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Piano Tries to Keep Humanism in Work

November 14, 1987|ALLAN JALON | Times Staff Writer

When architect Italian Renzo Piano's most famous building opened in Paris in 1977, critics called it a crime against French taste. Boxed in glass, covered with a tangle of brightly colored pipes and ducts, the Centre Georges Pompidou arts center was compared variously to a Flash Gordon spaceship and a battleship run aground.

His more recent design for the de Menil Collection Museum in Houston garnered instant praise as a model of functional modesty. So, what does this bearded Genoan plan for his next commission--the one trustees at Newport Harbor Art Museum gave him Thursday to build the Newport a new home?

"Every building is its own solution," answered the 50-year-old architect, speaking recently by phone from Paris. "It will not be another Centre Pompidou. It will not be another de Menil."

Whereupon, he mused in detail about his ideas for the building of 65,000 to 100,000 square feet that Newport officials want to put on a 10 1/2-acre site in Corona del Mar.

"I think light will be essential," Piano said, his excellent English molded by an accent now French, now Italian. "I think the relationship with (the) outside will be essential. . . . I believe it is better to build up curiosity than intimidation for a cultural building. I want people to come and be interested."

Newport director Kevin E. Consey said: "We believe the possibilities of our site are very, very different from the urban setting of the Pompidou in the middle of Paris and the almost residential setting of the de Menil. It is expressly because the man has been so successful with these two extremes that we believe we are going to get the best building of his career."

Actually, Piano's reputation and flexibility extend far beyond the Pompidou and the de Menil. He has more than 25 buildings to his credit, from a British oil company's headquarters to a housing project in Senagal, from the rehabilitation of a 16th-Century Palladian Basilica in Italy to a center for contemporary music research in Paris.

It bothered Piano to be labeled a "high tech" architect after the Pompidou, which houses the National Museum of Modern Art and other cultural facilities. That phrase, he believes, stresses technology's inhumane aspect--and he said he largely intended the Pompidou as a parody of technology:

"It was a joke! If it is a spaceship, it is a very funny spaceship. A spaceship that doesn't fly.

"It is actually provoking curiosity. It is avoiding the intimidating atmosphere of the institutional buildings for culture in Paris. Paris is a town with too much memory, too much historical reference, and I think that is too well respected."

Late French president and art-lover, Georges Pompidou, is known to have wanted a provocative building. Upon seeing one of Piano's early models for it, he reportedly showed his approval by declaring: "This will make them scream."

Dominique de Menil did not want screaming to greet the museum she asked Piano to build in 1981. She insisted on a museum that would not stand out from its blue-collar Houston neighborhood. As a result, Piano said, the museum that opened in June is "totally introverted."

Piano said that after the constricted space he had to work with in Houston, he is looking forward to the Newport project. He said associates of his have toured the museum's large, sloping site at the juncture of MacArthur Boulevard and East Coast Highway and found it "more alive, more articulated, than the site I got in Houston."

"The climate is not the climate of Houston. You have breeze. You have much less rain. . . . Houston is a town without memory. In California, you have an architectural history, at least. Everybody keeps in mind that California has a very intense attitude to nature.

"I try to be humanistic and mechanistic at the same time. I feel a freedom to work with the technological materials that are available. After all, we belong to our time. Today, architecture must be invented, not just designed. Why should one use an unsophisticated air-conditioning system?

"But I am not so naive to believe that technology is a straight expression. You can be academic by producing a high-technology situation. It can be very formal. That is a challenge, to produce a style that is not so formal."

Piano is the son of a residential builder; his career goals were shaped by his childhood visits to his father's construction sites. He attended schools of architecture and design in Florence and Milan.

He said many architects tend to view museums as plum commissions: "It is a microcosm where you have contemplation; you have emotion; you have quiet; you have meeting; you have music; you have art; you have teaching and learning; you have nature; you have time for people to talk and discuss."

He said he will work out of his Paris office, making frequent site visits to Orange County: "Site work is, for me, the magic moment of architecture. And for a long time I do not even make a sketch. I look and I think.

"When I did the de Menil idea, for six months we didn't design. We have been talking and discussing. I believe in this discussion with the client. Every time, I listen a long time, and then I start from scratch."

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