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The Interviews
Marking AZURE'S 35th anniversary, we feature 10 interviews with figures who have shaped the architecture and design world since 1985.
Renzo Piano’s Masterful Light Touch
Frida Escobedo’s Homing Instinct
Thomas Woltz Restores Ecologies One Landscape at a Time
Neri&Hu Bridge Past, Present and Future
Paola Antonelli’s Elastic Mind
Karim Rashid’s Virtual and Physical World
Dan Stubbergaard Crafts More Than Just Buildings
Yves Béhar Relights the Fuse
Diébédo Francis Kéré’s Global Localism
Daan Roosegaarde’s “Protopian” Future
The Interviews

Meeting Renzo Piano in his studio in Paris almost inevitably means walking past the Centre Pompidou, the High-Tech icon he designed with Richard Rogers decades ago. Inaugurated in 1977, it still looks as audacious today as it did back then. Some of it is covered in scaffolding, so I ask Piano, when I meet him a short time later, if he has consulted on any restoration or renovation work. “Of course,” he smiles. “They come here and we talk about it. Or I call up Richard to discuss it. I walk past it every time I go home. I am like the Quasimodo of the building.”

In the years since the Pompidou, Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) has designed everything from a stadium in the Italian port city of Bari to an airport in Japan, plus countless museums and cultural buildings along the way. Piano’s architecture is delicate yet daring, beautifully crafted yet inventive. Aged 82 but showing little sign of slowing down, the Pritzker Prize winner still divides his time between offices in Paris, New York and Genoa and is currently working with his 150-strong team on dozens of projects across the globe. These include a visitor experience centre for the CERN particle physics laboratory in Switzerland, a pediatric hospital in Uganda, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles and, located just steps from Viljo Revell’s renowned City Hall in Toronto, the practice’s first project in Canada: a courthouse co-executed with the global design firm NORR. For Piano, such projects represent the raison d’être of architecture. “When you make a public building,” he says, “you feel like you are doing something special, something important for the community.”

Your father was a builder. What did he think when you told him you wanted to be an architect?

Renzo Piano

My father was a small residential builder with around 10 to 12 people working for him. I used to spend a lot of time on construction sites as a child. He would make me sit on a little hill of sand, because then I was always visible to him. When I told him I wanted to be an architect, he looked at me and said, “But why? You can be a builder.” For him a builder was someone who does a lot of the same things [as an architect]: design, calculations, engineering. But when you are 19 years old, the only thing you can think about is running away from home. It signifies freedom and rebellion, and rebellion is still the easiest way to find yourself at that age. I also knew that they only taught architecture in Florence, Milan and Turin; there were no architecture schools in my hometown of Genoa, so I decided to become an architect!

Living by the sea was a major influence in your life. How did it form you?

If you grow up by the sea and spend years walking by the sea and watching it, you become a member of that big family that is the Mediterranean family. You grow up with this idea that the sea makes things beautiful and interesting. And the Mediterranean is like a world; it’s like a device that has recorded every sort of thing for centuries: sounds, voices, perfumes, light. It is about a sense of light and of lightness.

Your competition entry with Richard Rogers was one of 681 for the Centre Pompidou in 1971. In an interview, Rogers mentioned that you never thought you would win. That must have been quite a freeing position to be in.

When you are that age — I was 33 and Richard was 37 — it’s not about winning or not winning. You just want to do something that expresses what you want to say. For us, culture wasn’t an intellectual club; it wasn’t museums. It was going to concerts with your children on your shoulders. It was about creating a sense of curiosity. We wanted to show that cultural buildings didn’t have to be intimidating. When we actually won, we met M. Pompidou and he told us he wanted a building that would last 500 years. We stared at him, because at that point we had never built anything that lasted longer than six months!

Piano was 33 when he and Richard Rogers won the commission to design the French capital’s Centre Pompidou, the landmark cultural facility not far from RPBW’s Paris office today. PHOTO: Michel Denancé

What was the main idea behind the building’s design?

We wanted total flexibility. For us, flexibility was a kind of ethical position. It was not technical. When you feel culture is something difficult to define, something that can change, you have to make a building that is a bit like a soft machine that can adapt to different needs. That flexibility was a promise of happiness, of change. We had this idea that architecture should change the world; it was a kind of utopian idea.

Do you still think architecture can change the world?

In the best-case scenario, architecture is about putting into a building the spirit of the time. It doesn’t change the world, but it bears witness to change. Projects happen because the time is right for them. Don’t forget that this was the end of the sixties, beginning of the seventies. There had been the May ’68 student protests in Paris. In Italy, I finished my studies during the period of the university occupations. London had the Beatles. It was a special moment. It was inevitable that something like the Pompidou Centre got to happen.

The Whitney Museum of American Art’s former home in a beloved Marcel Breuer building was a tough act to follow, but a new facility designed by Piano in New York City’s Meatpacking District more than met expectations. PHOTOS: Nic Lehoux

People often say you don’t have a signature style. Why isn’t it essential for you to have one?

In the best-case scenario, architecture is about putting into a building the spirit of the time. It doesn’t change the world, but it bears witness to change.
Renzo Piano

I have always loved the fact that, in our profession, every time you do a new job, it’s a new story. It’s a bit like finding yourself on a new island with new materials and new people. There are so many things that change when you do a new project that you would have to be a bit stupid not to take the opportunity to change and renew yourself, too. There is a thread that runs through all my work, however. And it is something I like to call coherence. Coherence and, perhaps, integrity.

You have been active as an architect for 50 years. How would you say architecture has changed in that time?

When I started, nobody was putting the fragility of the Earth first. The new century has made a clear statement: The planet is fragile. And we need to be responsible; we need to be wise in the way we make buildings. This should not be seen as a negative obligation or an imposition that makes you suffer, but as a new source of inspiration.

You designed a new bridge pro bono after the Ponte Morandi in Genoa collapsed in a storm in 2018. Why was that important to you?

Because what happened is so, so sad. For me it’s a quadruple tragedy. There are the 43 people who lost their lives, the 600 people who were made homeless, the bridge that was lost and divided the city in two and, finally, another reason: one that belongs to the imaginary. A bridge connects people both physically and psychologically; it does an immensely important job. Building a bridge that collapses is terrible because bridges should never fall.

Opened in 2016, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens was designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop to exacting environmental standards. Its mammoth canopy roof, for instance, is topped with 10,000 square metres of photovoltaic cells, enough to generate 1.5 megawatts of power for the library and opera house below. PHOTO: Michel Denancé

How is construction on the new bridge going?

Yesterday, they were putting up the first big 100-metre-long piece. I designed the bridge, as you say, but a bridge, like all projects, is a collective enterprise. There are 1,000 people working on it, including many excellent engineers. We are all very proud of it. First, because it is going to be built in one year, which is amazing. And second, because when you make a public building — a bridge, a library, a museum, a school, a university or a hospital — you feel like you are doing something special, something important for the community. Making something together for others is a gesture of peace.

A collaboration between RPBW and NORR, the new Toronto courthouse currently under construction kittycorner to Viljo Revell’s iconic City Hall will consolidate several Ontario court facilities in a single 17-storey edifice. Among its defining features is a 20-metre-tall atrium (top) enclosed by a transparent glazed facade intended to convey openness. IMAGES: Courtesy of RPBW; lower rendering by Pixelflakes

In the past, you have said that failures are as important as successes. Why do you think that?

It’s very simple: If you don’t run any risks, you will go nowhere. I don’t like to make mistakes, of course, but the problem is that, as an architect, you have to express change. How can you do that if you are following a path that has already been explored? My theory is that, as an architect, you should live at least 150 years. For the first 50 or 60, you would learn and make a lot of mistakes. Then, once you have learned, you would have another 50 or 60 years to actually make buildings. And then once you reach 120, you would have another 60 years to teach everyone else how to make buildings. I’m not joking.

In Paris, RPBW realized another striking judicial complex, this one composed of connected “tower” and “pedestal”volumes accommodating nearly 9,000 people a day. PHOTO: Sergio Grazia

“The Interviews” is a series of Q&As that celebrates Azure’s 35 years as a leading forum for architecture and design. We tapped the minds of 10 leading industry players, from Renzo Piano to Frida Escobedo, for their insights on the state of design today — and where it’ll take us tomorrow. Follow all things Azure anniversary on social media by using the hashtag #Azure35

“Architecture is like a true imprint of social dynamics,” explains Mexico City-based Frida Escobedo. “You can read it. You can see the things that are manifested in space and you can feel the interactions that happen within it.” Since establishing her eponymous studio in 2006, the award-winning architect has completed a wide range of projects — from experimental installations and exhibit design to housing and high-end boutiques — that address the forces embedded in building: social space, time, locality and labour.

It was after encountering a puzzling requirement for two kitchens in a brief for the failed Ordos 100 community in China that she became fascinated by the lengths to which builders go to isolate, conceal and erase...

When Thomas Woltz talks about how people, nature and the built environment can live in harmony, he has the examples to back it up. His firm, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, has become one of the foremost landscape design studios in North America through its deft execution of a wide variety of projects, including major urban parks (such as Hudson Yards Plaza in New York City, Centennial Park in Nashville and Memorial Park in Houston), public gardens (the Aga Khan Garden at the University of Alberta) and even private farms (12-square kilometre Orongo Station, a sensitively restored sheep farm — and 2018 AZ Awards winner — on the eastern coast of New Zealand).

Before falling for architecture’s more down-to-earth...

At the beginning of this century, husband and wife design team Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu had cushy jobs in the office of American architect Michael Graves. By the middle of the 2000s, the couple had decamped to China, where they founded Neri&Hu Design and Research Office, their Shanghai-based practice. Although Shanghai has a rich architectural history — it’s home to masterpieces from the Qing Dynasty to the Deco era and everything in between — the city, at the time, was hardly a global design hub.

But Neri and Hu have presided over a kind of Shanghai renaissance. Their work across architecture, interiors and furniture design is bracingly original but never iconoclastic. In their practice, creativity coexists with a strong sense of...

Optimistic, inclusive, politically incisive and epically ambitious, “Broken Nature: Design Takes On Human Survival” was as much a call to arms as an exhibition. Presented last year at the Triennale di Milano in Italy, it explored one of our most important design challenges: how to mitigate the devastating damage caused to the environment and society by industrialization. By doing so with intelligence, wit and grace, “Broken Nature” cemented the reputation of its creator, Paola Antonelli, as the most influential design curator of our time.

Born in 1963 in Sassari, Italy, Antonelli studied architecture in Milan and worked as an architecture and design writer and lecturer before joining the curatorial team of the Museum of Modern Art...

Few contemporary figures embody the continent-hopping post globalization design gadfly more fully — or flamboyantly — than Karim Rashid. Before Sebastian Herkner and Philippe Malouin, Benjamin Hubert and Oki Sato, there was the Egypt-born, Canada-raised New Yorker who roared onto the world stage with his products for Umbra in the 1990s and went on to design everything from kitchenware and consumer packaging to wristwatches, hotels and even an Italian metro station. Only original provocateur Philippe Starck might claim to have undertaken more disparate commissions (or earned more frequent-flyer mileage).

But if Rashid is synonymous with a certain punchy turn-of-the millennium aesthetic heavy on the use of plastics (Time famously...

More connective pieces of infrastructure than simple stand-alone buildings, the designs of Danish firm Cobe typically interweave architecture, landscape architecture, urbanism and much more. Dan Stubbergaard, who founded Cobe in 2006, describes what his firm does a little more expressively: creating “urban living rooms.” Having successfully realized that concept in its home city of Copenhagen, Cobe is now practicing what it preaches elsewhere in Europe and as far afield as Canada, where it’s currently working on two major residential projects in Toronto: Block 8 in the city’s emerging West Don Lands neighbourhood and The James at Scrivener Square in the tony midtown Summerhill area.

According to Stubbergaard, both Toronto projects...

Since establishing his San Francisco studio Fuseproject in 1999, Swiss-born product guru Yves Béhar has been Silicon Valley’s go-to designer. From the Jawbone fitness tracker and One Laptop per Child to The Frame for Samsung and Herman Miller’s Public Office Landscape, he has consistently woven cutting-edge technology and bold ideas into brilliant, user-friendly creations. Béhar’s success is partly a result of his studio’s “design venture” approach: Even when it isn’t a founding partner of a start-up — as was the case with August, the smart home-entry system Fuseproject has been intimately involved in the full process of designing products that have launched companies. An example is the Snoo robotic bassinet, which soothes and rocks a...

“Plant a stick in the mud. Maybe it will bloom into a building.” This is the advice that Diébédo Francis Kéré gave to the aspiring architects in the audience at Toronto’s 2020 Interior Design Show. He was speaking from experience. In 2004, the Berlin-based architect came to worldwide prominence as a winner of the prestigious Aga Khan Award.

The prize recognized his first project, a primary school in his hometown of Gando in Burkina Faso. Built from clay-cement bricks, the passively ventilated school combined sustainably minded material innovation with a contextual sensitivity inspired by the local culture and vernacular.

In the years since, Kéré has added an extension to the Gando Primary School, a secondary school, a dedicated...

Daan Roosegaarde doesn’t waste your time: He follows a tight schedule in his Rotterdam studio and moves and speaks briskly. Yet he also makes regular trips to Rome to gaze at the Pantheon and to even warmer climates to go diving at night and marvel at the bioluminescence of tiny sea creatures. That all may sound contradictory, but it makes sense once you learn about Roosegaarde’s embrace of the whimsical, of his sincere recognition that, like most designers, he loves to control things — sometimes driven by his own fears — and so must regularly seek out experiences that require a bit of surrender, to keep finding balance.

Roosegaarde is best known for his vast public art installations, which often include new technology applied in an...