Architect Speaks Up on Ouster : Museum: Renzo Piano says the stated reasons for his sudden dismissal from the Newport Harbor project are ‘absolutely fake.’ Officials maintain the design was too expensive and offered inadequate space.


Nearly a year after he was dismissed suddenly and unceremoniously as the architect of the Newport Harbor Art Museum’s proposed $20-million building, Renzo Piano has broken his silence on the subject. He says he remains mystified by the ouster and that the museum’s stated reasons are “ridiculous,” “absolutely fake” and “false.”

The world-renowned architect from Genoa was back in Southern California this week to receive the 12th-annual Richard Neutra Award for Professional Excellence from the College of Environmental Design at Cal Poly Pomona--an honor named after the Vienna-born, Los Angeles-based architect who revolutionized modern domestic architecture and who was a boyhood idol of Piano’s.

It was the first time Piano had been in the area since the Newport Harbor board voted secretly to reject a design on which he had worked for more than two years, with the complaint that it was too expensive and that it offered inadequate exhibition space.


Sitting in the airy Silver Lake home Neutra designed for himself, Piano puffed meditatively on a cigar and punctuated his thoughts with long gazes out the large windows. He said he is still “quite amazed that nobody actually explained” to him why his final design had been unacceptable. It was, he said, the first time in a long and distinguished career that such a thing had ever happened to him.

“I want,” he said, “to be adamant about this: If somebody said that the scheme was over-budget or (allowed for insufficient gallery space), I’m ready to go to war. Because it’s not true.”

Asked to comment, James V. Selna, a member of the museum building committee, said: “The design itself was innovative and generated a good deal of enthusiasm. As the design underwent modifications to conform to the museum’s budget expectations, some of the enthusiasm for the design diminished, particularly as gallery space diminished and flexibility diminished.”

Piano said, however, that “just a few months before (I was dismissed) we made a drawing showing that you can (enlarge the museum) up to 15,000 square meters (161,460 square feet). The answer was there--the answer to things like money, expansion, was there” in the overall scope of the design.

Piano, who is 53, had won numerous major awards--among them, an American Institute of Architects Honorary Fellowship and the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Honorary Fellowship--when he was selected by Newport Harbor’s 13-member building committee in 1987.

He first gained international recognition in 1971 when his firm won the competition to design and build the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, popularly known as the Beaubourg. The flashy museum with utility pipes running up its facade--a wild contrast with the centuries-old buildings around it--initially sparked enormous controversy but eventually became a beloved fixture of the quartier. In contrast, Piano designed the much-praised Menil Collection Museum in Houston in an elegantly restrained style which gives primacy to the qualities of light and air.

For the Newport Harbor’s new site, at the intersection of East Coast Highway and MacArthur Boulevard in Newport Beach, Piano designed what he called “a place of discovery, a microcosm protected by an organic shelter which invites visitors to wander and explore.” Visitors were to enter through a barrel-vaulted roof at parking lot-level and glide down to the lobby on an escalator.

Inside the one-story building, which was to be carved into the hillside, multiple views of surrounding gardens were to merge interior and exterior space in a way similar to Neutra’s signature style. A pedestrian “street” running through the center of the building was designed to connect longitudinal “fingers” housing the various museum departments.

“Somebody had this funny excuse that the building was not within budget,” Piano said Wednesday. “But that’s all absolutely fake. It’s not (just) me saying that, because (Irvine-based project manager) Fluor Daniel . . . did a cost analysis. . .

“Another argument by somebody is that the scheme didn’t meet the (museum’s needs). This is also false.” Piano acknowledged that his first design was unsuitable, but by the schematic design phase of the project, he said, it matched the museum’s list of program requirements.

Reminded that some trustees thought the design allowed for insufficient exhibition space in the 75,000-square-foot building, Piano said he had increased this space, in part by widening the gallery for temporary exhibitions.

“We did what the (building) committee asked for,” he said. “During the process of making the schematic design--which took, by the way, almost two years--we made a lot of alterations.”

The cost and space arguments, he added, were “just a pretext (for dismissal), as if I say that I cannot talk to you because it’s too sunny outside. It’s ridiculous.”

What of trustees’ worries about whether the museum could be expanded in the future? What about those who fretted about the new technology to be used on the roof? Piano said these were also phantom arguments.

“You can increase the ‘fingers,’ increase the parking. . . I realize now that this may be criticized as something that the building plan didn’t mention, but the answer was there. It was there (in the nature of the design) from the beginning.

“But believe me, nobody actually told me that they were not confident about the roof working. If there’s one thing in which I’m quite good, it is viability of construction. I mean, I made the Menil work perfectly. Why this should not work? I’m doing this airport in (Osaka) Japan that is a $1.4-billion job. I know what I’m doing.”

Piano said all the Newport Harbor trustees with whom he met had seemed to be in general agreement about the feasibility of his final design. Even building committee member Roger Seitz--the Irvine Co. vice president of urban design and planning who was “sometimes quite negative, especially about practical things like the cost of construction,” Piano said--didn’t appear to be critical of the entire scheme.

“We had been working so well with everyone. It was great with Kevin Consey, the director (who had left the museum shortly before Piano’s ouster). It was good with (chief curator) Paul Schimmel (who departed shortly thereafter). It was OK with the building committee. It was a real creative process in an open, creative atmosphere.

“This was the (atmosphere) I experienced before in America by doing the Menil in Houston. My mistake may be that I was (deluded) by this. I assumed that (working in America) is always like that, but it’s not.”

Building committee member Selna, who chaired a group of board members that re-evaluated Piano’s design, said: “I believe the museum dealt properly in keeping (Piano) informed of the museum’s decisions.

“Throughout his work, the museum had high regard for Renzo Piano’s talents and high regard for him personally. The museum still has those strong and favorable feelings. It is perhaps understandable . . . for any person in the creative arts to be disappointed when a project did not go forward.”

In January, 1990, Piano received a letter from the museum’s executive committee telling him the museum had decided temporarily to suspend the building project. Consey, Piano’s most ardent supporter at Newport Harbor, already had left the museum two months earlier to become director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

Sometime that spring--after the museum had announced $10 million in donations and pledges to the building campaign--powerful museum trustee Donald Bren took decisive action.

Bren, chairman of the Irvine Co.--which donated the 10-acre building site--hired the New York architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox to provide an alternative design. Kohn Pedersen has never designed a museum but had designed the Western Digital building for the Irvine Co.

Museum officials said later that building committee chairman David S. Tappan Jr. prompted the decision to look for alternative designs.

In any case, Piano says, no one informed him of the change in plans. “I don’t know why (they) didn’t tell me,” Piano said, noting again that relations had been cordial. Although Bren vetoed the original design--a series of six sausage-like tube shapes--as too expensive, “after that, when we met he was happy, so I did not realize any problem,” Piano said.

It was not until March, in a letter from William Pedersen, a principal with the New York firm, that Piano was apprised of the new situation. In early April, Thomas Nielsen, president of the Newport Harbor board of trustees and vice chairman of the Irvine Co. (since retired), wrote to Piano, reiterating the trustees’ “concern” about construction costs and insufficient gallery space.

A few weeks later, Piano wrote to Nielsen, with copies to all the Newport Harbor board members. “If it is your wish to reduce your present total budget of $20 million for the museum . . . I believe it is possible to do so,” the architect wrote, adding that he thought the exhibition space could be increased up to 50% of the total area.

“It’s the same thing I was doing for two years,” Piano said this week, “so it’s not somebody trying to save a job the last moment. The letter was saying, if you have something to tell me, tell me, that’s all.”

But it was too late. Piano finally received a letter from Nielsen in August stating that his services were no longer required. And he was baffled.

“This atmosphere of mystery--I have no experience of such things,” Piano said. “I thought that was more typical of Byzantium. I thought America was a transparent place, where everything is open and direct. That is my experience of working in Texas.

“I don’t ask anybody to explain. I’m just analyzing what happened, and what happened is ridiculous, a joke. It was like a comedy in which you realize that people were joking, but I was not.”

“I think the (design) was excellent because it came out of joint creative work,” Piano said, leaning forward and gesturing broadly. “It came out from the heart! It was not an academic gesture. It was a real result of the process of people working, dreaming of this concept--mixing nature and space.

“Look at this (Neutra) house! This ideal! The (Charles) Eames House, the Neutra Houses. They are part of California culture--the climate, this multiple transparency (between nature and interior space). The complexity of space! The richness of space! Mixing nature and art! All this came out (in the design).

“I really loved the dream. Because that’s what it’s about for me. It was not about producing the sketch. It was working on the dream . . . materializing that dream. The dream was materializing. It was actually the mirror of what they wanted. So if they had something to tell me, why they didn’t tell me?

“You don’t hire an architect, spend two years with an architect, do this work, raise money, create an atmosphere, use the architect--in the best sense of the word, for his passion--and then throw it away just because you were wrong! My God. An architect is not somebody who you pay (for) . . . and then after a while change like an old pair of shoes.

“This is the sort of job that is always done for passion, not for money, because it’s a great adventure. It’s done because you just make one (building) like this . . . If I had to do it for money reasons, to survive and to keep all my team surviving, I wouldn’t do a job for $20 million on the other side of the world. I may do a job for $1.4 billion on the other side of the world.”

And what about Kohn Pedersen Fox? “They are, of course, excellent architects. They do a job that is probably much closer to Donald Bren’s Newport Center logic, so maybe he’ll be very happy.

“But anyway, forget for a moment architecture. (The project) was not only about architecture, but about the real (meaning) of having a museum. That museum is a community matter, something done by the community for the community. It is the last piece of a beautiful adventure starting in the 1930s, downtown in the port, on the old (Balboa) pavilion.

“It was a real democratic public community adventure. And I understood. I was the interpreter of that community adventure. Forget architecture. The new architect will do a great job. But what will happen if this is just the beginning of something different, not only for architecture but for the real philosophy of (the museum)?

“Architecture is just the mirror of the (community’s) dream. People should be very careful before throwing away a dream. Is the dream about freedom? Is the dream about expressing the capacity of a community to love art in a free way? Is somebody taking care of this, still?”