He has the pick of the world's big private commissions. He can compare himself to a pianist and get away with it. It's OK to be jealous.
Almost 30 years ago, Renzo Piano – and his close friend Richard Rogers – won a competition to design an arts centre in Paris. It became the Pompidou Centre and made both their names. Since then, the Italian architect has won international acclaim for his designs – a body of work that has just been celebrated, fittingly, in a major exhibition in the new ground-floor gallery at the Pompidou.

Piano’s contextual approach and his passion for new materials and construction technology have borne astonishingly varied fruit. They have ranged from the £9.7bn Kansai Airport in Osaka, Japan, with its 1700 m2 undulating asymmetrical steel roof, to the delicately curved wooden joists and ribs of the £20m Tjibaou Cultural Centre on the South Pacific island of New Caledonia, to the 26 concrete “petals” of the elliptical San Nicola Stadium in Bari, Italy.

One structural engineer – Ove Arup & Partners – has worked on all these projects. “Richard and I did the Pompidou competition because Peter Rice of Ove Arup convinced us it was a good idea,” recalls Piano. “I have been working with Arups for 30 years. It is like a big family and you can always rely on their solidarity and loyalty in difficult moments.“

Sitting in the glazed courtyard of his Paris office, smoking a pipe, Piano is relaxed and radiates a youthful energy despite his 63 years. But those years give his reflective insights an impressive authority. Of his relationship with Ove Arup, he says: “Architecture is about building emotion, and emotion is made by physics. Even playing a piano, a good player is making emotion by the way he touches the keys, the weight and strength of his strokes.

“The most typical relationship between an architect and engineer is that the architect makes the idea and the engineer makes the technique. But architecture is not like that. Architecture is a funny mix of humanism and materialism. I prefer the idea that from the beginning, you work together. It is also more dignifying for everybody.”

Ove Arup is working on 12 of Piano’s current commissions, including the £40m Paul Klee Museum in Bern, Switzerland, the £23m Nasher Sculpture Centre in Dallas, Texas, and an extension to the Chicago Art Institute. These are the kind of jobs most architects only dream of: direct commissions funded by private art patrons. And although he takes only 10% of the projects he is offered, Piano is busier than ever. “At a certain age, you are in a very strong, privileged position that you can do what you want,” says Piano, with disarming frankness.

Piano attributes his appreciation of engineering to his family history: “When I was a child, I loved going on site so much that when my mother wanted to send me to the country on holiday, I refused. I come from a family of builders, so I am more sensitive to construction. Because of this and because of my joint experience with Ove Arup, we start a job immediately together. Sometimes we even go to see the client together. We watch each other and we ask: ‘What might be interesting in this job, from every point of view?’.”

John Thornton, a director of Ove Arup, returns the compliment. “Renzo is really interested in the technology,” he says. “He has a good sense of engineering, the physicality of a building and how a material works.”

Since 1980, Piano has run two workshops: one in Paris’ Marais district, the other at Punta Nave in Genoa, his home town. The latter is a stepped, glass structure on a cliff, with spectacular sea views. “Clients arrive in the glass funicular up the cliffside and are completely seduced,” says an associate from Ove Arup.

Piano, Thornton and fellow Ove Arup director Alistair Guthrie meet every month at Piano’s Genoa offices. “We have been doing these seminars with Ove Arup for 30 years,” says Piano. “They are not necessarily about one scheme or another; they are about working together, discussing things, creating cross-fertilisation between one job and another. Sometimes they are very general discussions about the spirit of buildings and sometimes they become very practical.”

Recent practical discussions have focused on a new sun-screening device Piano has designed for the obliquely oriented Nasher Sculpture Centre, and on fireproofing a new glass brick to be used in the facade of a headquarters for French fashion house Hermès, in Tokyo’s earthquake zone.

When I was a child, I loved going on site so much that when my mother wanted to send me to the country on holiday, I refused

“Sometimes you spend days discussing something that is apparently very small and without importance. It is an immensely long process, making a building,” muses Piano, “especially when you are trying to explore new areas, new products, new construction techniques.”

Piano’s dedication is clearly shared by all who work in his Paris office, which is still buzzing with activity at 8.30pm. The staff come from three continents, and some have won places on exchange programmes run by the Renzo Piano Foundation, the educational foundation Piano established in 1998. They seem in their element in the workshop.

“It reminds me of the time I studied architecture, which is a good sign,” says one. “Renzo knows when to let people work out problems and when to say: ‘Right, time to make a decision.’ It really is a workshop and a mixture of minds.

“You get a lot of responsibility here,“ says another Parisian staff member. “You get to work on different projects and do everything from making models and doing drawings to going to client presentations.”

The model-making shop next to the office is testament to Piano’s belief in the virtues of craftsmanship. “I still like the physicality of wood and models,” he says. “A computer model is not the same because it gives you a perfect image and the process of designing is an imperfect process. You need the possibility to change, to work on it.”

Piano’s policy of limiting staff numbers in his two offices to about 100 is one of many things he has in common with Lord Rogers. Piano says that he speaks to Rogers every week on the phone. What did they talk about last time? “Oh, about my baby,” he says. “I’ve just adopted him.”

Recently, the two architects have lamented the fate of their joint baby, the Pompidou. The iconic building reopened on new year’s eve after a controversial £55m refurbishment, on which Piano worked. It cut the library off from the main escalator – and there is now a charge just to go up the escalators and see the view.

“We talk about the Pompidou a lot, because it is something that gives us a lot of joy and a lot of trouble. But what can you do? We wanted to design a building that was very flexible and we got it. We both hope it will change again. It will certainly survive to see more changes.”

By then, Piano will have given the world many more buildings to talk about, including a 4400-seat arts auditorium in Rome, an extension to the Harvard University Arts Museum, a £218m mixed-use tower complex at Macquarie Street in Sydney and the final phase of the Cité Internationale commerce and cultural centre in Lyons. But he thinks that the real challenge for architects in the 21st century is urban design. “Cities have to stop growing into suburbs. We have left black holes in the city: industrial sites, railway land, harbours. Now, instead of explosion, we will see implosion. It is like filling in the black holes completely.”

Personal effects

What book are you reading? I keep rereading Moby Dick, translated by Cesare Pavese. I’m also reading a novel, La Regina Disadorna, by Mangiani. Which architects do you admire? Jean Prouvé, Buckminster Fuller, Pier Luigi Nervi. What music do you like? Over the past few weeks I’ve been listening to a great concert by the pianist Keith Jarrett. I also love Mahler and modern music by Luciano Berio and Pierre Boulez. What do you do to relax? I sail, off Corsica and Sardinia. Where do you live? The first half of the month in Paris and the second half in Genoa, with my wife, Milli [33], and my 11-month-old son, Giorgio. That’s why I have to run back home now. I also have three grown-up children [Carlo, 34, is a journalist, Matteo, 31, an industrial designer and Lia, 27, an architect]. What car do you drive? A white Triumph TR8, but only on holiday.