Since its inception two decades ago, the Pritzker Architecture Prize has been promoted by its donors, owners of the Hyatt hotel chain, as the Nobel Prize of the building art. The roster of Pritzker “laureates,” as the Hyatt Foundation calls the winners of its annual $100,000 award, has indeed come to resemble that of the Nobel Prize in literature, if only in its sometimes odd choices, inexplicable omissions, ideological biases, and geopolitical motives. But the quality of an award’s recipients can sometimes do more honor to the prize than vice versa, and that was the case when the Italian architect Renzo Piano was named as the 1998 winner of the Pritzker.
Born in Genoa in 1937, Piano (who now maintains offices in his hometown as well as in Paris and Berlin, where he has large works-in-progress) is widely accepted as the most convincing current exponent of high-tech modernism, the branch of architectural design that derives from the machine aesthetic of the International Style. An enthusiast, early in his career, of bravura industrial effects such as those of the Pompidou Center in Paris, which resembles a towering oil refinery, Piano now tempers his much diminished use of such mechanistic elements with a strong undercurrent of minimalism. This gives his architecture a sense of repose not often found in the work of such like-minded contemporaries as his former partner Richard Rogers, or the New York- based Argentinian architect Rafael Viñoly. Piano’s light touch makes him more akin to Norman Foster, whose similar quest for structural weightless-ness and luminosity of enclosed spaces comes closest to the Italian’s mature approach.
Piano studied at the Milan Polytechnic School of Architecture, and after receiving his degree there in 1964 he went to work for his father, a second-generation Genoese building contractor. The elder Piano warned his son against entering a profession that in Italy leads only infrequently to new construction. “Why do you want to be just an architect?” he asked. “You can be a builder.”
That Renzo Piano was able to follow both his father’s pragmatic advice as well as his own artistic ambitions is amply evident in Logbook, the architect’s well-illustrated and unusually readable compendium of his three-decade career. (The book is an abbreviated, autobiographical version of the three-volume Complete Works by Peter Buchanan.) In it Piano gives credit to a number of mentors, especially the mid-century French architect and furniture designer Jean Prouvé, who as head of the jury for the Pompidou Center competition first brought the young Italian international recognition. Prouvé’s balance between modern technical expertise and the use of natural materials (especially wood) and vernacular traditions from Provence and other regions of France set him apart from many of his innovation-obsessed contemporaries. In passing, Piano also cites the greatest architect of the postwar period, Louis I. Kahn, in whose Philadelphia studio the young Italian served a brief stint in the mid-1960s, while Kahn was working on his masterpiece, the Kimbell Art Museum of 1966-1972 in Fort Worth.
Though Piano does not mention the Kimbell in his account of his own Houston gallery of 1982-1986 for the Menil Collection—the two buildings are now considered by many to be the finest American museums of recent decades—his omission seems all the more conspicuous because of the obvious debt the Houston museum owes to its more celebrated predecessor in Fort Worth. From Kahn’s late work Piano learned much about the importance of natural light in architectural interiors, a quality little valued during the final, corporate phase of the International Style, which placed much more emphasis on the development of external form than internal volume and showed little interest in natural illumination. Piano’s high-tech aesthetic is markedly different from Kahn’s self-conscious primitivism and increasing recourse to classical and medieval sources as his career progressed; but it is still possible to discern Kahn’s underlying influence in several of Piano’s schemes.
In 1971, at the age of thirty-four and with only a handful of completed projects to his credit, Piano suddenly catapulted into the international spotlight when he and the British architect Richard Rogers won the coveted commission to design a huge new cultural center on the Plateau Beaubourg in Paris, subsequently named the Centre Georges Pompidou and more familiarly known as the Beaubourg. Completed in 1977, the Pompidou Center had fallen into such a dilapidated state by 1995 that Piano was called back to undertake an extensive restoration program, scheduled for completion on December 31, 1999. It was the building’s second renovation in a decade. In 1985, the Italian architect Gae Aulenti undertook the reconfiguration of the museum’s undifferentiated, loftlike galleries—ill suited for showing paintings—into a series of smaller-scaled rooms.
The rapid decline of the Pompidou Center’s physical fabric, already evident within a few years of its opening, is now officially blamed on the severe toll that the building’s extraordinarily heavy traffic has taken on the structure, which for some time was France’s number-one tourist attraction. As admirable as many of that museum’s exhibitions have been over the years, a significant number of visitors never enter the building at all, but merely take the tubular plexiglass escalator to the top and enjoy the panoramic views of the city from the observation deck. Twenty-two years after it opened, the Pompidou Center seems less an architectural landmark—its preposterous imagery of an oil refinery in the heart of the otherwise gracefully preserved Marais quarter remains as offensive as ever—than it does a milestone in the devolution of the art museum into populist fun fair.
Richard Meier’s Getty Center of 1984-1997 in Los Angeles is replete with such similarly entertaining amenities as a mechanized people-mover, spectacular scenic lookouts, and multiple dining facilities. It is clearly derivative of the Pompidou Center in its excessive emphasis on crowd-pleasing diversions that have nothing to do with art. All that is missing at the Getty are the fire-eaters that have long been a popular fixture on the Plateau Beaubourg but would be inadvisable in the disaster-prone ecology of the Brentwood site.
“When the Beaubourg was conceived, at the beginning of the seventies,” Piano writes in his Logbook, “no one went to museums. They were dreary, dusty, and esoteric institutions, and were perceived as politically incorrect, or rather as something for the elite.” This will come as news to the millions who thronged museums during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the culture boom was already in full swing not only in the United States (where the publicity-conscious promotions of Thomas P.F. Hoving, the P.T. Barnum of the blockbuster exhibition, were shaking up New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art) but also in such European cities as art-rich as Amsterdam, its superb, heavily attended museums buoyed by generous government subsidies.
A more accurate account of the Pompidou Center’s conception would have to acknowledge that by 1971, the French had at long last realized that Paris was no longer the center of the international art world and that radical measures would have to be taken to try to recapture the city’s former glory as center of the avant-garde. France’s National Museum of Modern Art, then housed in the Palais de Tokyo (an old pavilion left over from the 1937 World’s Fair), was an embarrassing reminder that Paris lagged well behind New York, whose Museum of Modern Art possessed more of the great treasures of twentieth-century art (especially works by French artists) than any other institution.
The apparent audaciousness of the Piano and Rogers competition entry intrigued the jurors, who finally chose it from among the 681 proposals submitted. In truth, the winning architects’ design was already somewhat dated, a late example of the vast multifunctional high-tech structures that had been designed by several experimental firms in London (especially Archigram), Florence, Vienna, New York, and Tokyo for the better part of a decade, though very few of those visionary schemes were ever executed. But the French have long had a weakness for the most superficial manifestations of modernism, and for high-tech exhibitionism above all. Thus the jury finally selected the pseudo-progressive Piano and Rogers proposal, which is essentially a gigantic shoebox enmeshed in miles of mostly useless painted metal ducts, pipework, and scaffolding. That choice only confirmed how out of touch with the avant-garde Paris had become.
Now Piano informs us that he and his British partner (whose association did not continue beyond this, their most celebrated project) intended from the beginning that the Pompidou Center would be a send-up of Modernism:
Beaubourg is a double provocation: a challenge to academicism, but also a parody of the technological imagery of our time. To see it as high-tech is a misunderstanding. The Centre Pompidou is a “celibate machine,” in which the flaunting of brightly colored metal and transparent tubing serves an urban, symbolic, and expressive function, not a technical one.
It is true that the frequent discrepancy between the outward appearance and the internal function of a building has been one of the paradoxes of Modernism, especially in structures with a pronounced machine aesthetic. This may have been understandable in the 1920s, for example, when Le Corbusier’s desire to give his designs as futuristic an aspect as possible could be fulfilled only by his using costly hand finishes and custom detailing to mimic industrial components and to display the possibilities of building techniques that in any event were not yet available. What did it matter if manually applied stucco masqueraded as poured-in-place concrete, or a nautical-style pipe railing was as carefully crafted as a Louis XV balustrade? But what excuse could there be, fifty years after that, to continue the charade? Despite Piano’s current rationale for his and Rogers’s reputation-making building as ironic and Pop—an idea not expressed when the building was launched—it must have occurred to the Italian architect that there was something meretricious about Beaubourg. His later work displays less and less dependence on such hollow effects.
The same cannot be said of the subsequent direction Richard Rogers’s work took. He continues in much the same vein of technological exhibitionism as that of the Pompidou Center. His best-known post-Piano building, the Lloyds headquarters of 1978-1986 in London, is reminiscent of the Paris museum in its pointless array of high-tech parts—such as its segmented metal coils, resembling a centipede, running down the front of the building—that are as eye-catching as they are difficult to maintain. Both structures are invariably filthy. Robert Venturi has aptly characterized this Neo-Modernist vogue for decorative imagery as “industrial rocaille” and
hyped and askew versions of architectural sculpture, paradoxically garbed in decoration representing heroic-functionalist exposed-frame construction symbolizing nineteenth-century engineering—while everybody knows the Industrial Revolution is dead.
When the Pompidou Center opened in 1977, its reception was magnified by the fact that few other important cultural buildings had been erected during the years of international recession that followed the Arab oil embargo of 1973. Understandably, the enormous publicity that accompanied the museum’s completion quickly led to other commissions, including Piano’s 1981-1984 expansion of the Schlumberger Company’s offices in the Paris faubourg of Montrouge. That intelligently conceived and cleanly executed commercial scheme brought the now solo practitioner more closely to the attention of the French-born Texas art patron Dominique de Menil, the daughter of a founder of the Schlumberger oil drilling equipment company. Furthermore, Piano’s imaginative 1982 installation of an Alexander Calder retrospective in Turin gave welcome evidence of his gift for the sympathetic display of modern art, a talent not apparent at the Pompidou Center.
In 1982, Mrs. de Menil, an aesthete of immense refinement and restraint, asked Piano to design a small private museum in a quiet residential neighborhood of Houston to house the superb and idiosyncratic collection of twentieth-century and tribal art she had built with her husband, John, who had died nine years earlier. Thereby began one of the most fruitful architect-client relationships in recent memory. The tendency toward simplification that Piano had begun to show since his split with Rogers was further encouraged by Mrs. de Menil, whose taste for austerity was almost Jansenist in its reductive but perfectionist rigor. In stark contrast to the increasingly vulgar museum theme parks and cultural shopping malls that proliferated during the 1980s, the Menil Collection building was envisioned by its high-minded benefactor with respect to what it would not have. There was to be no gift shop, no restaurant, no hyperluxurious materials, no grandiose homage to donors. Above all, the museum was not to be set apart from the adjacent community but instead integrated into it with the utmost care and subtlety. The client told her architect that she wanted the 100,000-square-foot building to “look small on the outside and be big on the inside.”
Taking his cues from the modest but architecturally distinguished late Arts and Crafts-style bungalows that surround the museum site—purchased by the Menil Foundation and restored, with their clapboard exteriors painted a uniform, historically accurate gray-green with white trim—Piano not only preserved but strengthened the appealing character of the setting. He limited the height of his new structure to the two-story scale of the largest adjoining houses; to harmonize with the surrounding setting, he filled in the thin, white-finished metal framing of his minimalist design with flawless horizontal cypress siding stained a pale gray.
Piano has occasionally returned to the extensive use of wood in his subsequent work. The towering, shieldlike forms of his Tjibaou Cultural Center of 1991-1998 in Nouméa in New Caledonia—the French territory east of Australia—were inspired by the conical, wood-and-woven-fiber hut roofs of the indigenous Kanak people. His City of Music auditorium project in Rome, begun in 1994 and scheduled for completion in 1999, comprises three concert halls of wood sheathed in lead. Although wood has reverberant qualities that can enhance musical acoustics, Piano’s specification aroused criticism in Rome, which the Emperor Augustus said he found a city of brick and left a city of marble. “Wood is not a Roman material,” the architect told a reporter for The New York Times, “but it will be covered with lead, and lead is a Roman material.” Though Piano is hardly an environmentalist, his willingness to use wood when it seems appropriate and his great skill in handling it marks him as one of the few high-style architects since Alvar Aalto to deal with wood in a consistently masterful manner.
Mrs. de Menil took an uncommonly active part in developing the plans for her museum, particularly in her conviction that its ten thousand objects ought to be kept under ideal conservation conditions in a “Treasure House” and taken out for exhibition only on a limited basis. As Piano recalls, “Why not, she asked, create a protected and secure place, in which the climate could be kept under strict control, separate from an area open to the public, and put the works on show in turn, for short periods of time?” At a time when many other museums tried to justify their ambitious expansion plans by complaining that only a tiny percentage of their permanent collections could be viewed at any time, Mrs. de Menil’s simple solution was eminently defensible. It was a contemporary revival of the ancient Japanese tradition of frequently rotating the display of works of art, both in order to aid the preservation of fragile objects and to prevent the visual fatigue that sets in if a piece is seen too often. It is one thing for an encyclopedic museum like the Metropolitan to keep its greatest treasures on perpetual view for a vast tourist public that demands to see certain masterpieces and for such institutions to play host to the traveling shows that promote frequent attendance. But a small institution with a primarily local audience has good reason to encourage repeat visits by offering a rotating selection of its holdings.
The policy of limited exposure, which Piano eagerly embraced, had the added advantage of freeing the architect from the most worrisome aspect of the commission: how to deal with the potentially destructive effect of the intense Texas sunlight on works of art. This did not mean, however, that extreme modulation of natural lighting was not desirable. The architect and his longtime structural consultant, the Irish-born engineer Peter Rice of Ove Arup & Partners (who died in 1992, and to whom Piano dedicates the Logbook, along with his late father and brother), devised the Menil Collection’s most memorable architectural motif: the gracefully curving overhead louvers (or “leaves” as they were called) that act as light baffles for the museum’s skylighted galleries. With the elegant economy of form that marked their most successful collaborations, Piano and Rice ensured that those wavelike, white ferroconcrete sunscreens also serve a structural function, reinforcing the intricate roof frame that seems to float atop the thin, white-finished steel columns that surround the building, a contemporary version of the classical entablature and cornice above the colonnade that surrounds the building on all four sides.
The galleries of the Menil Collection are not mere “white cubes,” as with the Modernist museum interiors that have been much derided of late, but instead are spaces of quite extraordinary luminosity. The quality of light that Piano and Rice established (one eightieth of local outdoor levels on a sunny springtime day) is not the cascade of sunshine that washes down the barrel vaults of Kahn’s Kimbell and bathes the Old Master pictures in an appropriately warm glow, enhanced by creamy travertine walls. Instead, the Menil’s stark, white-painted exhibition rooms (with dark-stained soft pine floors that further intensify one’s focus on the walls) seem to vibrate in the almost hallucinatory clarity of the high-keyed but even light. That focusing effect works uncannily well in underscoring the powerful character of the collection, which is particularly strong in its Northwest Indian and other tribal artifacts, Surrealist paintings, Minimalist art, and important examples of the work of Andy Warhol. In a period of rampant commercialization in the museum world, the Menil Collection is a model of how architecture can elevate the public experience of art to a supreme level of intellectual and sensual pleasure.
Less successful than the Menil Collection is Piano’s Beyeler Foundation Museum of 1992-1997 in the Basel suburb of Riehen. It was commissioned by the Swiss blue-chip art dealer Ernst Beyeler for the display of his important personal collection of modern and African art. The Beyeler is a far more opulent production than the Menil. Though the Swiss museum’s similarly top-lighted gallery spaces are also well-proportioned and show off the collection to handsome effect, they lack the feeling of intimacy that makes the Menil so memorable. This is not so much a matter of size—both buildings enclose roughly equivalent spaces—as it is one of spirit.
The sleek, one-story Beyeler museum is clad in glass and stone, which give the building far less warmth than the wood-walled Houston museum. The Beyeler’s rough-cut red-sandstone cladding (though similar to the stone of Basel’s cathedral) is particularly unfortunate, in much the same way the textured travertine veneer at the Getty Center looks like a very expensive petrified shingle. Modern architects who began by using high-tech design, including James Stirling, Richard Meier, and Piano, subsequently seemed compelled to demonstrate that the stone surfaces of their later buildings didn’t bear loads—we are to understand that this function is performed by underlying metal structures. The resulting thin appliqué effect is especially apparent in the squared columns of the Beyeler’s colonnade. The sandstone facing emphasizes the deluxe aura of the Basel pavilion by seeming less an integral element than a top-of-the-line embellishment.
The potential that rich materials have for undermining modern art was foreseen and avoided by the expatriate American artist Cy Twombly, some of whose best paintings are permanently housed in Piano’s ascetic but jewellike Cy Twombly Gallery of 1992-1995 in Houston. Commissioned by Dominique de Menil and erected across the street from the Menil Collection, the Twombly Gallery is at once distinct from and wonderfully complementary to its larger neighbor. Twombly, the architect writes, “is a modest person who, when asked to express a preference among the various designs, always opted for the most frugal, and least ostentatious. An outer facing of stone had been proposed, but he preferred raw concrete.” Despite Piano’s assertion that his two private-museum clients “in some ways…are alike,” the striking contrast between the monastic calm of the Menil Collection and the Twombly Gallery and the worldly sheen of the Beyeler might best be ascribed to the very different temperaments of their respective patrons: on one hand the heiress with her highly cultivated taste for exquisite simplicity; and on the other the self-made art merchant with a desire to advertise his business acumen and memorialize his professional prosperity.
Piano’s small museum buildings are among his most satisfying works to date, but he has also worked on a gargantuan scale rarely available to architects of his artistic inclinations. Certainly the masterpiece among his large works is the Kansai International Air Terminal of 1988-1994 in Osaka. Though railroad stations were among the major architectural projects of the early Modern Movement, airports for the most part have been noteworthy for their banality. The few exceptions—such as Eero Saarinen’s functionally cramped Trans World Airlines Terminal of 1956-1962 at Kennedy Airport in New York and his Dulles International Airport of 1958-1963 in Chantilly, Virginia—have tended to attract attention for their associative forms, such as the TWA Terminal’s architectural evocation of a bird on the wing or Dulles’s upswept roof, also suggestive of flight. Similarly, Piano has managed to make his Kansai airport into a thrilling embodiment of the excitement air travel might once again have if more imagination were applied to its ground facilities. (The appalling decline in quality of flight service itself is something else.)
Built on an artificial island in Osaka Bay, Kansai airport is enclosed by a wavelike canopy of 82,000 identical stainless steel panels. The billowing, continuous roof and wall configuration, Piano writes, was suggested by the anomalous offshore site and his first sailing visit to it with his chief collaborators:
Architects are creatures of the land. Their materials rest on the ground. They themselves belong essentially to the world of materiality. In this sense I feel atypical, perhaps because of my youthful passions: the harbor, temporary structures, loads suspended from cranes, reflections in water. Aboard that boat we tried to think in terms of water and air, rather than land; of air and wind, elongated, lightweight forms, designed to withstand the earthquakes to which the area is prone; of water, sea, tides; of liquid forms in movement, energy, waves. Many of the ideas that shaped the project were born that day on the sea.
The great roof of Kansai’s mile-long departure area undulates not only laterally but also lengthwise, from a height of about forty feet at the midpoint of the structure to about thirteen feet at its two ends. That arching vista, the ends of which one cannot see from the center, acts as a metaphor for the curvature of the earth, and conveys a sensation not unlike that created by the tubular, curving gangways connecting the main concourse of Saarinen’s TWA Terminal and its passenger gates.
The lightweight but exceptionally resilient engineering of Piano’s structure was severely tested within months of its opening. The catastrophic Kobe earthquake of January 1995 left the Kansai International Air Terminal intact, and its architect was able to exult in words reminiscent of those with which Frank Lloyd Wright celebrated the survival of his newly opened Imperial Hotel of 1914-1922 in Tokyo after the even more disastrous Kanto quake and fire of 1923. As Piano writes, sounding like a classical Japanese poet, “The fury of the elements toppled the oak, but did not break the light and supple reed.”
However, the sure command of colossal scale that Piano demonstrates at Kansai is not always to be found in his larger complexes, of which he has done several. His lifeless Cité Internationale of 1986-1995 in Lyons—a “city-within-a-city” redevelopment of old fairgrounds on the banks of the Rhône—includes office buildings, conference centers, a hotel, casino, theater, and a museum of contemporary art, which lacks even the pulse-racing awfulness of the Pompidou Center.
Admittedly it is rare indeed for massive urban-renewal schemes, conceived in one stroke, to match the more improvisational logic of neighborhoods that have evolved over time and through need. Le Corbusier’s project to destroy some of the most attractive quartiers on Paris’s Right Bank—his Plan Voisin of 1922—was nothing less than megalomaniacal. The fault in Lyons may lie more with the city fathers, who promoted an overly ambitious project, than with its architect. Adverse economic and social issues beyond a designer’s control can sabotage even the most well-intentioned civic-improvement effort. But the problems Piano is now facing with his largest urban project to date, in Berlin, show how even the best architects can be implicated in schemes contrary to their own best inclinations.
Piano’s attempt at one-shot comprehensiveness in the redevelopment of Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz is similar to his venture in Lyon. Begun in 1992, the project is sponsored by the Daimler-Benz real estate subsidiary Debis, whose high-rise headquarters Piano has designed as the vertical anchor of this new quarter, now rising amid the forest of cranes that have transformed the former no-man’s-land between the old East and West zones into the world’s biggest and most costly urban construction site. As master planner for the ensemble of fifteen buildings and architect of eight of them, Piano is also overseeing a roster of international stars brought in to design the seven other parts, including Arata Isozaki, Rafael Moneo, and his erstwhile partner Richard Rogers. This is the kind of scale and control that architects usually can only dream of. But should they?
In a moment of exceptional candor at a 1996 architecture conference, Piano betrayed the same misgivings that critics are beginning to have about the Potsdamer Platz project (to say nothing about the dismal overall direction that urbanism is taking in the new Berlin). The architect’s doubts are recorded in Technology, Place & Architecture, the proceedings of the biennial Jerusalem Seminar in Architecture, sponsored by Yad Hanadiv, the Rothschild family philanthropic foundation in Israel, now under the leadership of Jacob Rothschild (who in 1998 stepped down from the jury of the Pritzker Prize). In a revealing exchange with one of the event’s moderators, Piano admitted that
Making a scheme for Berlin is an impossible job, although I would never say this in front of my clients. A civilized person is called urbane, even in English, and when we refer to this term, we immediately think about all the beautiful cities that have ever been. We know, however, that they were not designed. They were and still are a product of organic growth. When you walk around these cities, what is beautiful is the very fact that what you are looking at has not been designed. Instead it represents the materialization of the millions of life stories that have been enacted within their respective walls across centuries.
When you are asked to design a piece of a city, even as little as fifteen buildings, it is really difficult, because you don’t have the time to do such a thing. However, being an architect you still accept the challenge to do it…. Being an architect, especially when you are asked to design a piece of a city, is like being an acrobat. However, if you have grown up in the European humanist atmosphere, you have a net beneath you.
Such “nets” as Piano might imagine exist in Berlin today, however, are not safety devices in the hands of his fellow humanists but rather snares in the grasp of hard-nosed real estate speculators. Official lip service to the need to retain the old architectural character of Berlin—difficult enough to ascertain, given the ruinous state of so much of the city’s urban fabric—was quickly forgotten. A huge land-buying boom began soon after reunification and it accelerated after the designation of the former German capital as the future seat of government for Europe’s leading economic power.
In a response all too typical of those of his co-professionals, Piano failed to confront the fact that his sponsor’s brief for the development of Potsdamer Platz called for a concentration of buildings simply too big, too dense, and too greedily exploitative of every square centimeter. The scheme does not admit either the human qualities or the graceful use of the original site that infuse his best work, from Houston to Osaka. The upward thrust of Potsdamer Platz is not only contrary to Berlin’s historic medium-rise scale—which is much like that of Paris, punctuated here and there with taller public monuments and open spaces. It is also unnecessary in a sprawling metropolis that approaches the land area of Los Angeles. “However,” as Piano said, “being an architect you still accept the challenge to do it.”
Untold harm has been inflicted on the built environment by architects so eager for the next job (in which respect they seem as desperate as professional actors) that they will accept any commission, no matter how fundamentally misconceived, in the deluded belief that they will be able to do a better job of it than any other designer. Perhaps the sorriest image to emerge from Piano’s 600,000-square-meter, 40,000-inhabitant Berlin extravaganza—with the usual city-within-a-city mix of offices, housing, shops, restaurants, theater, and casino—is that of the huge, globe-shaped IMAX cinema that has been inserted into one of the gridded, glass-walled superblocks originally intended for offices.
In elevation, this combination of celestial symbolism and pure geometry at first glance brings to mind such visionary schemes as Etienne-Louis Boullée’s Cenotaph of Newton of 1784 and Ivan Ilich Leonidov’s Lenin Institute of 1927 for Moscow. In reality, Piano’s giant caged sphere seems more an emblem of the difficulties even idealistic architects get into when they work against their finer impulses. Like many other high-style architects, Piano need not limit himself to small buildings, as his great Japanese airport confirms. But now that he has achieved international celebrity, it would be a sad diminuendo to his career if he lost touch with the quiet inner voice that has won him such well-deserved acclaim.