Not long ago, writer Jay Pridmore traveled to Italy’s Ligurian coast to interview the architect Renzo Piano, who is currently taking on his first Chicago commission: a new wing for the Art Institute of Chicago, set to open in 2009.

Plans call for a structural base of limestone, great expanses of glass, and a narrow bridge spanning Monroe Drive to Millennium Park. A louvered canopy over the new structure-a so-called flying carpet-will bring a flood of natural light into the third-floor galleries.

Just days before this interview, the Art Institute decided that the addition would be named not for a donor but for an era: The Modern Wing. “I was so pleased,” Piano said about the naming. “Chicago at the end of the 19th century was a place of modernity in the real sense of the word-modernity not as an academic exercise, but modernity as reinvention.”
Q: You’re selective about the commissions you take. Why Chicago?
A: It started a long time ago. Jim Wood [former director of the Art Institute] knew I was going to be in Chicago, so he asked me to stop by the museum. And he trapped me. I walked in his office. I met people. Then afterwards I realized that this was the selection committee.

When I was offered to do this project I said, Why not? This is a great institution. So why not try to work in Chicago, not forgetting its great history?

Q: Chicagoans like to think of their city as the birthplace of modern architecture. Do you agree?
A: A long time ago, I was so touched by the idea that William LeBaron Jenney and other people were doing architecture and engineering together at the same time. [In 1885, Jenney designed the now- demolished Home Insurance Building on LaSalle Street, regarded as the first skyscraper because of its use of a steel skeleton frame]. After the Fire, they reinvented the entire city in steel instead of wood.

I’m the son of a builder, and I grew up with the idea that construction is a noble art. For me, people like Jenney understood architecture as this incredible mix of reality and utopia. The idea to rebuild an entire city!

Q: What are your favorite buildings in Chicago?
A: I could make a list but one thing that is typical is that there are so many. Even the romantic buildings. Take for example the University Club at Monroe and Michigan. The building is Gothic, but when you look more carefully behind that curtain you have modern construction.

Q: As a modern architect, how do you relate to the Art Institute’s neo-classical main building [opened in 1893]?
A: It’s great. It’s full of quality. I like that. But it’s got kind of an intimidating nature. The Beaux-Arts building was built with a kind of innocent desire: to build up Chicago’s own historical roots when they believed they didn’t have any. But why was Chicago so worried about missing roots at the beginning of the 20th century? Its roots were in the reconstruction of Chicago [after the fire]. These were beautiful roots.

Q: Why do you think the Art Institute had this great modern impulse now? Why not in the 1980s when they built the Rice Building?
A: I don’t know. The distance between that building and the new Modern Wing is immense. I’m not blaming anybody. I think it [the postmodern Rice Building, designed by Hammond, Beeby, & Babka] was well done at that moment. But they didn’t have the courage at that time to take a modern attitude.

When we talk about modernity we are not just talking about shape and construction, we are also talking about spirit. It is the idea that the museum is a welcoming place full of joy and happiness, accessible with kind of easy relations with the street. Here we wanted the ground floor for “profane” functions, like welcoming people, enjoying life, drinking coffee. Then you go to the second floor, which is more for temporary exhibitions. Then you go up to the third floor, and it must be magic. It must be the place where you find magic.

Q: And it will be connected to Millennium Park by a bridge. Did you encounter resistance to that?
A: At first, yes. But when I talked to the mayor, he said, Great.

Q: Now we’ll have your bridge and Frank Gehry’s bridge nearby.
A: I was joking with Frank. Frank is one of my best friends, and I love him. Your bridge is like a lazy river going to nowhere, I said. Our bridge is like a blade, going from there to there. This is like a bridge should be. Connecting one world to another world.

Q: Your building and Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion couldn’t be more different. But do they still speak the same modern language?
A: I think intensity is part of the story. Intensity. Strength. Frank is a great architect, so he created a sense of emotion and intensity by working in his way with his vocabulary. You can also create strong emotions and intensity by working with another vocabulary. A couple of years ago, I was told by a guard in the Cy Twombly Gallery in Houston [part of Piano’s Menil Collection project] that he was in the garden and heard some noise inside. He went there, and a young lady was dancing naked in the room. “What are you doing?” he said. “I can’t stop,” she said. “I love the paintings and the place so much that I just have to dance.” This is a funny thing, but it’s a way of saying that intensity is part of what I do. There is nothing I can do about that, I am Italian.