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Acceptance Speech

Renzo Piano

Mr. President, Mrs. Clinton, Mr. and Mrs. Pritzker, it is naturally a great honor for me to be awarded the 1998 Pritzker Prize. And first of all I would like to thank the members of the jury. They have taken on a tremendous responsibility in opening the doors of the temple to someone like me who has always lived outside of it.

I am very happy, proud and grateful to have been nominated architect of the year—whatever that means. It does sound a bit odd, this year’s best-seller, the season’s hit, the record of the month. Does this mean that architects have a sell-by date; that you throw away the architect at the end of the year?

But what exactly is an architect? What is architecture? I have been in this trade for thirty years and I am only just beginning to understand what it is. Firstly, architecture is a service, in the most literal sense of the term. It is an art that produces things that serve a purpose. But it is also a socially dangerous art, because it is an imposed art. You can put down a bad book; you can avoid listening to bad music; but you cannot miss the ugly tower block opposite your house. Architecture imposes total immersion in ugliness; it does not give the user a chance. And this is a serious responsibility—for now and for future generations. And architecture is an ancient profession, perhaps the world’s oldest; or the second oldest if you prefer, a little like hunting, fishing, farming, exploring the seas. These are man’s original activities from which all others stem. Immediately after the search for food, we find the search for shelter; at a certain point, man was no longer content with the refuges offered by nature and became an architect.

Finally, architecture mixes things up: history and geography, anthropology and the environment, science and society. And it inevitably mirrors all of them.

Perhaps I can explain myself better with an image. Architecture is like an iceberg. Not in the sense of the Titanic, that will take you down if you bump into it, but in the sense that the rest is submerged and hidden. In the seven eighths of the iceberg that lie below water, we find the forces that push architecture up, that allow the tip to emerge: society, science and art.

Architecture is society, because it does not exist without people, without their hopes, aspirations and passion. Listening to people is important. And this is especially difficult for an architect. Because there is always the temptation to impose one’s own design, one’s own way of thinking or, even worse, one’s own style. I believe, instead, that a light approach is needed. Light, but without abandoning the stubbornness that enables you to put forward your own ideas whilst being permeable to the ideas of others.

I am no boy scout, and my appeal to the sense of service is not intended as moralistic. It is, very simply, an appeal to the dignity of our profession. Without this dignity, we risk losing ourselves in the labyrinth of fads and fashions. Reading architecture as a service certainly means limiting its creative freedom, constraining it. Yet whoever said that creativity had to be free of any constraint? I would like to say more: the interpretation of society and its needs is the richness of architecture. Florence is beautiful because it is the image of Renaissance Italy, its artisans, its merchants, its patrons of the arts. Its streets, squares and palaces reflect Lorenzo de Medici’s vision of society.

Architecture is science. To be a scientist, the architect has to be an explorer and must have a taste for adventure. He has to tackle reality with curiosity and courage to be able to understand it and change it. He has to be a “homo faber,” in the Renaissance sense of the term. Think of Galileo: the telescope was invented to look out for ships, certainly not to study the movement of the stars. Theologians worried about the stars. He, instead, wanted to understand the heavens, and he fought against the most powerful lobby of his time to do it. This image represents a lot for me: a formidable lesson in curiosity for anything new, an independence of thought and courage in exploring the unknown.

Architects have to live on the frontier, and every so often they have to cross it, to see what is on the other side. They, too, use the telescope to look for what is not written in the sacred texts. Brunelleschi did not just design buildings, but also the machines to build them. Antonio Manetti recounts how he studied the mechanism of the clock in order to apply it to a system of large counterweights: this was how the structure of the cupola was raised. This is a lovely example of how architecture is also research. And it makes us think about an important thing: all of those whom we look up to as “classics,” were in their own time great innovators. They were the cutting edge. They found their way by experimenting and taking risks.

In explaining their reasoning in assigning this prize, the jury makes a reference to Brunelleschi which fills me with pride and embarrassment at the same time. He is a model that cannot be reached, but only approached. If I have to compare myself to someone, I prefer Robinson Crusoe, an explorer capable of surviving in foreign lands ...

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