The Whitney Museum of American Art opens downtown today, just one block south of our Meatpacking District headquarters. On the eve of its opening, Diane visited the Renzo Piano Building Workshop (also our neighbor!) to catch up with the museum’s designer, her old friend the legendary architect Renzo Piano.
Diane von Furstenberg: How many museums have you done?
Renzo Piano: Depends what you call a museum. If you put in the science museums and all that, I think it’s about 26, 27.
DVF: So why is an Italian so successful in America?
RP: What a question! I don’t know, I have multiple answers, I guess. One is very simply because I keep asking the same question. Why have you given me this job, you know? I was talking yesterday—I was in a meeting with Lee Bollinger [President, Columbia University], all those people—great people. Intelligent humans. And I asked the question: Why ever are you asking me? Because I am building the first three buildings of the new [Columbia] campus.
And the answer is about being a humanist. I know that is a bit pretentious to say for me, but it’s not me. This is what I hear when I ask the question. It’s about the idea that cities are places where buildings talk to the street. They are part of the street. There’s a kind of flow… I think it’s about this, fundamentally: it’s about the idea that in Europe we are not better, but we have experience. We have this in our DNA.
RP: It’s part of history. When you make a building, it’s part of a street. I keep calling this little place, Gansevoort—it became a largo. I keep saying to everybody: largo. Nobody understands what is a largo. Largo is a wider street. Or largo is a narrower piazza. Nobody understands that but in Italian, I can tell you at least 10, 12 different ways you have to name piazza. Because it’s part of our culture. So this idea that you don’t take the piece of land and you go down toom! Like that. You don’t take the land. You give back the land to the city. That’s the reason why this [Whitney] building floats. Why the building actually—underneath, you allow the people to come. This is about accessibility, openness.
DVF: So which is the building you’re the most proud of, in all the things you’ve done?
RP: It’s impossible because it’s not about pride. It’s also about love; it’s about affection. When we have 50, 60 children around the world you are in trouble first to find the mother…
DVF: Any one you’re ashamed of?
RP: Not ashamed but…
DVF: That you like less!
RP: There is no one that if I can restart again I will change of course. Because imperfection is part of our experience.
DVF: Who is your mentor?
RP: Many, but I have to say one that stays a long time was my father, because my father was a small builder in Genova. In my family, everybody was builders. Everybody. My grandfather, my father. But small builders, not big builders… so you grow up with this idea that you have to become a builder, something like that, and he was a man of construction. When you grow up in construction sites, the sand remains under the skin, so you run back to this. So this remained.
DVF: So you are a builder, more than an architect.
RP: Let’s put it this way. When I went to see my father, I told him I wanted to become an architect—he watched me and said, an architect? But why ever? You can be a builder!
But fundamentally I am a builder, Diane, I am a builder. I am a builder with desires. It’s a bit stupid to say a builder because a builder is somebody going there blip, blip, blip, but thanks God, making buildings has never been just a technical action. Even in the most humble paths, that’s the story. It’s not just making a shelter. It’s also about celebrating yourself.
DVF: Alright, so you are happy with the results [of the Whitney]?
RP: I am, I am happy.
DVF: I am very happy. First we made it happen and that was a miracle.
RP: It’s a miracle, and you are part of that miracle.
DVF: I helped.
RP: It’s a miracle because they tried for 20, 25 years and they never succeeded.
DVF: And now it’s there, and it happened so fast!
RP: Now it’s there and I tell you one thing, Diane. Making a building for American art is something. Because you know, I am European, you are, and we grew up—we all grew up—we said at the end that America is about freedom. It is quite true! I was a very, very good friend of [writer] Nanda Pivano. We talked all the time about freedom in literature. When you talk about Jack Kerouac, you talk about John Steinbeck—it’s about freedom. It’s not just literature. It’s also ballet, it is also theater, it is also music… America is freedom, and this is what you see. When you go to see the collection, it’s freedom. And freedom is not easy to manage. You need to be a little wild. Even a bit unpolite.
DVF: But, you see that is very Genovese.
RP: No, come on.
DVF: Yes! You’re a port. You’re looking out!
RP: You know you are right, Diane. It’s also about being bad boys.
RP: You know, when you are a child like that, you remain bad boys—
DVF: He was very good looking. He was very good looking. I remember.
RP: Anyway, you remain bad boys. I was saying this because the challenge was not easy, also, because the Breuer building made a good job. It became part of the city. It was generous, it was unpretentious. Artists love it. Space was flexible so, you know, you have the legacy that is not easy.
DVF: You know we’re going to do the park in front of you [Pier 55], right? It’s going to be wonderful. One day I should take you to look at the design by Thomas Heatherwick.
RP: I know—that park is fantastic, and we should make a connection. It’s not that difficult to fly above the highway. So this is a kind of continuous transformation. And we are neighbors. It’s fantastic… if you ask me if I’m happy, of course I’m happy. It’s quite clear that you can’t make buildings by answering to the level of the position of people… I’m pleased because I think there’s a right level of wildness, and that is what you need, because that’s freedom boys.
DVF: So it’s all about freedom. That’s the end. So it’s freedom, Genova, 27 museums, rebel, good looking, Italian, freedom. OK, andiamo!