Former Laureates

Renzo Piano


The Italian architect Renzo Piano (1937) first became famous for his design of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, together with Richard Rogers. The Erasmus Prize was awarded to Renzo Piano because of his use of technology as a means – and never an end – in his designs. He manages to integrate elements from the local tradition and the social and natural environment into technology, creating a humane and organic whole. This does not mean, however, that his buildings cannot take spectacular forms. Born into a family of building contractors in Genoa, Renzo Piano was interested in materials and construction even as a child. It is for good reason that his company is called a ‘building workshop’. He uses the latest technology with inventiveness and virtuosity but always combines this with respect for the time-honoured craft and a love of detail. His buildings are masterpieces of light and lightness. Besides the Centre Pompidou (1977), his most famous works include the travelling pavilion <H>ibm<H>(1983), the Menil Museum in Houston (1981-1986), the Bercy shopping center (1987), San Nicola Stadium in Bari (1992), Kansai International Airport in Osaka (1988-1994), Parco della Musica auditorium in Rome (2002), and the pilgrims' church for Padre Pio in San Giovanni Rotondo (2003). For Amsterdam, he designed the <H>nemo<H> science center (1997). Renzo Piano was responsible for the master plan for the reconstruction of the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin (1992-2000). He has also designed bridges, cruise ships and cars. Other interesting projects are the Shard London Bridge Skyscraper (2004) and the design for the new natural history museum of the California Academy of Sciences, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.


In accordance with Article 2 of the statutes of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation concerning the annual award of one or more prizes to honour individuals or organizations whose contributions in the cultural, social or social science fields have been of outstanding importance to Europe, His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands confirmed the decision of the Board of the Foundation to award the Praemium Erasmianum for the year nineteen ninety-five to Renzo Piano.

The prize is awarded to Renzo Piano

- because in his architecture he continues to view technique as a means and never as an end;

- because he understands how to integrate elements from the local tradition and the natural and social context with technique. His architecture expresses this integration through subtle, humane and sensitive atmospheres together with the poetic use of immaterial elements such as light, colour, sound and space;

- because he combines his virtuosity and inventive use of the most advanced technical resources and materials with craftsmanship and love of detail;

- because his architecture expresses tremendous flexibility and diversity owing to his  exceptional gift of being able to listen and communicate without preconceived ideas.


With our selection of an architect as the winner of the Erasmus Prize, one might think that it is obvious what constitutes good architecture.
What is architecture? A successful division and enclosure of space? Providing shelter and safety? Creating an orderly, functional and harmonious environment? Is it about the creation of an aesthetic object or about a building as a machine? Should a building be in keeping with the surroundings and the tradition? Or should it, in fact, be a reaction to those aspects? We could go on and on this way, posing countless questions to which we can give a variety of answers.
Taking a backward glance at history, we see that every era has its own interpretation of architecture. The problem now, however, is that a uniform definition of architecture no longer exists. Our laureate today calls us: "Unworthy heirs of our past... We have managed to transform our towns from places with an expanse of culture into places with an expanse of culturelessness, absolutely terrible places unfit for habitation. Why are our towns so beautiful?  ... because they were permeated with culture; from the culture of the bricklayer to that of the architect. Both bound by rules, but at the same time free in their own worlds...". To put it even more strongly, as a result of economising and the activity of project developers and fast profit makers, an architect is in danger of becoming merely a construction foreman; one who takes refuge in random improvisations or gimmicks as soon as his work goes beyond the practical criteria. Is it so surprising then that a recently published book on contemporary architecture bears the subtitle 'Architectural principles in an age of nihilism'?*
How stimulating and refreshing it is when we are confronted with the work of our laureate, as we saw a few minutes ago. From the time you were young you have been interested in building sites, intelligent constructions and solutions that are as ethereal as possible. The impressions of the changing light; the contrast of the old city of Genoa and the open sea; and the billowing sails along the coast which you saw as a young boy. All these things have influenced and guided you throughout your life.
You are not a philosophical theorist, but first and foremost an artisan; an intelligent designer and experimenter. You reject dogma and are always open to new ideas. It strikes us that you do not revert back to the old Italian tradition, but rather find your inspiration in the Gothic forms, Art Nouveau and functionalism. And yet, you consider the 15th century Florentine architect Brunelleschi, designer of the famous ribbed dome of the cathedral in Florence, as your shining example: the craftsman who has mastered all the elements of the métier and for whom there is no question of a division between the intellectual conception and the handiwork. It is no wonder then that as early as 1964 you became friends with Jean Prouvé, winner of the 1981 Erasmus Prize, who shared the same interest and became your spiritual father. Among others, it was Prouvé - as chairman of the then jury in 1971 - who selected your design for the Centre Pompidou from among the hundreds of entries. You later called this revolutionary exhibition and communication machine, this open construction of tubes, cables, tie rods, pipes and glass walls, an example of a Jules Verne-like technology, a kind of joke, a social challenge to the concept of the institutionalised culture.
After the completion of this piece of handiwork, you were understandably ranked among the high-tech architects. However, you quickly distanced yourself from this by placing increasingly more emphasis on the immaterial aspects of architecture. I mean by this, light, sound, colour, the spatial atmosphere. You continually endeavour to link a maximum of cohesion and strength to a minimum of material. These are the qualities that give your architecture its humane, gentle touch, whereby we undergo a nearly poetic experience when viewing your constructions. And with this, you confirm the definition of the 19th century German architect Schinkel:  "Architektur ist mit Gefühl erhabene Konstruktion". This is perhaps most clearly expressed in one of your latest creations - the Kansai Airport in Osaka.
By using the most advanced computer programs, you know how to achieve the convergence of expertise, technique and science. A biomorphic form emerges not on the basis of specific stylistic principles or a preconceived idiom, but as a logical consequence of technical and practical criteria; like the ideal form for a fish to swim or a bird to fly. But just as there are countless different fish and birds, so are there innumerable succesful buildings. Nevertheless, your's distinguish themselves by a certain 'je ne sais quoi' that constitutes the quality of your work. The essential aspect is that technique is not your master; rather, you have mastery over technique and make optimal use of it. By this attitude you set an example for all of us in today's world.
Far from being architecture in the classical tradition it is the animated and humane aspect of your work which forms the link between the eye and the understanding. It reminds me of what Geoffrey Scott wrote in one of the most beautiful books about architecture: "The whole of architecture is in fact unconsciously invested by us with human movement and human moods. We transcribe architecture into terms of ourselves....  The scientific method is intellectually and practically useful, but the naive, the anthropomorphic way which humanises the world and interprets it by analogy with our own bodies and our own wills, is still the aesthetic way; it is the basis of poetry and it is the foundation of architecture.... It is the way of the poetic mind of all times and places, which humanises the external world".*
You have rightly called architecture a tainted art. After all, the architect is not only nurtured by society but also affected by that same society. Architecture finds its rationale in this paradox and should fulfill a pioneer function because it must follow in the footsteps of society's developments and demands. You have an exceptionally sensitive ear when it comes to the desires of society. I have been told that you are an excellent communicator and a good listener. You listen not only to society and tradition, but also to nature and the genius loci. You have acquired direct contact with the people through the highly original, mobile workshops and information centres you have set up for the restoration of the old town centres in Italy. Now a tremendous urban development assignment awaits you in Berlin: the rebuilding of the tradition-laden Potsdammerplatz. One of your tasks will be to unite people, tradition and know-how in order to avoid the disintegration of urban planning and architecture which so often occurs these days. As you say yourself: it is this dialogue that keeps you from becoming the victim of mystification and untamed creativity, and from an artistic position without self-control.
Because with each new project you meticulously take the circumstances into account, your work has great diversity - all the more since the evolution of your work corresponds to the latest technological developments. You point out that restoration and adaptation to the genius loci is much more difficult than the construction of new buildings. So we are most curious about the Science Center that is to be built on the IJ in Amsterdam.
Dialogue and the art of listening have taken an exceptional form with you. It is a particularly striking facet of your personality that all your work originates from the Building Workshop you set up in 1981, with locations in Genoa, Paris and Japan. Inspired and guided by you, dozens of specialists, including many young people of varying nationalities, exchange ideas about a project, its elaboration, the choice of materials, the details, etc. These colleagues from your 'temple of craftsmanship' share in the honour we pay you today.
However, your inventiveness and your gift for summarising and simplifying and - may we use the word - your taste, in accordance with the best Italian tradition, are decisive. So perhaps, after all, we can indeed say that we know what good architecture is. Its creator is a generalist with a broad interest who unites in his work craft and technique with tradition, nature and mankind - and does so in the most compassionate and personal way. In the words of your illustrious 15th century predecessor Leon Battista Alberti, such an architect may be ranked among the great benefactors of humankind.
It is therefore my great pleasure to present you with the 1995 Erasmus Prize.


* Roger Scruton, The Classical Vernacular. Architectural principles in an age of nihilism, (1994).
* Geoffrey Scott, The Architecture of Humanism (1914), New York/London, 1975, 159-163

Acceptance Speech

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses,

I feel deeply touched by everything here; by being in this Palace; by being given the Erasmus Prize; by listening to the music.

I am particularly touched by this prize because it is named after Erasmus, a man that a few centuries ago was one of the free spirits of our European culture, one of the bâtisseurs of the European culture, working with Italian people, with Thomas More, another great man. And there was another man, in the same period in Italy (who did not actually have much contact with Erasmus), working between Florence, Venice and Padova, that was Galileo Galilei.

Galileo reminds the words 'provando e riprovando', that mean 'trying and trying again', and that express so thoroughly the real love, that is also mine, for exploration, for research, for experimentation. It is something very deeply imprinted in my, but I should say our, DNA; it is a part of our culture. This was happening just a few hundred years ago, at the time of the grandfathers of our grandfathers, the day before yesterday, no more than that. And this is certainly one of the reasons why I am mostly touched.

Talking about father and grandfather, I was born in a family of builders, my father was a builder, and my grandfather as well was a builder. I had the chance to grow up in a family where you already know as a child what you are going to be. I spent a lot of time on sites, playing with material, watching with admiration my father, able to build the next day something starting from very rough materials. That was part of my deep education, as well as love for reading, and the chance to live in a small, but antique city, a city with a very rich history, Genoa. Genoa was the Italian republic fighting for centuries against Venice, a fairly powerful strong city, with a very rich and dense historical centre. The love for those old narrow streets, for this dense materialization of history has really been imprinted forever in my eyes, as well as the vision of the harbour. The harbour of Genoa was a great place for me, a place of adventure. I am trying to give you some postcards from my young age: just postcards, but they are very deeply imprinted in the spirit. The city, the old city, the dense city was the place of protection; the harbour was the place of adventure. Adventure, travelling and discovering and going away: a place of a dream. And you all know somebody said that everything has been already invented in the young age, in the childhood, and then you spend the rest of your life digging back from that age, what you have built up. This is certainly what happened to me. Of course there has been a moment when I had to take a decision to tell my father that I wanted to become an architect. He looked at me asking, why I 'simply' wanted to become an architect instead of being a builder . An architect is much less than a builder: a builder makes everything, the idea but also the building, makes the calculations, does everything. He was right, the old man, of course, he was absolutely right. I still did the architectural school, but I never forgot those words and this is the reason why my office is called Building Workshop: because it is a place where we mix information, not only about construction, but also about other disciplines. And this is what has been happening for a long time. In the office, in our team we have been working with many people of different provenience, of different disciplines.

Let's come back here, now, to this great music that has just been played: I feel very happy with this surprise - really a surprise for me - and even if Luciano Berio is not here, I have to thank you, Maestro, for the excellent interpretation. Well, Luciano Berio is one of those men, with whom I discuss music and architecture, finding out how similar are those disciplines: music, literature, art, science. All those things have been mixed together for a long time in my thirty years of professional life. It is amazing to find all the time how similar those professions are. Creativity is very similar for everybody, you have the same kind of anxiety, the same kind of suspense. You have to wait, some time, watching the dark, watching the dark with obstinacy - architects, musicians, engineers, writers. And all those things are really the same, they are actually connecting the work of every artist, of every creative person. Going through my thirty years of professional life, and especially by exchanging experience and making richer experience with all the disciplines, I realize that this has been one of the fundamental points of my experience.

In my life I found many people hostage of mystifications: for instance there is a lot of mythology about the contradiction between freedom and discipline: but when you work with creative people, even of different disciplines, you know that there is no contradiction. As an artist you need freedom, but you also need discipline otherwise you are lost: and therefore these things are not in contradiction, they are actually two presences in the same moment of the creative process. Sometimes, art and technology, they are also seen as contradiction, art being the sacred and technology being just the instrument of art: this is absolutely ridiculous, everybody knows that this is not true. Art and technology are the two faces of the same problem: creation. Creation is actually a circular process. You have an idea, you go to action and from action you go back to the idea and from the idea you go back again to the action. And by doing this you enrich the process. It is ridiculous to believe that technology - tekné, as the Greeks called it - is just the way to put good ideas in place. I always make the example of a good pianist, a good pianist playing the piano with closing his eyes and just playing; and this is only possible because he has so much of technique, tekné, in his hands, that he may even forget about it: he just closes his eyes and he goes, he plays. It is very difficult, then, to say what is art, and what is technique.

Talking about instinct or rationality, there is again a lot of mystification: some time, for example, even after thirty years of profession, I find myself to have an instinctive reaction, but then, when I sit down and think more carefully, I realize that it is not instinctive at all: it is a sort of accumulation of experience, of very carefully and rationally built experience that gives me the possibility to be instinctive. It is not just irrational, it is instinctive, when you have built up this capacity, and the two things are not the one against the other, they are not contradictory.

Finally, and this is probably the most important thing, in this country, in all European countries, there is no contradiction between tradition and modernity. The piece of music we have been listening to is an example of this. Luciano Berio has been going around the world, metaphorically robbing everywhere to take back home those melodies and making a fantastic mixture of modernity and tradition. And this is the great point: tradition and modernity live together. I greatly love exploration, experimentation, modernity, but at the same time I love very much tradition. I have a great, grateful love for tradition and I think that, for all of us, for the entire European culture, certainly for myself, this is really what we should call the spirit of humanism.

Thank you very much.

Centre Pompidou, by Erasmus Prize winner Renzo Piano

The Italian architect Renzo Piano, famous for his Centre Pompidou (1977) in Paris, received the Erasmus Prize in 1995.