Renzo Piano and Peter Rice were a long way from home.
The Italian architect and the British engineer were walking across a barren hillside at East Coast Highway and MacArthur Boulevard in Corona del Mar, the planned site of the home they are designing for the Newport Harbor Art Museum. They had won the commission in December; Wednesday, exploring the 10 1/2-acre site for the first time, they were as full of wonder and worry as if they had just stepped onto the moon.
The Europeans were facing the challenge of making a distinct statement amid a vast suburban sprawl, where most architecture either tends to drown in the horizon-to-horizon wash of visual sameness or ends up asserting itself with sculptural bravado. How to come up with a building that doesn't get lost, yet doesn't show off? That, as they see it, is the key.
"One thing I don't like about this whole environment is that you don't see a building until you hit it," said Rice, looking across East Coast Highway. "Nothing signals it. Nothing stands out. The context is no context. Everybody comes along and builds what they want."
He added: "It isn't architecture. Architecture is whole streets and buildings together. There is nothing here to generate the building's identity. . . . Nothing seems to have a right to be here."
Rice posed the problems; Piano nudged their dialogue toward solutions as they walked through grass wet from the previous day's rain. They talked the project to life from almost every perspective--just as they had while working together on the Georges Pompidou cultural center in Paris 10 years ago, and on the Menil Collection Museum in Houston that opened in June to wide acclaim.
Rice and Piano had already said they wanted this new museum to have a garden. As they spoke, the garden took on increasing importance as the element that would help make this building "something different." It could humanize museum-going--which would be critical because the men seemed to think that people would be dehumanized simply by driving there.
The two were clearly stunned by the completeness of Californians' reliance on the automobile. They spoke a lot about the importance of subtly integrating a parking area into their plan. "The real entrance," Piano said, "will be where they drive in."
A man who doesn't own a car and who loves walking the streets of Paris, the Genoa-born Piano considered the car's role in California culture with near-wonder. "I saw an accident yesterday," he said. "Two people got out of their cars. It is an armature. It is the metal suit."
Maybe foliage could loosen the effects of that unnatural envelopment.
"I am thinking of the concept of the garden of wonders," Piano, 50, said to Rice, 51. "You park your car and go inside, and there is something so wonderful. You are in a new world, a new world of a garden, a garden of wonders. You get out of your car, and you are a new man. The building is a filter. You walk in, and then you make contact with the sculptures or whatever. . . . I'm thinking of timber to the south side and glass to the north."
Rice told Piano: "At the Houston and at the Beaubourg (the neighborhood of the Centre Pompidou), we could play with the differences of scale. Here we're working with 75,000 square feet, Renzo. It isn't so much. It won't be bigger than the Federal Savings & Loan over there or from those office buildings over there. That is why the garden has got to be key."
Piano had clearly warmed to this idea. He began speaking about Japanese gardens and sculpture gardens and the possibility of combining those approaches and making something completely different.
"It would come from the inside and go out, eh?" Piano asked Rice.
Rice said nothing, but his expression was encouraging. "Perhaps along the outline of a grid, from inside to out, from art to nature, from artificiality to naturality."
Piano was accompanied by Mark Carroll and Shunji Ishida, architects who work with him in Europe. Leading the group away from the site, Piano wished aloud that the relentless blandness of the suburban landscape included some spontaneous street life--when suddenly he stopped and stared.
Just ahead was an elderly man dancing alone beside a beat-up Vega. The ecstatic harmonies of Richard Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra" boomed from a cassette player on his shoulder as he turned on one foot, blissfully self-absorbed in the sunshine. Piano stood still, watching as if the man were a rare bird. There was a wine bottle on top of the car.
"This is just what I have been talking about!" the architect exclaimed.
Kevin E. Consey, the Newport's director, quickly told Piano that this was extraordinary. He said that, given the nature of the community, residents would call the police at the sight of such street life.
"This is what we have in Paris," Piano said, still entranced by the scruffy man who was now waving a large stick in large, harmless circles.
"Maybe we should offer him an employment contract," said Consey, explaining again that Piano should not count on seeing such a thing around there again soon.