A Methodical Explorer. Call him a builder, says Renzo Piano, or a bricklayer - but he has problems with `artist'. INTERVIEW: GOLD-MEDAL ARCHITECT

RENZO PIANO, a Genoese-born architect of international standing, has a breezy way of sweeping away conventional labels - particularly those applied to his profession. ``Building,'' he has said, ``is the most wonderful work in the world, but architecture and architects need debunking....''

He seems to have even less truck with the word ``artist'': ``It is a much easier life being an artist than being a bricklayer, someone who builds piece by piece, exploring methodically.''

Among an increasing range of notable achievements and projects Mr. Piano numbers the Pompidou Centre in Paris (in partnership with Richard Rogers); the Menil Collection in Houston; various projects of ``gentle renewal'' in ancient urban centers in Italy; and the rehabilitation of an ancient moat in Rhodes. (He turned it into a ``garden of wonders,'' with movable towers to accommodate stairs and elevators like archaic war machines.)

He has also designed a car and a boat; a ``modest, hiding'' tourist resort in Trieste; an ``opera ark'' for a work by Luigi Nono, in which the audience is surrounded by the musicians; and, now, what is going to be the world's largest airport, the Kansai International Airport in Osaka, Japan.

He believes that ``exploration'' is what architecture should be about today - the architect should not be in an ivory tower. He has to be simultaneously on the building site and in his office (or workshop). But if Piano defines himself as an architect-cum-builder, this can't be taken to mean some retreat into archaic practices.

He by no means shies away from advanced forms of technology. And conversely, he has shown himself to be a man of considerable imagination, even fantasy.

The Osaka Airport, he says, is ``like a metaphor for a plane.'' He confesses to having been ``haunted by the dream of an island airport at Kansai'' - scarcely the language of a bricklayer.

The Pompidou Centre looks, according to one appreciative critic, ``like a set lifted from `Star Wars.''' It has certainly captured the imagination of millions of visitors.

A current project, a soccer arena in Turin, looks like a gigantic flying saucer just landed - or just about to lift off. Piano also comes up with designs that parallel nature: a sports center in Ravenna is like scallop shells; the natural lighting in the Menil Museum is filtered through a roofing platform constructed of 300 ferrocement ``leaves.'' They filter light the way leaves do, and they have the look of leaves. But such fantastic or natural elements are arrived at by scientific ``high tech'' means.

He is happy to be an architect for the present, a builder of the late 20th century. But he says he is ``lost'' with such terms as ``modernist'' or ``post-modernist'': They mean nothing to him.

``I came to architecture from building,'' he said in a hasty interview on his recent visit to London to receive the 1989 Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects, ``because my father was a builder, everybody was - and is - a builder in my family. So I like the concept that architecture is not something that you [just] draw on paper. It's something you draw, you think, and you build. And ... because today is today, you end by using new materials.''

`CRAFTSMANSHIP' is a word Piano is not at all against - but in a modern sense. ``Today, you may still be a `craftsman' using a computer and test models and scientific instruments ... and the reason I am making a lot of polemic about this is because usually the architect is accepted as exactly the opposite: as a kind of specialist, an intellectual man.

``I think the fault comes from Leon Battista Alberti in the 15th century.'' Piano says a slightly earlier architect, Filippo Brunelleschi, was ``the last good example'' of a builder-architect.

But from the time of Alberti, Piano says, the architect became ``the one that has the idea,'' separate from the builder who executes the idea.

``But that's not true - it's not true!'' says Piano, somewhat fortissimo. ``Because in reality you have to have the feedback, the `circularity' - and the only way to have that is to be a `craftsman.''' He once said that with the enormous Pompidou Centre the architects designed literally every detail, down to the last screw.

The point is that he believes in working, as it were, from both ends:

``When you design a building you start from a general philosophy and you come down, and you start from detail and come up. Only the theoretical architect believes that you can make the concept and then sometime, somebody will come to build it.

``That is ridiculous. ... You have to feed the general concept of the building by the details. That's the only way you keep the building balanced. Otherwise ... you have buildings that look like big models.''

Piano has a refreshing positiveness about the exact present. ``I like to be part of my time,'' he says, ``with all the contradictions, with all the contamination. I like to be an `unpure' architect. ... So, belonging to this time, you are necessarily in trouble.

``Everything has been changing - materials, technology, process, society, customs ... the world became a small village, step by step, communications, traveling, fax, you know - it's changing so much that if you look for a language expressing this time, you have no choice, you have to make a kind of exploration.

``Curiosity becomes the real truth. You have to champion a sort of discovery logic. You can't any more pick up from the past, from the present, from the future. ... You have to live your life on a daily basis by exploring.''

Does technology have something anti-human about it, as some say?

``To me - on the plane of expression - our time is certainly expressing and celebrating the balance, the reconciliation between the man and the machine, between nature and technology, and between the past the the future. That is the real spirit of now - of the end of the century.''

He sees the present as a time of ``maturity,'' when we are over the earlier 20th-century crisis of man versus machine.

He believes that technology makes a lightness possible today in building that is not at all aggressive toward human beings. The airport on its island setting at Osaka, for instance, with its aerodynamically curved roof sections in aluminum and very light materials, looking like the fuselage of an aircraft, is a celebration of the meeting of technology and nature, not of their confrontation.

``We are able to make there a building that is a bit like the railway stations at the beginning if the century. Why not? I mean, the celebration of traveling is great. Especially when traveling means flying. There is some magic about flying. Except that everybody forgot! They built airports like ... factories. ... You get lost. Ridiculous!''

He adds: ``I believe landing in an island is not the same as landing in ... Heathrow. You land in a magic place. You discover the island.''

The RIBA is sponsoring an exhibition of Renzo Piano's work though May 23 at 66 Portland Place, London W1. Telephone: 01-580-5533.

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