With two new buildings—one in Dallas, the other in Rome—Italian architect Renzo Piano breaks the mold, again. Gabriella De Ferrari takes their measure

If Renzo Piano, New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp once wrote, "He can give lightness of being...to solid brick walls." This is certainly true of his first-ever building in Rome, the Parco della Musica, a music center whose auditoriums are shaped like lutes, which inspired Muschamp's remark even before it was completed earlier this year. But the same could also be said of his most recent project, the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, which relies so much on natural light that it's almost transparent. The 66-year-old Piano, winner of the 1998 Pritzker Prize, is known for his obsession with light and with a few other things too: combining industrial materials with more traditional ones, bridging the gap between old and new, and making the line between exterior and interior waver, if not vanish altogether. From the jewel-like Beyeler Foundation Museum in Basel, Switzerland, to the vast terminal of Japan's Kansai airport, Piano has worked in wood and terra-cotta, glass and steel, scales monumental and intimate. "Architectural innovation," Piano says, "cannot ignore history, tradition, or the context of construction."

Since every one of Piano's projects is a journey, an on-site experiment, a Piano building never looks like a Piano building in the way a Frank Gehry is always indisputably a Frank Gehry. Each has its own signature. His first completed project, the Pompidou Center in Paris (with his then-partner, British architect Richard Rogers),extended the space of the museum into the outdoors, with escalators enclosed in Plexiglas on the outside of the building, the Niki de Saint-Phalle and Jean Tinguely fountain, and a façade that seems to have been turned inside out. It also revitalized the neighborhood of Les Halles, one of the few to survive Baron von Haussmann's leveling of old Paris to make way for the city's broad boulevards. Like the neighborhood that surrounds it, the Pompidou is really a medieval village, made up of stacked spaces and cross-cutting streets; they are simply arranged vertically instead of horizontally.

For Piano, the Pompidou was the beginning of a lifelong preoccupation with thinking of architecture as integral to its environment. His 1998 Tjibaou Cultural Center in New Caledonia is made up of 10 "great houses" based on Kanak huts that have a slightly unfinished aspect. Piano was struck by the fact that in Kanak culture the process of building a house was as important as completing it, and he wanted the center to reflect this. The houses, each dedicated to a different cultural function, are of varying heights and surfaces. Like giant wood and steel sails, they look as if they might float off into the Pacific Ocean.

Piano's latest projects reflect his commitment to context in distinct ways. The Parco della Musica in Rome, located between the banks of the Tiber and the Olympic Village built for the 1960 games, links one of the most industrialized areas of Rome to the city's historic center. The lush grounds of the Villa Glori extend into the garden that surrounds the music center, and the complex itself—three auditoriums encircling a large amphitheater—seems as at home with the space-age forms of Pier Luigi Nervi's 1958 Palazzetto dello Sport and his outdoor Olympic Stadium as it does with the domes and basilicas of Rome's skyline.

"The most beautiful adventure for an architect," Piano says, "is to build a space for music. Perhaps it is more beautiful for a luthier to design a violin, but it is a similar activity. Both are about building instruments." Like celestial music boxes, the auditoriums have lead-clad roofs that rise above walls of pink brick and 400 newly planted olive trees. Scattered throughout small courtyards are freestanding sculptures that emit sounds when touched.

The Parco della Musica is not just a large concert facility, but a living city of music: there is a conference center, rehearsal facilities, a music library, and a museum of musical instruments. The auditoriums are variously sized to accommodate different types of performances: full orchestral works, ballets, operas, and chamber music. Equally important, the facility provides a base for Rome's own Orchestra di Santa Cecilia, first established in the 16th century.A small museum houses the artifacts found in a fourth-century Roman villa uncovered during excavation of the site. And the whole complex is approached by a long glass-covered pergola lined with shops and restaurants.

The Nasher Sculpture Center, by contrast, is a more intimate experience. It recalls Piano's earlier museum projects in Texas: the Menil Collection and the Menil's Cy Twombly Gallery, located in the middle of a residential district in Houston. The Menil's steel, glass, and cypress structures blend in perfectly, temples to simplicity. In designing the Nasher, Piano had to contend once again with somewhat unprepossessing surroundings—the skyscrapers of downtown Dallas—while accommodating a private collector. Raymond Nasher asked for a "roofless museum."Piano responded with a design that links five pavilions topped by ethereal, barrel-vaulted glass ceilings, to allow for the play of light across the sculptures. "Light is not just an intensity," Piano says, "but also a vibration, which is capable of roughening a smooth material, of giving a three-dimensional quality to a flat surface."

The Nasher collection numbers more than 300 sculptures and includes works by 19th-century masters Edgar Degas and Auguste Rodin; Modernist giants Giacometti, Matisse, and Picasso; and sixties icons Richard Serra and Mark di Suvero— some of which are so large they could only be shown outside. Piano once again extended the space of his building with gardens. These were designed by Piano and landscape architect Peter Walker, and planted with trees indigenous to Texas. There are no benches. Instead, all visitors will be given a folding chair so that they may view the sculptures from whatever angle they choose. There are also numerous renditions of the human figure: 36 haunting standing bodies by Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, Picasso's 1958 Head of a Woman, and Jonathan Borofsky's signature eighties piece, the movable Hammering Man. At the far end of the garden is a specially commissioned work by California Light and Space artist James Turrell, Tending (Blue), an enclosed space partially submerged in a landscaped berm with an opening in the ceiling. Visitors will be able to sit inside and contemplate the changing colors and shapes of the sky.

As it is for Turrell, the permeability of indoors and out is at the core of Piano's work and what one might call his flexibility. "When style is forced to become a trademark," he wrote, "then it also becomes a cage." Thankfully, with Piano there is no chance of that.

This month, a mini-Mahler festival takes over the 2,756-seat Sala Santa Cecilia, the largest concert hall at Piano's Auditorium Parco della Musica (Viale Pietro de Coubertin, Rome; 39-06/802-411; www.musicaperroma.it). Principal conductor of the Los Angeles Opera Kent Nagano conducts the Orchestra of the Academy of Santa Cecilia in performances of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 7 (December 6, 8, and 9); Myung-Whun Chung, the orchestra's principal conductor, leads Symphony No. 3 with mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier (December 13, 15, and 16).

"From Rodin to Calder: Masterworks of Modern Sculpture from the Nasher Collection," the inaugural exhibition at the Nasher Sculpture Center (2001 Flora St., Dallas; 214/242-5100; www.nashersculpturecenter.org), showcases 95 works, nearly one-fourth of the sculptures in the collection. Several pieces—among them, works by Picasso, Matisse, and Mark di Suvero—have never been publicly shown. The exhibition is ongoing and will be supplemented by additional works from the collection.

GABRIELLA DE FERRARI is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure.