An interview with star architect Renzo Piano

Three years in the making: the three hills of the Paul Klee Centre

Light, airiness and nature are three elements contained within Swiss artist Paul Klee's works - they inspired Renzo Piano's conception of the Paul Klee Centre.

This content was published on May 30, 2005 - 13:49

Ahead of the opening of the centre on Monday, swissinfo caught up with the Italian star architect in his Paris office to find out more about his involvement in the project.

swissinfo: Switzerland is a small country but with a great architectural tradition. What did you think when you were chosen for the Paul Klee Centre project without a public competition?

Renzo Piano: Honestly, it never even occurred to me that there should be a public competition. Not that I am against competitions, far from it. My professional life has been built on competitions.

At a certain point in my life, I stopped doing competitions but not out of arrogance. It was because entering a competition means falling in love with the project.

And, at a certain age, you no longer have time for falling in love, then seeing the "bride" end up in someone else’s arms.

swissinfo: What ideas did you "borrow" from Paul Klee to inspire you in planning the museum?

R.P.: Klee was one of the most prolific and complex artists of the 20th century. Because his genius was many-sided, he easily gives rise to a misunderstanding – the idea that you can interpret him in any way you choose.

And yet the great lesson of the Bauhaus, where Klee was one of the most gifted teachers, was not that you can put all the arts together and come up with some kind of nourishing cultural stew.

It was rather that a deepening - a mutual fertilisation of the arts - could be achieved through the underlying values of poetics. For example, the sense of lightness, of belonging, the importance of light.

Everything is to be found in Klee’s work: nature, fields of corn, birds, irony, drama. It is very deep and highly complex. It also embraces the earth.

Hence the idea that, rather than making a building, we had to create a place, lift the blanket of the earth, make a work of land art. More a work of topography than of architecture, the labour of an inspired farmer.

swissinfo: And the question of size: Klee’s work is very intimate. Why so monumental a centre to display it in?

R.P.: I believe that every museum, every place of this kind, has a sort of sacred dimension: it serves to protect works of art. A work of art is by definition very fragile, physically under threat, therefore the purpose of a museum is to make it endure, to protect it.

Equally sacred is the contemplative dimension: a museum is a place to enjoy an intimate relationship with a work of art.

And there is also a more "profane" aspect, connected with the museum’s social role as a place of meeting, a place where you can go just to buy a book, meet people, listen to music, or have something to eat in the cafeteria.

The size of the building is greater than would be required simply to display the works of Paul Klee because these other functions had to be taken into account. But it is not huge. And it plays a game of hide-and-seek with its natural surroundings.

swissinfo: Did this division into sacred and profane pose security problems? Even in Switzerland, after September 11, there is something of a mania for controlling and protecting everything.

R.P.: Architecture celebrates conviviality. There is no such thing as anti-terrorist architecture. The only kind of architecture capable of counteracting terror would be cave architecture. And what a triumph it would be for terrorism if everybody were reduced to living in caves.

But obviously the answer to the problem of terrorism is political, not technical. Switzerland demonstrated this when it came up with a technical response to the terror of the atom bomb: for 20 or 30 years people constructed nuclear fall-out shelters that have become storage rooms for empty boxes.

The public part of the Paul Klee Centre, the so-called "museum street", is very simply to monitor. There are no hiding-places. But there will be children, praise God as there is a children’s museum.

swissinfo: Coming back to the fragility of Klee’s work - this explains the absence of natural light in the exhibition galleries.

R.P.: Klee’s work is very vulnerable, often watercolour on paper, or even oil paint on paper. Sometimes in the morning, if he did not have a canvas handy but had a newspaper, he would first read the newspaper, then give it a coat of cementite and paint on it.

This is why some of his works are extremely fragile and it is dangerous to expose them to the light. So we decided to keep natural light for what we call the "museum street".

But when you go into an exhibition room, you will find artificial light, which we are much better able to control. Some works must not be exposed to more than 20 or 30 lux, rather than the normal 300 or 400 for oil paintings.

swissinfo: You mentioned children. Klee was fascinated by the drawings done by his son and his small friends. How do you relate to the creativity of children?

R.P.: The creativity of a child is amazing, so amazing that you hardly need to cage it in or direct it. In fact, no one has ever imagined that children would come to the Paul Klee Centre to be organised but just to enjoy their own innocence.

There is a rather silly interpretation of Klee, whom some people regard as infantile. This is another of the misunderstandings that beset Klee. The other is that Klee can be translated into any form you like. Infantilism is one thing, innocence another. And innocence need not lack intensity or depth.

swissinfo, Raffaella Rossello in Paris

Key facts

1937: Renzo Piano is born to a family active in the construction industry.
1964: He completes his architectural studies in Milan.
1965-70: He works with Louis Kahn in Philadelphia and meets Jean Prouvé.
1971: Together with Richard Rogers Piano realises his first major project, the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
1977: He sets up the firm Piano & Rice with engineer Peter Rice.
1997: He builds the Fondation Beyeler Museum in Basel.
Today he has studios in Geneva, Paris and Berlin, known collectively as the "Renzo Piano Building Workshop".

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