The Fussiest Clients
The Wall Street Journal
Four notable architects talk about the challenges and thrills of creating their own homes. Juggling the design demands of privacy-seeking children, lengthy renovations and a lifetime’s collection of stuff.
Torn between his love for Genoa and Paris, Mr. Piano, 75, describes his modern hillside greenhouse and a spacious 17th-century top-floor apartment.
Architect Renzo Piano owns a modern hillside greenhouse in Genoa, Italy, and a spacious 17th-century top-floor apartment in Paris, France. Look inside the architects’ homes in the slideshow.
I live and work in Paris, but each month I spend one week at my seaside home in Genoa, Italy. I think of my two homes as extensions of each other—like different rooms of the same house that are separated by a one-hour flight and a drive. Do you know the Josephine Baker song “J’ai Deux Amours” [“I Have Two Loves”]? My wife and I love both homes equally—but for different aesthetic and emotional reasons.
Our 3,000-square-foot home in Genoa is a one-story house that I designed and built in 1991 based on the greenhouses typically found in our hilly coastline region. It sits about 300 feet above the Ligurian Sea on land my father owned.
The property rises abruptly from the sea and sets back several times to form terraces that were originally used for farming. I built my house on the top terrace, and a multistory office on the one just below. Both structures share an airy design and the same diagonal roof.
Renzo Piano Building WorkshopThe office interior of Mr. Piano’s Genoa, Italy home is shown.
The high elevation provides seclusion and privacy. For example, you can’t drive to the house. I must park below at our nonprofit foundation and ride up to the office level in a small funicular that we had installed. Or for exercise, I follow my wife’s advice and climb the 400 steps that we had built into the hill. The effort to reach the house makes me forget where I’ve been and makes arriving feel more exciting.
Inside my house, the space feels like a transparent loft, and the view is spectacular, since it is exposed to the sea without obstruction. A laminated wood frame supports the glass panes, and for the supporting wall in the back I used local medium-gray stone. There is no central air conditioning—we just open the doors and walls for ventilation and adjust specially designed blinds.
To add an organic feel to the house, I planted five palm and ficus trees indoors. We have to water them constantly and prune when they grow too close to the 25-foot ceiling. The rest of our space is devoted to works by artist-friends, including Mark di Suvero, Bob Rauschenberg and Roberto Sebastián Matta.
Renzo Piano Building WorkshopTo get to Mr. Piano’s office in Genoa, Italy, there is a small funicular, shown here.
This is my ideal of a home. I love when space is flexible, spare and luminous. When I’m there, I sit in my Eames lounge chair and look at the sea and think. The sea is a vast, silent place, and it forces me to suspend thoughts of rushing around, using technology and other day-to-day activities. I grew up in Genoa, so the house has become a metaphor for tranquillity and stillness.
My apartment in Paris is the opposite—but there are similarities. In Paris we own the top floor of a 17th-century residence in the Place des Vosges—the city’s oldest planned residential square, in the Marais district. All of the three-story buildings that ring the park have the same design and were built with red brick, stone quoins and vaulted arches at their base. The blue-slate roofs are like top hats and provide enormous interior living space.
When we bought one of these 2,500-square-foot spaces in 1989, it was subdivided into two flats on two floors. We combined them by demolishing about 100 tons of material to create the kind of open loft space we love. During the work, we discovered there were six layers of flooring. Previous residents over four centuries had created new floors by adding them without removing the old ones. It was fascinating to see the layers peel away.
When we were finished, the living room and dining area were in a single open space, making up two-thirds of the apartment. The rest was for three bedrooms. The living-room walls have elaborately crafted original oak paneling—like you’d see in a castle—and there are only four, 7-foot-tall windows on each side of the space. I can see the Eiffel Tower in the distance, and the Centre Georges Pompidou that I designed with Richard Rogers and Gianfranco Franchini in 1977. I love looking at it because it reminds me to take creative risks.
The furnishings we have in our Paris apartment are the same as in Genoa—the same table, chairs, light fixtures and an Eames lounge chair. This isn’t because I’m lacking in fantasy. I just enjoy a home’s space and how it makes me feel. Everything else is functional and matters less.
So you see, my houses are quite different. But the living spaces in both share the same logic: to be open and tolerant. At home, your things shouldn’t be formal or precise. They should fill the house with color and evolve organically the longer you live there, defining who you are, like the lines on a face. Things should never replace how space makes you feel.
—As told to Marc Myers
Shortly after he won the competition to redesign the Ground Zero site in 2003, Daniel Libeskind’s wife called the architect while he was lecturing in Toronto. She’d found an apartment for sale in a 1907 building in TriBeCa. “Absolutely,” he recalls telling her, as soon as he’d interrogated her about the natural light and learned that the apartment, which occupies the entire seventh floor, offered panoramic views of Manhattan. Here, the 66-year-old architect talks about the one-year renovation—the first time he had the chance to design his own residence.
The building is triangular, like the Flatiron Building. It comes to a point and makes it into a very interesting space. It’s guided by light. I thought light was the key. It’s a loft-like space, high ceilings, exposed pipes, a raw quality. It has stone floors, panoramic light, a spectacular view of Ground Zero.
It’s not too high, not too low. If you live higher, you’re more in a dream world. You really see New York, tall buildings to the east, Ground Zero downtown. I feel the vibrations of the subway, literally. There’s a window through which I can see three converging streets as I look down, and converging people. It’s a very meditative view. The sauna has a slot window exactly aligned with the Chrysler Building.
I was able to replan it completely. I was able to put in modern windows, gut the space and make it a space I love to live in. I had a local architect who did the day-to-day work because I was busy at Ground Zero.
Designing your own space is nirvana. It’s unimaginably fantastic. You adapt to different apartments, but there’s nothing to replace making the space yourself. I realized how important the home is. It’s the heart of your imagination. I never considered a house a home. Prior to that I always lived in ready-made spaces.
I was a client, my daughter was a client, my wife was a client. I had to reconcile various agendas, just like any project. Had it been up to me, I would have just ripped out all the walls. You have to navigate between different constituencies and build consensus. It taught me how much one had to think of designing a home not just as a formal exercise in space and light, but also satisfying people the desires of the people living there. I learned very viscerally. You need to listen to who is living there. You have to understand the minute details.
The apartment is very contemporary. It’s very functional. I was shocked because the neighbors have subdivided their apartments into many bedrooms. The best value of an apartment in New York is how many bedrooms it has. But with fewer rooms, the more contact with the city you have—and freedom. Our bedroom has a rotating door, a large piece of wall made of zinc that rotates on a vertical axis. It’s a beautiful piece of connectivity. Most of the time it’s open, especially as our daughter is not there often.
My daughter wanted a lot of privacy, very closed. She wanted a beautiful bathing area, colorful tiles, a nice room, not big. She furnished it on her own, which brings identity to her part. Every tenant has to be able to make it their own.
We’ve always had the same furniture. We bought it 30 years ago: cube chairs and a sofa by Le Corbusier and an iconic 20th-century lounge chair by [Ludwig Mies] van der Rohe. They’re beautiful. I don’t have much art on the walls. It’s sparse, not minimalistic, but it’s meditative.
I have a table, which is my first object of design. In the 1980s, I designed a table for us and our three kids—we were moving to Italy—with a granite top and wooden substructure. We’ve used it in every city. At some point I wanted to get rid of it and replace it with a nicer table. The kids said, “No, that table is part of the house.” I created a special place for the table. Sometimes old things have a mythology of family built into it. The mythology will always win out.
I put in this fantastic Italian stone floor, a blue-gray stone used in the Duomo in Florence. The floor looks great after hundreds of years. There are little things you realize later. It sounds banal, but I wish there were more electrical outlets and switches.
I work a lot at home; I write, I draw. The intimacy of the home is not something you can replace. Leonardo da Vinci thought an artist should not seek a large space to live in but a smaller space to be creative. This is modest by the standards of how people live in Manhattan. It’s beautiful because it forces one to be creative in how you use the space. Big spaces make you lazy. Small spaces can be creatively approached. A modest space can be a cabinet of wonders.
—As told to Jacob Hale Russell
Billie Tsien and Tod Williams
Bouncing from penthouse to duplex, married architects Billie Tsien, 63, and Tod Williams, 69, find balance in a pair of New York apartments. Below, Ms. Tsien explains the role of each residence.
In 2001, Tod and I lived above Carnegie Hall. Most New Yorkers at the time didn’t know there were residential studios in a tower on top of the building. Our rent was too good to be true, and soon we heard rumors that the hall was going to evict tenants to convert the studios into rehearsal space. The buzz motivated us to buy a safety apartment—just in case.
Our architectural practice was taking off, and we wanted to live on top of a building—for the sunlight and view. We looked at penthouses and fell in love with an awful one on Central Park South—just blocks from our office. The building’s owner had mounted it on the roof in the ’60s, and the interior was a wreck—shag carpeting and gold-veined smoked mirror tiles on the walls and ceiling. But being able to see the park from the 22nd floor and the silence won us over.
When we closed on the space in 2001, Tod and I thought we were buying an apartment—but we wound up with a construction site. We tore down the structure and put up a 16-by-30-foot glass box. Now when you walk in the front door, you enter another world. There are 9-foot floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides, a wood-paneled kitchen, a tiny bedroom just big enough for a bed, and a bathroom with a tub that looks out to the view. The penthouse became our glamour pad—like a quiet place in the country.
In 2008, we received a formal eviction letter from Carnegie Hall. That’s when Tod and I realized our glass penthouse wasn’t going to work as a primary residence. We couldn’t move our art collection and books there. The space was too small, and the walls were all glass. We talked briefly about selling, but we loved the penthouse too much. Instead, we decided to look for a second apartment—a simple place for our life stuff.
We had always been fond of an unusual 10-story building on the Upper West Side. It was built in 1915 as a cooperative—housing residences and artists’ lofts on opposite sides of the same floors. In some ways the layout had the same spirit as the Carnegie Hall studios. Apartments with double-height living spaces were all taken, but we found a duplex that was 15 feet wide by 28 feet long on the first level and a little larger on the second.
We gutted both levels and painted the entire interior white—including the wood floors—to brighten the space and make it feel larger. We created three different zones on the first level—a galley kitchen, a dining area and living space—by designing a continuous series of elevated platforms. We unified all three with a 13-foot-long white marble countertop.
When you enter the duplex, you are immediately in the kitchen galley. Next you step up to a platform where you can sit on stools and dine at the counter. Then you walk up two steps to sit in the living area. That final elevation allowed the back of our long sofa to meet the base of the apartment’s original 20-foot-high studio window, which continues up to the second level.
Upstairs, you arrive at a living area with a flat-screen TV and sofas. We wanted a quiet wall for the hall connecting the living area to our bedroom, so we created floor-to-ceiling panels of etched Bendheim glass with mirrors behind them. The mirrors reflect light into the etched glass, producing a greenish, satiny wall surface.
Tod and I have been married since 1983 and we’re together all the time—at work and at our two apartments. I suppose we’ve never had a big enough fight for us to spend time separately in the two homes. When we’re at the duplex, Tod prefers to be upstairs watching sports. I like being downstairs—near the bookcases and the food.
We also spend a lot of time looking at our art, which includes photography by Rachel Perry Welty, a small sculpture by Mark di Suvero and mixed media by El Anatsui. Art isn’t fraught, and we’d rather be indirectly inspired by our collection than directly stimulated by other works of architecture in books.
At our penthouse, we have friends over for dinner. Tod prefers this space because he feels freer there. I like our duplex because I often read three books at a time and want them around. For me, the biggest irony about the duplex is that I’m comfortable in a building and apartment that are period pieces—even though I’m a modernist architect. Apartment buildings from the period were made to accommodate lives—which doesn’t seem to be the goal of residential architecture these days.
Even though our two apartments are just eight blocks apart, Tod and I always feel like we’re traveling between two exciting spaces. It’s exhilarating.
—As told to Marc Myers
A version of this article appeared January 11, 2013, on page M1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: THE FUSSIEST CLIENTS.
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