arte.

I meet Renzo Piano in his city studio in the heart of Genoa. It is a buzzing beehive of busy people from whose windows one can see the Romanesque black-and-white horizontally slatted facade of San Matteo, the aristocratic church of the Doria family. The impression I have of Piano is that few like him can embody a dazzling dictum, I think, of Tayllerand: “all that is excessive is unimportant.” His not being excessive is a rare blend of charm, understatement, intellectual elegance, a taste for prudence and a sense of professionalism, acquired over thirty years of some of the most significant architectural work of our century. Piano’s background of mostly international professional experience allows him to have a tone of natural distance from things Italian, as of one who sees the earth from the moon. And from that distance the pitfalls of polemical tones are muted into refined calmness, even when his statements become paradoxical or critical. Among many, I will immediately quote three, which have been on the side of our conversation: the first: “the tragedy of many young architects is to start out immediately proficient in critical knowledge, while what little I know I learned as a child by following my builder father on construction sites”; the second: “post-modernism has no respect for the past at all, but is only a cynical desire for tranquility: a making oneself safe by photocopying”; the third: “many buildings of contemporary architecture are unusable because they lack real design: they are just models enlarged to scale.”

Renzo Piano
Renzo Piano. Photo: Fontana Arte

BZ. Architect Piano, both in terms of aesthetics and conservation, it is now clear how it makes no sense to relocate a restored work of art in a context of ruin. But a context of ruin are the cities in which we live. Ruin in my opinion accelerated by the policy implemented in recent years in the historic centers, of embalming the existing; from preventing the enlargement of even a few inches of a window, to attempting to impose by law the maintenance of completely obsolete craft activities. A perhaps generous stance, but one that in fact confused architecture with stage design and productive activities with the folklore of the fake medieval stores of the tourism boards during the mortadella fair rather than the piadina festival. Doesn’t this seem to you the attitude of those who want to evade the concrete dimension of reality, ideologically denying our time a possible creative activity of connection between the old and the new?

RP. A good question that already contains the answer. I must say that one can also understand why this is so. We are such unworthy heirs to our past that by necessity it has come to an overreaction. Only the Greeks I think are even more unworthy than we are: just look at what Athens is today. But we, too, are no joke. So much so that we have succeeded in the not easy feat of transforming our cities from places of widespread culture to places of widespread inculture. Why are our cities so beautiful? Not because they were built in an orderly way; but because they were immersed in cultures, from that of the mason to that of the architect, disciplined and at the same time free within their own world. Just think of the grand theme of continuous maintenance, in which everything was renewed, but within a harmonious logic, which no one had imposed and which lay in the natural size and proportion of things. Even for technology, there were no problems of choices between different materials and their aesthetic uniformity: in Venice it was just the brick or, to take another example, in Lecce the stone. It was a balance that lasted for centuries and was broken more and more rapidly until, in the postwar period, our cities exploded. Historic centers were abandoned or, even, wretchedly demolished: like, here in Genoa, via Madre di Dio. And the suburbs that have been built are just evidence of our inability to make cities: absolutely filthy, unlivable places of pure social disintegration. One can then see why this situation has generated that kind of fear of the new that you mentioned. Somewhat, I think, the one that as the year one thousand approached everyone had. A thousand no longer a thousand, the world ends. So it stops the blacksmith in the act of forging the grating, and the blacksmith no longer exists, there is no longer a need for it; it stops the baker while he is making bread, and today one bakery produces bread for a whole town; it stops the milkmaid delivering milk in the aluminum container, which no longer exists, because in its place are tetrapacks. In short, a ridiculous scene for an overreaction and absurdity, which is just a statement of the inability to manage cities and maintain their qualities.

But there is no denying that there is a lot of attention to the problem of inner cities today.

It is true. If only for reasons of lack of territory, now almost completely devoured by the postwar urban explosion and squeezed between insurmountable realities, such as in Genoa the sea and the hills, or in Turin the bordering municipalities; and when there is still territory, it is so far away that social services become practically impossible to manage and organize. As a result, due to a number of factors that are very practical and a little, perhaps, also cultural, there is a tentative implosive phenomenon for historic centers, before which we are, however, totally unprepared. The most unprepared are the politicians, who don’t give a damn about these things, because they are much quicker to build a freeway interchange or a nice suburb outside the city than to engage in a process of historic center rehabilitation where, I would like to emphasize, the intelligence to be spent compared to the turnover is enormous. Let’s remember that the amount of gray matter it takes to do a 50-billion freeway slip road is really very little; whereas the amount of gray matter it takes to work well in an historic downtown with the same 50 billion is infinite. But architects are also unprepared to deal with the subjects of building rehabilitation and restoration. Working on what already exists, which is also so representative of our historical culture-that is, as I said before, of this continuous overlapping of one doing on the other, free and disciplined at the same time-is in fact seen among the so-called creatives of the trade as a second-hand activity, where there is no design space. The fools evidently have not understood that the more structured you are in a discipline, the more support your creativity finds. Of course, creativity should not mean designing gymnastic, muscular, agitated things; but, on the contrary, finding those very simple gestures, which precisely from their calmness take on more strength. Finally, there is a last link in this chain, which are the enterprises. The enterprise that works in the historic centers is a micro-enterprise that operates in micro-buildings. But the micro-enterprise structures are the artisanal ones, which do not possess the technical and economic tools to deal with such a huge, complex and time-consuming operational issue as the rehabilitation of historic centers.

It is, no more and no less, the zeroing of skills to which decades of non-design in historic centers have led.

This is what I was saying at the beginning. The inattention to historic centers has been so long that a vacuum has formed not only of technical expertise but even of interest among ordinary people, who have unlearned how to take care of their cities. The senseless gymnasium of construction in large urban suburbs has created congenital vices in politicians, businesses, and planners: it has drugged them to the point where they have become incapable of the subtleties necessary to intervene in the very delicate matter of historic centers. And this is very serious. However, to return to a philosophical concept that was expressed in your first question, the city is the city: it is yes petrified memory, but it is also present life, which cannot be stuffed, closed, immobilized: for at that point life goes on elsewhere dissentingly and loses the effects of that beautiful word, which today almost no one uses anymore, which is “urbanity.” Urbanity understood not only in the sense of inhabiting the city, but also of those urban behaviors, of that civilization of relationships that have made our cities the most beautiful in the world.

Evidently, the unlivable nature of our suburbs is a lesson that has not left its mark. In Rome, the construction of the SDO, i.e., the business center that theoretically should relieve the city center of its current excess of functions, is planned behind the Basilica of San Lorenzo: that is, in the largest vacant area close to the historic center. Doesn’t it seem to you that this urban planning choice could be a condemnation to the final mediorientalization of what until the postwar period was the most beautiful city in the world and still remains one of the great European capitals?

There is an old Genoese saying that the mother of fools is always pregnant. Unfortunately, the rare privilege that Rome has, of still having a lot of unbuilt territory within it, is turning into a disadvantage: a most precious capital that instead of being an asset becomes a threat for further degradation.

During fascism, we saw the last examples of major demolitions of the historic city and their replacement with the new. The results were very different. There are examples of the highest quality, such as, in Florence, Michelucci’s Santa Maria Novella station; or, in Rome, Via dei Fori Imperiali, which, besides being one of the most beautiful streets in the world, is also an extraordinary urban planning operation to connect the historic center with the city’s opening to the sea. But there are also baleful examples, such as, again in Rome, the wretched destruction of the Spina di Borgo, to make way for the rhetorical scenography of Via della Conciliazione: an ugly urbanistic operation in itself and which, for being devoid of functional values, is only senseless. Somewhat as it would be if one really erected the mound with which some of his colleagues would now like to cover Via dei Fori Imperiali. Might it not then be that the problem is not so much that of the intangibility of the historic city, but, as is always the case, the quality of the reasons for which one works and the results one obtains?

Actually, I don’t know anything about that hill, although I agree with you that as an architectural project it looks rather extravagant. Having said that, I would add that I am by no means against the new. Also because, in some cases, if you want to keep historic cities alive, cuts are necessary. Let’s talk about Genoa: so dense, so beautiful and so unlivable. But it is unlivable because in the eighteenth century it was the subject of speculative operations that led houses that were 12 meters high to become 24 meters high, in streets 3 meters wide, which have remained so. In that way the lower floors of the historic center never saw the light again. By this I am certainly not saying that we should remove the high floors from the houses of Genoa; but only that it would be absurd to imagine that everything should be left as it is, without doing anything. It is true that working in these contexts is very difficult. But one must realize that one cannot continue to deal with the issue of historic centers only in theory and not in practice. Among other things, with a rather terroristic theory that has convinced planners of the intangibility of an already regulated situation, such as that of the existing city. So far I have had few opportunities to work in historical contexts. One case was recently in Paris, at IRCAM, which is an institute for musical acoustic research next to the Beaubourg. There we built a small corner tower between two 19th-century brick buildings. It was a small intervention, but very painstaking, delicate, careful. In Italy, we tried such an approach for Palladio’s Basilica in Vicenza. Of course, it was not a matter of touching the Basilica, but of intervening in the building next door on reinforced concrete volumes, added in the 1950s to compensate for damage caused in World War II by a bombing raid: horrible curtain-walls designed as they came, overlooking the Palladian Basilica. There too, as at IRCAM, we thought we could do a very careful and subtle intervention, using brick. But open the heavens: immediately the corporate mechanism of the cult tam tam between the University, the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, Italia Nostra, local and other associations, and so on and so forth was triggered, leading to demented information of the kind that we wanted to cover the Palladian Basilica with a perspex dome or other such amenities. A real personal attack, sick with provincialism, obtuseness, arrogance. In fact, we ran away. However, in spite of all this, I would love to be able to work on the ancient. Not least because I will confess something to you that I don’t think is so bad. As with everyone, I get the typical fear of the blank sheet of paper, that is, the project to be invented out of thin air. It happened to me recently for a large areport in Japan, in Osaka, on a man-made island. A case where whiter the paper could not have been! So, I had to face even more without a net the leap into the void of having to invent very quickly the reference systems, the disciplines, the rules, the order, using all possible topics referable to that specific case: the wind, the climate, the waves and everything else you can think of. On the other hand, when you are working in a historical center, you don’t struggle to build this system, because you already have it. There is nothing to invent on the level of culture, technology, volumes, ratios, proportions, functions. It is all there in front of you.

Remaining with his sad affair in Vicenza, an obvious observation for those who, like me, deal with material conservation problems is that any act aimed at putting a degraded artifact-architecture, painting or sculpture back into working order inevitably leads to a change in its aesthetic appearance. That is why it is amateurish, if not stupid, to believe, as many theorists - but not practitioners - of restoration do, that one can intervene on a ruined artifact while simultaneously preserving its aesthetic appearance that nature and chance have caused it to assume. Not least because, as John Urbani taught us, what by definition cannot be preserved is its very ruin. In your opinion, do “the university and ministerial sect tam tam players” realize that their preservationist aestheticism actually accelerates the loss of our artistic heritage?

Sect tam tam players generally like to make music only among themselves, not accepting into the guild those who play other instruments. After all, they are mainly interested in controlling who they let into bureaucratic careers in Italy, from the University to the Superintendencies, so that they can go on endlessly telling each other that they are good and go on ministerial commissions or something like that. With the result that the lack of concrete confrontation in the international arena condemns the sect to provincial isolation, which makes it somewhat ridiculous. But I don’t want with this premise to be misunderstood. Because, while I cannot by definition agree with the extreme conservationists, I see with much fear the opposite excess. That is, the prosopopoeia of those who say that since in all times we have expressed ourselves freely, we too can and indeed must do so. Too often behind such statements is not the confidence of one’s intellectual and expressive means, but simply arrogance. Within my own little world I have become convinced that there is always a threshold where prudence stops; and that there is always a balance between prudence and courage. A very delicate and labile limit, which changes each time: for Palladio’s Basilica it will be at a certain point, for the Lingotto at another; a threshold below which prudence becomes cowardice and above which courage is violence.

As everyone knows, his are beautiful and mutually diverse museums and exhibition layouts, such as the Beaubourg in Paris and the De Menil collection in Houston; and, in Turin, the Alexander Calder exhibition at Palazzo Vela. Why these differences? And, in your opinion, is there a difference between the design of an ancient art museum and a modern art museum?

Certainly there is. However, I have to say that by nature I am a practical person and also a bit of an experimentalist: trying and trying again applies to me, so I don’t think I can tell you how these museums would be different, although they certainly would be. Probably, in an ancient art museum the sacred aspect and the attention to conservation problems, related to the delicacy and fragility of the objects to be exhibited, would be greater. It is true then that very different are the Beaubourg and the De Menil collection or certain exhibition arrangements. Not because of eclecticism, however; but because the occasions on which museums and exhibitions have been organized are very different, from the history of the collections to the works of art to be exhibited and so on. Then, in judging the changes, one should never forget that one grows up, gets big and gets a white beard: that’s how life is. The Beaubourg, for example, never began as a museum, but as a somewhat special joke made to the institutional world of buildings for culture: a gesture at once of impatience and irreverence. But not irreverence for its own sake: just a little bit of perversity or, as it were, rude politeness in wanting to arouse in people that curiosity. What I still think today can be -- for those who are not part of the parish of the educated -- the most effective spark to get closer to real culture and not the one told. Think of the irreverence of the idea of being able to see a sculpture by Max Ernst or Alberto Giacometti with the whole of Paris in the background. It was an attempt to break the rule that a work of art must always be seen in a well-isolated white box; and so, for once, why don’t we try instead to contaminate it with life: the people, the hubbub, the confusion. The next thing you know, we’re doing the Calder exhibition in Turin. It was a whole different thing there. We had 400 objects to exhibit. The first thing we did was to have a lot of fun looking at them; until we came up with the idea of floating them in the darkness of a blue microcosm illuminating them one by one. In this case, as opposed to Beaubourg, it was Calder’s Mobiles that became central for those who had to look: so much so that the light was turned off on everything else. The magic was all there.

Whereas the De Menil collection?

That was an even different adventure. If in Paris it was a matter of eschewing the excesses of institutional officialdom of the rites of culture, in Houston there was absolutely no need. Houston-Texas is a prairie with cowboys and an extraordinary woman, Dominique De Menil, who found herself in America with John, her husband, an oil prospector in those faraway lands. Dominique De Menil took root there and built, first with John and then on her own, the extraordinary collection of artwork that everyone knows. In that case the theme to be addressed was exactly the opposite of the Beaubourg. It was that of the sacredness of the place of art; of the centrality of natural light for silent and attentive contemplation of only a hundred or so works, chosen from the more than ten thousand that make up the collection and are stored in building above, the Treasure House. An idea this, I must say, that I had not immediately thought of and that came to Dominique and me in talking about it a few evenings at his home. The argument that Dominique De Menil came back to most in those discussions was that emotion is not manufactured by the kilo. So much so that even when you go to see an exhibition of the most extraordinary of artists, there are maybe a dozen paintings that stay in your eyes. At a certain point you run out of everyone’s supply of emotional energy. In short, there is a kind of museum fatigue, which is not only that of the legs and feet, but also of the head: the tinderbox of sensations that is created within you. From this very right conviction of his came the idea of exhibiting a very limited section of works from time to time and keeping the bulk of the collection in a building separate from the museum, which we have precisely called the “treasure house.” An idea that also has the merit of forcing the curators to reinvent the De Menil collection at least once a year: re-study it, re-examine it, re-read it in a different key.

This idea of yours, however, goes in exactly the opposite direction to the projects that everyone in Italy is now proposing, of zeroing out deposits and making their museum a Great Museum. A mania for grandeur between demagogy, administrative carefreeness and end-of-season balance, which has meant that in some of the fake great provincial museums you make a number by exhibiting everything that exists in the deposits: even the drawings. The latter, a conservatively unheard of thing that happens only with us and, perhaps, in the Third World.

Meanwhile, I would say that there is a remarkable difference between a modern art collection and an ancient art collection. Although, for De Menil, the case does not arise, because it also consists of primitive and ancient art: Roman and Hellenistic. But perhaps precisely because the collection is so large, it becomes easier to imagine reading it in pieces. On the other hand, when you have a collection of high-quality ancient paintings that homogeneously represent one or more eras, it becomes much more difficult to exhibit only a part of it. And that is why I believe in the feasibility of a large museum. Only it would have to be done very carefully. Also because, to stay with what you say earlier about zeroing out the repositories, it seems to me to be an unthinkable operation in terms of both users and museum. The absurd size, of tens of thousands of square meters that museums would have to take on in order to be able to display everything they preserve, would have an economic fallout both, immediately, in masonry restoration costs and, later, in operating expenses that is not only insane, but completely unfeasible for a country like ours, plagued by the public deficit that we all know. Let us limit ourselves to the discourse of the custody of the halls. With the masses of visitors assaulting museums today, it is now clear to everyone that simple cameras are not enough for the security of the works. There is an absolute necessity for the constant presence of stationary custodial staff in the halls. Staff that must be paid. Not to mention room air conditioning systems, small and large maintenance expenses, and what else is still needed to keep the “museum-machine” running. If the problem to be solved is really that of the display of works in the repositories, it would be enough for these to stop being the place of depravity and neglect that they are today. That is, it would be enough for museum directors to make intelligent use of itinerancy between storage and exhibition halls, which to some extent I always believe is feasible.

The much-acclaimed pedestrian islands, which in the intentions of a certain ideological optimism of the 1970s were supposed to make people, as they said then, take back their cities, are increasingly proving to be a disaster. Aside from the anthropogenic pollution of litter, cans, butts and the rest, and aside from vandalism, there is evidence that productive activities, instead of remaining as settled as was thought, are immediately being reduced to the most vulgar tertiary of jeans, colored rags, sequins. Having said that, however, it must be acknowledged that historic cities are unable to absorb the vehicular traffic of today. In your opinion, how can these two seemingly antithetical needs be reconciled?

This is a very complex and at the same time interesting question, because I share this idea of yours that the somewhat Nordic, icy dream of the pedestrianized city makes no sense. In fact, I think you can say that precisely the contamination of goods, wagons and people has been one of the qualities of our historic cities. During this period I was confronted with a very difficult issue; building a piece of the city in the old heart of 1930s Berlin, the Potsdamer Platz. Inevitably, from the point of view of the mixture of functions, behaviors, etc., our cultural reference model was the humanistic one, the city of the past. however, we tried to escape the misconception that this European humanistic city of ours must be a pedestrian city. So, to a certain extent, traffic was allowed into the project, because you cannot desertify a modern city by depriving it of transportation-it is even unnatural. But this one in Berlin is a fragment of a city that is being made, so there can be some freedom in decision-making. It is a different matter for old cities, however, which are yes compatible with traffic-even the most difficult ones like Genoa where we are-but they are not necessarily compatible with all kinds of traffic. First of all, the question of how to regulate access systems must be raised. This is a matter to be approached with great caution, because if you clog the outskirts of the historic city with too many parking spaces you can get the opposite effect, of a centripetal force exerted by the city. So it is important first of all to balance these magnets of external attraction, which are the parking lots, with transportation, public transportation, which in essence remains the smartest way to serve the ancient city.

Can you give me concrete cases?

In Venice, where I am dealing with this issue right now, the idea is to stop all access traffic before the city; and in the water, where Venice is really Venice, you move only by vaporetto. But why am I talking about Venice? Because speeches like these cannot be generalized. There are infinite morphologies of historic cities in Italy, from which it will be necessary to assess on a case-by-case basis how much and what public traffic to allow access to; to see if even this should not stop on the first outer perimeter, that is, to decide whether only a new generation of means of transportation specially designed to be able to move with the greatest possible ease inside the urban belt can penetrate. Means that will serve for incapacitated people, the elderly, materials for artisans working in the city, food supplies and whatnot. While the vast majority of people, given the limited size of historic cities, and thus the short distances to be covered, will be able to get around on foot just fine. I don’t want to appear naive, but I still think it would be wrong to give up trying to design specific tools for the new needs of the historic city. Not to do so is to continue to live in the current stalemate. Because while it is true that our cities are not suitable for the circulation of automobiles, it is also true that indiscriminately eliminating all forms of traffic from within them means no longer making them work, that is, basically killing them.

And in fact, historic city centers for these reasons, too, are slowly being emptied of inhabitants and productive activities. Remaining, however, with the problem of how we can move within the historic centers, what could be the solutions?

Many years ago, with UNESCO, we had tried to address this issue. We had done it more for shipbuilding. To meet the need for lightweight equipment for small construction jobs, we had built cranes that were very easy to transport and use. They were contraptions that stood on the ground and had only the pulley at the top. Also for transportation, we had built prototype electric vehicles with very soft rubberized wheels that could very easily climb up steps as well. An experimentation that went very well in technical terms, but because it belonged to a completely different world than usual, it never became operational. And this is really an incomprehensible fact. You think that this morning I spent half an hour on the phone with Osaka, where we had been testing waterproof joints for some time. As I always do, from the “Gerberette” beam heads for the Beaubourg, to the so-called “leaves” of the De Menil, and I could go on for all my architecture, I first designed the prototype of those joints, then had a model built to life, which passed all the stress tests performed in the laboratory; but when an earthquake was simulated and at the same time, with an airplane propeller, water was thrown at it and a wind of 250 km. per hour: we realized that in that case water was coming in. In order to overcome this technical problem, we approached French, Japanese and Swiss groups. And, in this morning’s phone call, they advised me that in a test done yesterday afternoon the solution proposed by the Swiss worked. So here’s where I ask myself: if you can solve absolutely concrete technical problems like this in architecture, why in equally concrete terms can’t you address all the technical problems associated with planning that really protects historic centers? Why don’t city planning commissioners, instead of squabbling over the colors of plaster in historic cities or, as you yourself mentioned, the number of centimeters allowed for widening a window, start asking architects for truly professional performance?

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