The maestro sends Herbert Wright a picture of his secret forest retreat and from there enlightens him about the Fondation Pathé, the secrets of a tranquil garden and hidden beauty.
Blueprint: How did the Fondation Pathé project start?
Piano: I went there with Jérôme and Sophie Seydoux. It was a black space, a movie theatre not in use, and we entered into a world of darkness. I went up a stair and said, my God, we're really in the middle of a neighbourhood, with 120 eyes watching us!
You've got to add the moral commitment to the people living around, with specific rights, light rights, view rights -- the legal commitment. You find yourself building at least 25 little models, trying to find a volume allowed. That is what I call 'force of necessity'.
After one month, you wake up and you say, wait a second... You make a curve. That's why I say 'force of necessity' is not true, because there are a few million different solutions. When you start thinking about curving a piece of wood, you don't curve the wood in 15 different angles, you curve it in one harmonic way. You start to mix obligation with imagination, then you start to get a shape.
Blueprint: Did you say that it is like a little animal trying to find its place?
Piano: Yes, I say this sort of silly thing. It looks like a little animal actually trying to go up and breathe fresh air. In some ways, this is a metaphor but metaphor is dangerous. A building is a building, an animal is an animal. In reality, architecture represents itself.
An exclusive shot of Renzo Piano's study wall in his forest retreat, where he considers projects on the sheets before him. Photo: Renzo Piano
Blueprint: The building's skin gives solidity from outside, but transparency from the inside?
Piano: Yes, that was the intention. There are three floors of storage: there's no reason to see inside. The two top ones have to be protected not just from the view of people around but also from the sun. I live in a roof in Paris; I know it is romantic to live in the roof. It's important to see the clouds and the changing weather, and natural light.
Blueprint: The Pathé garden with its birch trees is like the New York Times Building. Are they the secret to making tranquil gardens in tight urban settings?
Piano: You are right. Birch trees look for the light. In the summer they are nice because the leaves are very tender. In the winter, the leaves go away and you have a beautiful arabesque kind of a lace. It's very beautiful even when it's naked. It's very important in a little space not to use heavy trees, but use trees that have a very graphic presence.
Blueprint: You have designed near-invisibilty at Pathé and the Ronchamp convent, but also supervisibility, like the Shard or Centre Pompidou. Do they share roots?
Piano: In the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, Genoa and Venice were fighting. Venice was the city of exposed beauty, Genoa was the city of introspective beauty. You go around the streets in Genoa, the buildings don't show up but when you open a door... This idea of hidden beauty, the moment when architecture's emotion is unveiled, is part of my DNA.
The new Motion Picture Academy in Los Angeles will include a dramatic 42m-diameter platform above the main auditorium, within a floating bubble.Photo: RPBW
Blueprint: What is the most interesting ongoing RPBW project?
Piano: I'm in a little house in the middle of nowhere, in the forest. I have a little room that is 3m by 3m, this is my secret place. On a wall I have maybe 30 projects. I'm working on three or four of them. All of them have some seed of the future. In the day, apart from walking around, I'm putting one on the table and asking, why am I doing this, what is the social context, what is the invention? Where is my profession? Is it functional? Then finally, where is the little poetry, the sense of emotion?
The Columbia University project in New York is very important. I'm working with filmmakers now, making a new headquarters for the Academy in Los Angeles. We are making academies in Paris [École normale supérieure de Cachan], another in Amiens [Citadel University]. In Athens we are making the new Library of Greece. It's hard for me to say which is more important. You put yourself in all of them.