GENOA, ITALY — Italian architect Renzo Piano had just arrived home from Berlin, where he is building Potsdamer Platz, eight buildings where the infamous wall used to be. It was Sunday morning and the phone was ringing. His house, which he designed mostly of glass, hangs on a bluff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in Genoa, Italy.
"I picked up the phone," he recalls, "thinking it was about one of my six projects currently in construction. Instead it was Bill Lacy, representing the Hyatt Foundation, telling me I was the laureate to receive architect's highest honor, the Pritzker Architecture Prize."
Mr. Piano sat down on the closest chair. "It was a great day. I was surprised and deeply touched."
Because it is the 20th anniversary of the prize, the president of the foundation, Jay Pritzker, decided to have the ceremony in the United States, Mr. Lacy explained. It would be June 17, at the White House, with President and Mrs. Clinton hosting the ceremony and dinner.
"Can you fit it into your schedule?" Lacy asked. Piano smiled at the question, for the Pritzker Prize is to an architect what the Nobel Prize is to a scientist. But Lacy wasn't being facetious. He knew Piano was one of the busiest and most versatile architects building in Europe, Asia, the South Pacific, and the US.
His design studio, which is just below his home, is another all-glass building. A look at the models and sketches takes one on a global trip: the Kansai air terminal in Osaka Bay, Japan; a tower and office building in Sydney, Australia; additions to his original design of the Georges Pompidou National Center of Art and Culture in Paris; the San Nicola Soccer Stadium in Bari, Italy; and the renovation and expansion of Harvard University art museums in Cambridge, Mass.
Piano is the second Italian architect to be honored with the Pritzker. The first was the late Aldo Rossi in 1990 at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, Italy.
The architect's designs and skillful use of light, air, and environment are legendary. He has designed museums, churches, cities, buildings, and malls, as well as bridges, automobiles, and an ocean liner.
"I believe the tower in Sydney, which will be completed in mid-2000, will be my most high-tech design. It has to be when you have the Opera House as the city's trademark.
"My project in Berlin is one of the most historical. Before World War II, [the area he is designing] stamped Berlin as the heart of Europe. The wall went up in '61, and the center of the city faded away.
"It was a desert, full of dust. Only a row of trees remained to identify where the main boulevard had been. I am keeping those trees and adding a theater, public and private buildings, a cinema. I hope it will inspire new memories."
Piano is also working on a new master plan for the art-museum complex at Harvard. "Architecture is a great adventure. I often feel like Robinson Crusoe landing on a new island every time. At Harvard, there is the challenge of three museums, built at different times - renovating, expanding, unifying them into one grand climax."
Piano's father, grandfathers, four uncles, and brother were all in the construction business. He grew up in Genoa, one of the oldest cities on the Mediterranean.
It featured 10th-century history, which represented the permanent, while the harborscape, with ships coming and going, represented the temporary. "I believe the old stones of the city and changing sea imprinted on my memory and inspired my work.
"Much of my youth was spent on site watching my family's construction projects. I saw sand, concrete, stone becoming a building.... I told my father that, to me, concept, design, and construction all came from inspiration."
Piano says his most challenging project was one of his earliest, when he joined forces with a British architect, Richard Rogers. They put in a bid to design an arts center in Paris. "There were 681 entries, and we were very young. We were also very surprised when we won the competition. You might say it was the most unexpected."
The result was the Pompidou Center, over a million square feet in the heart of Paris, devoted to figurative arts, music, industrial design, and literature. Currently, Piano is expanding, renovating, and reorganizing the Pompidou, which should be completed for New Year's Eve, 1999.
Piano, his wife, Milly, his three children, and some of his staff will fly to Washington for the Pritzker event. The Pianos have not met the Clintons, yet they are well-known in political circles. It was President Jacques Chirac, then mayor of Paris, who married them.
When they're not hopscotching around the world or at their glass house in Genoa, they reside in a 17th-century apartment in Paris. "My wife redesigned the inside, and I criticized. We agreed not to touch the outside. Often beauty and history cannot be improved."