Architect Talks About His Creativity, Including Ideas for Newport Museum

Times Staff Writer

Renzo Piano, the Genoese architect who designed what he calls “a spaceship in the middle of Paris” (the Centre Georges Pompidou), offered a capacity audience at a UC Irvine lecture hall Tuesday night a tour of “10 cultural adventures” his firm has worked on during the last 15 years.

Along the way he also dropped a few hints about his conceptual design of Newport Harbor Art Museum’s new building at MacArthur Boulevard and Coast Highway. But design details will be officially unveiled only after the museum’s trustees vote on the project Thursday night.

The recent recipient of the Gold Medal for lifetime achievement from the Royal Institute of Architects in London, Piano, 51, said he has no big theories about culture or architecture because theories get in the way of the “adventure.”

But he is intensely concerned with craftsmanship (“mixing the work of the mind with the work of the hand”), and he believes in certain kinds of “provocation"--like the notion of a brightly colored building with industrial pipes on its exterior plunked down among the dignified old edifices of Paris.


“To me it made sense not to try, with such a big building, to hide it or reproduce the environment (around it),” he said. “It is more frank to have a building that doesn’t even try to be related to the next one.”

The high-tech appearance of the Pompidou center, which houses several cultural facilities, was meant to thumb its nose at the traditional, “intimidating” notion of a cultural institution and stir up curiosity in ordinary people, Piano said.

The Menil Collection in Houston, an art museum Piano finished 2 years ago, is entirely different. Collector Dominique de Menil told him that she wanted a museum that was small on the outside and big on the inside.

Instead of making “big gestures,” Piano worked with what he called “immaterial elements--light, transparency, color, sound.” The changing position of the sun makes the light vary during the course of a day in the galleries.


The tropical gardens within the museum and a framing and matting workshop visible to the public are devices that Piano wants to incorporate in the Newport Harbor museum. “It is quite essential when you are visiting to understand what is happening at the museum,” he said.

In Newport Beach, his aim is “to bring the best of what I’ve been trying to understand about cultural buildings.” From the Pompidou center (“I don’t bring the pipes; don’t worry!” he called out cheerfully), he wants to incorporate the notion of a building created to house multidisciplinary activities: temporary exhibitions, permanent exhibitions, music, teaching, conferences, the bookshop, the restaurant, the library.

Piano said he believes that all these activities will have a synergistic effect, so he plans to organize them in such a way that the visitor walking down a central pedestrian “street” inside the 75,000-square-foot museum will come in contact with each one. (“Curiosity will be a very important experience.”)

From the Menil Collection, Piano hopes to bring the careful attention to internal space and the way it is lit, the relationship of the indoor space to nature and the feeling of calm and quiet.

He envisions the length of the temporary gallery as an 80-foot free span (“quite a big space”) with 18-foot ceilings. The permanent galleries will span 40 feet and be lit by sunlight entering from the top of the building.

“Of course California is California, not Paris, not Houston,” he added. “Climate is going to play a big, important part.” The one-story museum building will permit visitors to move from outside to inside “without a big psychological separation.”

Visitors will park their cars on the museum’s platform level, which Piano calls “the shelter of a microcosm,” and descend to “a magic wall of art and culture.” Piano sees the outer walls finished in “quite dark” stone “to increase the feeling of connection with the earth.” One of the basic materials of the building will be “a green material,” he said, referring to the vegetation of the roof garden and interior gardens.

After he whizzed through slides of such vastly different projects as the underground IRCAM building in Paris (where musicians pursue acoustical research) and a traveling computer exhibit for IBM, it was evident how all-encompassing his definition of “cultural adventure” is.


Piano’s ability to adapt to wildly different project conditions and potential users bore out one of his remarks about creativity. “To be creative, you don’t (want) to be too free,” he said. “If you’re too free, you lose creativity.”