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 …