Renzo Piano Fears The Nasher Will Become "A Martyr"

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When Renzo Piano met Raymond Nasher 18 years ago, it was at a dinner. Seated together, the two men spent the first half of their evening bonding over the value of family. It wasn't until later in the night when Nasher volunteered his idea.

"I'd like to build a sculpture garden with a little tiny building," Piano recalled him saying during a talk at yesterday's Nasher Salon. "With nothing, really. Just a toilet, maybe, in the middle of Dallas."

Obviously, that idea grew.

Sitting in front of a full room, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect is a fascination. He uses each breath for lofty thought, exhaling sagacity on art's ability to increase our capacity for understanding; the meaning of durability; and the transcendent nature of light. He's a wise owl, and someone you'd expect Anthony Bourdain to spend hours dining with, deep in some rustic Montepulciano vineyard.

Piano made this stop because he's around celebrating his new Kimbell addition, a pavilion "in conversation with" the museum's pre-existing space, designed by Louis Kahn. While in the neighborhood, he thought he'd stop by. He loves to visit "his children." Also, it was an opportunity to do a quick upkeep inspection.

"Something was not quite right in the garden," he joked. "So I put a note."

What you learn quickly in Piano's presence is his passion -- not just for architecture, that's the tiniest element of it all. His fire is for what beauty represents. This space, he said, is for art and should be eternal. The travertine mined to build the Nasher is ancient and will extend ahead for thousands of years, allowing this museum to serve as a haven for community and family. A place for neighbors to share and stay together. A well "to fertilize people" for centuries.

He lacked the nervous niceties that tamp down Texans' conversations about Museum Tower. Among locals those grumblings are kept in low tones, told from the corners of mouths. Piano came back to Museum Tower over and over, each time more emphatically than the last. His fury was clear. His openness was refreshing.

He called it Dallas' duty to fight "that Goliath," that "double sun," and force it to address the radiation it's created. Because anywhere he goes in the world people ask about "the poor museum in Dallas, like it's sick." He fears this place Raymond Nasher built for his city will become "a martyr."

Listening to Piano, it's clear this message wasn't driven by pride. It served a deeper agenda, sparked by something far more philosophical: the concern of what it means for humanity should money be allowed to trump art. Say if the Nasher's ceiling -- a masterwork of engineering and design that will be studied by students for generations -- is compromised by another's crassness. If those oaks meant to give shade, protection and solace from "the mess" of living, die from increased, but preventable, temperatures. "How many times have we replaced the lawn in the last two years?" he asked his colleagues. "Three? Four? Five?"

It was the urgent tone of a man who understands life's brevity. He's seen his friend Ray Nasher pass away. He never had an opportunity to meet his wife, Patsy, only through "the mirroring" in Raymond's eyes. And Piano himself is aging. The garden will die first, he assures. Then the trees. And finally the roof, then the appreciation of art itself.

"Time is going very fast," he said, pressing forward from his seat. "The city is proud of this building, and it's absolutely clear that it must be defended."

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