Museum Architect Piano Has Full Dance Card as He Parties and Tours

Burgers in Balboa, catfish in Laguna and chic buffets at arty homes in Corona del Mar and elsewhere in Newport Beach--all were on architect Renzo Piano's dance card when he came to Orange County from Italy last week.

"It's time we began building a relationship," said Newport Harbor Art Museum director Kevin Consey at a party last Thursday for Piano, who will design the $20-million new home for the museum."We're going to be working together as friends and colleagues for the next four years."

Thursday night's cocktail-buffet klatch for about 80 museum trustees was staged at the Balboa peninsula home of Judy and Rogue Hemley, museum board president.

Guests dined on soup served up in hollowed-out bread rounds, skewered fruit and soft tacos while they awaited the charismatic Piano, who, that day, Consey said, toured the San Diego Zoo, the Salk Institute in La Jolla and the mission at San Juan Capistrano.

Other sites visited by Piano during the week included the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Crystal Cathedral, the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Gamble House in Pasadena, Newport Harbor and Los Angeles International Airport.

"We've crisscrossed the region to give Piano and his associates a way to understand (Southern California)," Consey said.

Arriving at the Hemley home fashionably late, Piano, 50, and his honey-haired girlfriend, actress Maria-Teresa Cassano, 38, mingled and dined with trustees.

They Loved a Piano: On Friday night, Piano was feted by museum founders Marguerita and David Steinmetz--passionate collectors of modern art--at their cliff-side home in Corona del Mar.

After dining on Oriental fare ("we've tried to stay away from Italian food during Piano's visit," confided Margie Shackelford, museum development director), guests--including Consey, Nancy Zinsmeyer, Deborah and Stuart Karl, Pat and Carl Neisser, Johann and Dr. Dick Jonas and Eugene White--settled onto overstuffed sofas in the living room for a question-and-answer period with the Genoa-born architect.

"Certainly, I'd like to bring from previous experience what I've found best," Piano replied to a query about how much influence his past projects (the Georges Pompidou cultural center in Paris and the Menil Collection Museum in Houston, among them) will have on the design of the Newport Harbor Art Museum.

"I will take from the Pompidou-- not the pipes --don't worry," Piano said, laughing about the rainbow-hued pipes and ducts that climb over the exterior of the center.

And he would learn from his experience at the Menil, where, perhaps, Piano said, he was "not too good at lighting art" in terms of its relationship to architecture.

"I want to bring the best of those two worlds here," he said. "I want to bring this concept of interaction between the disciplines, architecture and works of art. In terms of your site: it's great, big enough. I will tell you the truth. I didn't expect to find such a beautiful site here."

Piano Close-Up: He loves art, but he's not a collector, Piano confided pianissimo Friday night, after most of the guests had gone (including a mink-wrapped Maria-Teresa, who was nursing a sore throat).

"I am sort of, how you say, uneducated," he said, his speech lightly coated with an Italian accent. "I don't know art in the sense of an intellectual approach. I couldn't speak to a movement of art, give a lecture. I would get confused.

"But, I know practically every piece of Caulder, by touch . I have a sensual relationship with art."

And with life, one could say. Piano--tall and lean and soft-eyed--is a sailor who designs the boats he guides each summer from Genoa to the sapphire playgrounds of Portofino, Corsica and Sardinia.

"I love the pleasure of the silence of the sea, along with the sound of the wind and the sail. The noise they make is beautiful. I love also the feeling of power. Sailing is one of the most beautiful experiences we can have."

He approaches design with the same emotion, he said. "If you're competent as a man of science, a builder, you can take an emotional approach."

"I am a son of a builder. My grandfather was a builder, a carpenter. I grew up in this field. For me, it is a pleasure to touch things, make things. It's nothing special. It came along."

He plans to marry Venice-born Maria-Teresa "someday."

"Not now," said Piano, who has three children--Carlo, 22; Matteo, 19, and Lia, 15 ("the one who wants to become an architect," he said). "But someday . I love her. She is sweet."

They met, by boat, in Greece a few summers ago. "A friend of mine told me to meet him on a certain day, at a certain time. Being a stubborn man, I was there that very day, that very time, in a small harbor, drinking.

"And along came my friend. And she (Maria-Teresa) was in the boat. They came to my boat, and. . . . "

And Renzo Piano has two glorious homes. One in Paris. "A 16th-Century house in the center of the Marais." And one in Genoa. "An old house, 14th Century."

His dream? "What I am doing right now."

While Piano enchanted museum founders on Friday night, Robert Goulet and his wife, Vera, turned what could have been a ho-hum apres-theatre bash into some enchanted evening .

Popping into a party at the Center Club after his performance in "South Pacific" at the Center, Goulet chatted with members of the Performing Arts Fraternity-- who support the Center with annual dues--telling them about a segment of "The Tonight Show" he had taped that afternoon.

What could frat members and guests do but gather 'round the telly for some of Johnny Carson's happy talk?

On the guest list: Rebecca Andrew, "Nellie Forbush" in the production; fraternity president Don Christeson; Carol and Larry Hofmann; Ken and Peggy Williams; Mitchell and Joan Samuelson, and Thomas Kendrick with Judy Morr.

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