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January 19, 2012

I met with Italian architect and Pritzker Prize winner Renzo Piano one week before the official opening of his latest museum project, an addition to the historic Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston, whose original building (nicknamed "the palace") opened in 1903. We chatted in the Living Room, an airy meeting place on the ground floor of the new wing, which is decorated in mid-century furniture upholstered in vibrant reds and oranges, grounded by a brick wall covered in suspension shelves, and accented by real, live chirping birds. 

Italian architect Renzo Piano

Photo: David L. Ryan/Boston Globe

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The Living Room designed by Renzo Piano

The Living Room, with vibrant red couches selected by the architect. Not pictured: Renzo Piano.

Courtesy of 
Nic Lehoux / Renzo Piano Building Workshop
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Italian architect Renzo Piano

Photo: David L. Ryan/Boston Globe

Piano had a hand in designing everything in the Gardner's contemporary wing, from the furniture to the electronic poster boards with museum signage to the acoustic marvel that is the new concert hall. He is exacting, as an architect of his stature is inclined to be, requesting that the blinds of the Living Room be pulled up before we began, to ensure maximum bliss-out the space. As rumored, Piano is charming, enthusiastic, and forthcoming about his work. Here's what he had to say about updating the grande dame of Boston culture for contemporary usage: 

How familiar were you with the Gardner before getting hired to work on this commission?

I had probably been two times but it felt like I had been 50 times! Before I got this job... as an Italian, you find it to be very funny. A lady trying to make a piece of Venice in Boston, it's very funny. It's extravagant but she was very good, she got the good things. And had enough money to do it properly, so she escaped from kitsch. The collection is fantastic!

What are your favorite parts of the existing building?

It is funny but very well done--with strength, with intensity, and with beauty. Fragility is part of the building, too, especially in the courtyard. You feel it when you look at the Raffaello and the Tiziano [Ed: Titian] and Giorgione and Piero della Francesca. You feel proud. Of course, people are also familiar with the famous theft in the 1990s, so that makes it even more romantic!

What other architecture inspired the new wing? 

What is great about architecture is that for every project you start a new adventure. If you want to stay away from a terrible thing called 'style,' which means you are trapped in a golden cage in which you'll never survive, then you have to be free enough to have a new inspiration for a place. The inspiration here is the palace, not the whole building, but the fragility, the lightness, and transparency of the courtyard. It's a masterpiece, introverted. 

What about its programmatic functions?

This is a new study--it's not the beginning of the 20th century, it's the 21st century. So we have a legacy…And we got to apply this concept of transparency to open the building to the city. 

The function of the new museum, fundamentally, is that it's flying above the ground. The hall, the gallery, the curator's office, the activity is mainly up there. And then we give back to the public on the ground floor. We apply transparency not in an introverted way, but an extroverted way. 

How did you choose the materials for the extension?

The material choices were made in mind of the levitation of the volume and to welcome the public with informal activities. Like the greenhouse--there is nothing more informal than a greenhouse! But it's part of this institution; this lady [Ed: Gardner] used to have a greenhouse, moving flowers to the palace courtyard and back again. The lobby is funny, it's almost all a greenhouse. Then you have a living room, and a dining room [Ed: Cafe G] and a place for children to come for bookshelves. Then you have a link to the palace. 

You talk about transparency but the building is punctuated by a lot of strong color statements. I'm curious about the green cladding, and the red performance hall. 

You have to be very respectful to the past but you have to be yourself, a contemporary person. So you are looking for functional aspects that don't take away from the palace's life, but you are looking for something to tell a different story. So you use a different language: contemporaneity. So instead of a brick exterior, we used copper (which is also quite Boston!). There's a color but it's not from paint, it's from oxidation. There's a pleated skin which makes the color more vibrant. It plays with the passage so you see, there is a constant game of shade and light and reflection. 

The Living Room designed by Renzo Piano

The Living Room, with vibrant red couches selected by the architect. Not pictured: Renzo Piano.

Yes, so the color is punctuated, it's almost Impressionist. Color is part of a joyful attitude--joy is not necessarily stupid! I mean, you need enjoyment. It's part of being in a city and making the city a better place to live, a joyful place. 

And this is red [picking at the sofa] because I love red! And the concert hall is red because red is a concert hall. It makes sense. 

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