Purple Magazine
— F/W 2013 issue 20

Claude Parent

Sainte-Bernadette-du-Banlay Church, Nevers, 2009, photo by Aglaia Konrad, collection FRAC Centre, Orléans

architecture for the future

portrait by OLIVIER ZAHM


Claude Parent is a living legend and the physical link between the urban modernism of Le Corbusier and contemporary architects Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel. At 90 he’s lived through nearly a century of radical change. He’s one of the founders of the architecture movement, Brutalism, and as a true artist, he consistently generates a provocative vision for building the present and the future.

OLIVIER ZAHM — We came to see you because, for us, you are a major figure in architecture and still a very strong influence on up-and-comers. The great architects — the entire architectural world — recognize you, as do the newer generations. It’s fascinating to look back over your journey and to explore your ideas, because they are still so inspirational. Is that because you started out in the ’50s and early ’60s, at a time when architecture was not dissociated from art?
CLAUDE PARENT — Yes, it was a nice period, but it was terrible after that. By 1970, it was over, finished. But during the ’50s a lot of young people were going into architecture, because there was a lot of rebuilding going on. People were thinking about reconstruction. There was a major divide between the idea of revisiting the past and creating something new. People did not have any money, but they had indeed been liberated from war, and there was suddenly a new mental freedom. The younger generation needed to find housing, whereas before then they might have inherited real estate from their families.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That time of reconstruction, the desire to create something new, to change, you were surrounded by artists — for example, you worked with Yves Klein. How did you meet him?
CLAUDE PARENT — I liked his work a lot. A friend of his once told him his drawings were ugly, that he expressed nothing that could attract people to his work. He said he knew a guy — me — who would do that for him, who would draw anything he wanted. So Klein turned up, and we drew things together until he died.

In the Wilderness, 2007, drawing with pencil, photo by François Lauginie, courtesy of FRAC Centre, Orléans, Claude Parent, and Manuella éditions

OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you get in touch with so many avant-garde artists from the late ’50s? In particular, from the Abstract movement?
CLAUDE PARENT — In the context of André Bloc’s entourage in the late ’50s. He was running an architecture journal called L’architecture d’aujourd’hui (Architecture Today), which still exists. André Bloc was an authority on architecture. I met him with an associate who was my age. We were students and had read something in the journal that we didn’t like. He said that young people weren’t daring enough. We sent him a rather insulting letter saying, “What are you talking about? And what are you doing for young people in your world-renowned journal?” He asked for a meeting. He wasn’t rude, he wasn’t pretentious, he said “I am creating a group of artists and architects who are going to work together.” André Bloc called it the Groupe espace (Space Group), which meant freeing themselves from the word “architecture,” which was being limited by the antiquated idiots from the Académie and from the Beaux-Arts. By “space,” we were referring to the great architects of the ’20s, the great painters from the same time. And the idea was to work together. The Space Group taught us that we wouldn’t be able to work with architects who were compartmentalizing things; we’d work much better with artists. Le Corbusier was ahead of us. I remember the painter Fernand Léger saying to me, “It’s funny, now we’re hearing how modern your ideas are. I don’t like to talk, but this reminds me of the old ideas from the ’30s about Le Corbusier.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — Was Le Corbusier part of this community?
CLAUDE PARENT — No, because he didn’t get along with André Bloc. But before that he had done something important for the architect Auguste Perret, who was an abomination to Le Corbusier. Perret was modern, but not in the eyes of Le Corbusier. Perret had built Le Havre and the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, for which there’s a neoclassical connotation.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Could you clarify your complex relationship with Le Corbusier?
CLAUDE PARENT — We knew Le Corbusier’s work by heart. We adored Le Corbusier, but we couldn’t get close to him; he was surrounded by his people, his inner circle! You needed a bayonet to get through them. In fact I made some enemies! Le Corbusier was the manipulator who wanted artists like Léger to work on murals. Mural art was considered a weapon against certain detours taken by bad architects and painters. So he did a bit of it. And Le Corbusier was cranky because all of a sudden there was a group of young architects in which he was not the star. There were so many little wars à la française.

DONATIEN GRAU — Did you work with him?
CLAUDE PARENT — One day, Wogenscky, Le Corbusier’s associate and principal draftsman, said to me, “I heard you and your friend speaking at a conference, and I would like you to come to Le Corbusier in Paris.” Why? Because he was beginning to have conflicts about certain fundamentals, and he wanted guys he could count on, young architects. So we went, and I stayed for six months to a year.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Were you also influenced by the Los Angeles modern architecture boom orchestrated by Richard Neutra?
CLAUDE PARENT — Yes, but no one in Paris knew about it — not even about Frank Lloyd Wright. No one knew him.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Why were you, as an architect, so interested in the art scene at the time?
CLAUDE PARENT — I hung around and met everyone. I even worked with Fernand Léger. I met all the artists because I wrote about them, and because of my activities, my articles, my political positions, and because I went to openings, especially at the Denise René gallery. You have to understand that for us, the old architects at that time understood nothing about modernity, and in fact were the enemies of modernity. I didn’t want to be with all these old people, and they hated me anyway, and thought what I did was evil and terrible, so I thought, “Let’s not pay attention to them, let’s find some other people who are more modern to work with.” Of course the people we found were the ones who didn’t have any money. We were meant to work like plasticiens — they had thrown out the word “artist,” and called themselves “plasticiens,” which meant they had the right to work with architecture, like architects. But since technically they didn’t have the legal right to do so, they would create these groups. Unfortunately it was pretty avant-garde at that time.

Open toilets in Claude Parent’s studio

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it because you were hanging out and working with the Abstract avant-garde artists that you learned to draw?
CLAUDE PARENT — Actually I’ve always been able to draw. I was lucky. But I rejected those pretentious drawings and managed to find another way to express myself. I wasn’t alone. We had clients through André Bloc and his tribe, the Abstracts. You cannot imagine the animosity there was against “concrete art.” They said it wasn’t French, because Bloc was French but born in Algeria. Le Figaro, with its cross on the first page, used to insult us. And Bloc used to spend a lot of his time suing Le Figaro for slander — and he’d win!

OLIVIER ZAHM — Le Corbusier, abstract art, and then you invented your own architectural theory.
CLAUDE PARENT — Yes, but much later. I left Le Corbusier because I won my first competition in 1953. It was a competition launched by a new magazine. I built a house, and that changed everything. It was a happy house. The magazine still exists in Paris. It succeeded by opening the doors to modern architecture. It was the first public magazine that didn’t pick a side, for or against the Moderns, but which was also showing people’s houses, those with a certain luxury, modern furniture, and kitchens. Modern architecture began with kitchens. Everyone knows that. Culinary art helped people understand modernity, because with homemaking they created modern functional kitchens, which women loved. The trade fairs featuring kitchens, tableware, and other homemaking stuff defined national and international glory. And we got in as best we could. I started working at booths at that trade fair, for the coal mines of France. Nobody else would touch them. Winning that house competition changed everything. We suddenly had allies in the press.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You have always been a great provocateur…
CLAUDE PARENT— Only because when you stick your nose where they tell you not to it lasts for your entire life. It never stops.

DONATIEN GRAU — Don’t you use a provocative attitude as a weapon to defend your ideas?
CLAUDE PARENT — More to spread them. The architects of my generation were furious. They didn’t like me — even the ones before and after. It’s the young people of a new generation who come to see me every week.

DONATIEN GRAU — Is that because you’re such a flamboyant character — fancy cars, the way you live?
CLAUDE PARENT — I always wanted to make a statement. I’ve never been rich, but if you have the balls and enough credit, you can buy and drive a Rolls-Royce. No other architect in the world would dare do that, for fear of what people might say. That is definitely a provocation. I also wanted to show them that I wasn’t following the rules of bad architecture, the diktats of my “elders.” I wanted to live like someone who’d succeeded in life.

Claude Parent at his studio, in a building he constructed in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France

DONATIEN GRAU — When did you formalize your break with tradition — architecturally speaking?
CLAUDE PARENT — Immediately. Little by little I organized my life. I had a firm with three or four draftsmen. The others had a hundred of them, so how was I going to compete? I looked for occasions when I could convince a client to let us slide in something new. It took a year of personal discussions with M. Drusch, which he commisioned, for me to be able to build one of my most original houses, the Cube Basculé (Tilted Cube). I’d go myself. I couldn’t send my draftsmen. Little by little we moved forward. He’d been living in a house in Le Chesnay with a tiled roof and four brick walls, and I wanted to put him into an upside-down cube! It was something else. But I have never been afraid to say, “Okay, this is what we’re going to do.”

DONATIEN GRAU — Wasn’t it also because architecture was something political for you?
CLAUDE PARENT — It needed to be something that would move our ideas toward something new, a new art of living. Obviously you don’t live in a tipped-up house the way you would live in an ordinary house.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re known for your creative use of cement. You made it beautiful. How did that come about?
CLAUDE PARENT — I’m a child of Le Corbusier. Later, I was mean to him, telling him that his urbanism was worthless — and maybe I was right, because entire cities inspired by his theory, made of grids of residential towers, did not work.

DONATIEN GRAU — Was it by meeting the young French theorist Paul Virilio that you were inspired to take a more brutalist approach of cement in your architecture?
CLAUDE PARENT — Yes. We share an obsession with bunker architecture on the beaches of Normandy. That’s how we met, because of the beauty of cement and of those bunkers. Virilio said to me, “I shot 250 photos of those bunkers and I read books about them.” A mutual friend had wanted us to get together, but Virilio — who hated architects — said, “No, I don’t want to meet him.” Our mutual friend, Michel Carrade, the painter, pressed him, saying, “You have to meet him, you talk like him. You both talk about the power of cement, that it should be seen instead of hidden, it should be softened and proudly displayed in residences. You must meet!”

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because of the power of cement?
CLAUDE PARENT — Yes! That’s all he talked about, so he gave in and we met. And me — knowing he hated architects and that he wouldn’t want to get into a discussion with me — I thought, “Let’s see what happens. You talk about things you know nothing about. You disparage all architects.” At the time I had two houses under construction: the Drusch “Tilted Cube” house and the Bordeaux le Pecq house. They were just about finished. He looked at the photos and went crazy, saying, “Okay, we should definitely work together.” And if May ’68 hadn’t happened, we’d probably still be working together. But we quarreled about something fundamental: he got a little too comfortable. It wasn’t a big deal, but in ’68 he found a microphone and he flipped out. He decided he didn’t need me and would go on by himself. I was telling him not to drag me somewhere I didn’t want to go — which was into the demonstrations, of May ’68 in particular. He wanted to take our group, Architecture Principe (Principle of Architecture), which we also called La Fonction Oblique (The Oblique Function) — into the political upheaval of the time.

The mock-up of a building project by Claude Parent

DONATIEN GRAU — You invented The Oblique Function together?
CLAUDE PARENT — Yes. But I have to say that Paul Virilio was the first to pronounce the term. We were sitting at drafting tables — he was part of my firm — working on the Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay Church in Nevers, so it was technically before we introduced The Oblique Function thing. There are ramps inside, which we had to justify for various reasons. We were in agreement, looking at the sectional view, with the ramps, and I said to him, “You know, those ramps really do change everything.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — Oblique ramps to enter the building?
CLAUDE PARENT — Yes. And we had to raise them to make the parish enclosure. The ramps stayed. They just went up a level. And when I go there, I see people kind of crawling up them, the kids enjoying them. Anyway, I said to Paul Virilio, “We need to generalize all this.” And he said, “Henceforth, since we like what we did at Nevers, we’re going to say we need to do ramps. We’ll put them everywhere, instead of doing horizontal planes.” I said, “Sure. But I’m going to think about it tonight, because each time I start from zero, I go back into battle. You’re not the one who has to fight with the ministries. I’m the one who takes the hits.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — You said in one of your articles that it wasn’t you who invented the oblique, it was nature, and it functions for those who live in the mountains, and for sailors who see the oblique in big waves around them.
CLAUDE PARENT — The word oblique set in motion a huge trans­formation. We also said, “We need it to encompass the movement of men.” So when people ask me if I’ve made a lot of stuff on a slope, I respond, “Yes, so what?” We made things on a slant, we were interested in the body, but it wasn’t one of those intellectual things — although that was more Virilio’s thing. We also worked in a climate conducive to change, and wanted to create an architecture that focused on the movement of the body.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Which rendered it mobile?
CLAUDE PARENT — Exactly. Making it move. That’s why we were reproached: they couldn’t accept that people were climbing up a slope. Even nowadays my colleagues are reticent about it. Only philosophers really understand. So I would emphasize this point, we were young and working with the government, we did a public presentation in Lyon, and we were insulted by some people, who called us “Situationists.” I asked Virilio what that was and if it was an insult. What did they want? He brought me a clandestine copy of the Situationist magazine — at the time it was forbidden. I found their analysis of society close to our viewpoint, almost rigorously the same. Their conclusions and their consequences may have been different, but Constant Nieuwenhuys, the Dutch painter, was quite close to us, even though he never wanted to use the oblique, and he never wanted to meet me.

OLIVIER ZAHM — For ideological reasons?
CLAUDE PARENT — Probably. And he worked with Nicolas Chauffeur, with whom I worked for a long time. What I noticed, though, was that there were people who spoke out in the conference hall, who said, “We understand you completely. Why are people insulting you like that?” I love sailing and am never happier than when I’m on a sailboat, because it’s constantly moving and there I am, balanced.

Along the Big Migration… The City, Stop and Go, Neuilly, 2011, published in Stop and Go by Claude Parent, Manuella éditions

DONATIEN GRAU — It seems you’ve created an architecture for ways of living.
CLAUDE PARENT — Yes, so why were they all so angry with us? Why did Virilio go trawling in areas that are not at all in my territory? Finally I said to him, “Look, politically this is not working.” It’s the first time I was mad at a colleague. I’ve only had two or three that were important to me. And they were always the ones who left.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The Situationists wanted to use architecture as part of a revolutionary political strategy.
CLAUDE PARENT — So did Paul Virilio, but without owing anything to the Situationists. It would have been a good trick — he was such a clever guy — to take credit for it. But we had formalized our ideas, architecturally speaking, whereas the Situationists never did. It wasn’t their problem.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In terms of drawing?
CLAUDE PARENT — Yes, whereas we built something, a church. The nuns cried when they were shown the plans. They didn’t want our church.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But the oblique, it’s an aesthetic choice! Granted, there is a certain physical effort involved in walking up and down ramps.
CLAUDE PARENT — It is indeed aesthetic. So what happened? Apparently right now — and it doesn’t bother me at all — the oblique, as a substrate of architectural thought, has been completely quashed. No one mentions it any more. No one will say my name. I, of course, have no problem speaking about it, and many of my friends say, “That’s a ‘Parent’ design.” Now, Zaha Hadid is a caricature. Happily she’s talented and has created some beautiful things, but she has also built some truly ugly buildings.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Too aesthetic?
CLAUDE PARENT — No, they’re awful. But we don’t tell it like it is, we’re not frank in architecture. We do if we’re talking about sex; we’re more and more open and we tell each other some pretty wild stuff. But not about architecture.

Sculpture of Claude Parent by Xavier Veilhan

OLIVIER ZAHM — You are also interested in urbanism beyond architecture, because you conceived — in a rather utopian fashion — plans for low-cost housing and urban renewal.
CLAUDE PARENT — That’s another problem I cannot forget. My way out is drawing. I practice drawing. I like it, and people like my drawings. I invent content. I don’t draw to make pretty things. I seek truth. My drawings have a setting. Architecture becomes the medium for staging human relationships. Because in the end, a guy doesn’t want to commit suicide because he isn’t happy or because he broke up with his girlfriend; he wants to kill himself beause he isn’t in an urban setting that might cheer him up and make him feel better. If you’re seeing the same impasse three or four times, the fifth time it just doesn’t make you want to turn back. I believe that form influences us; it shapes the way we relate to each other. Since I cannot mobilize people to react to thoughts like that. I use my drawings instead.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Your drawings are about urban development as well as about human relationships.
CLAUDE PARENT — Yes, I draw men in them to encourage human interaction, not to decorate the drawing.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So that architecture will serve and enrich life and human relationships?
CLAUDE PARENT — Precisely.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So are you an optimist?
CLAUDE PARENT — I am very optimistic without being a utopian — because they have failed so often. I think there have been periods when things really came into focus. In general it’s at such moments, even if they come with revolutions beforehand and more bullshit after, in which humanity changes.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is architecture a global art?
CLAUDE PARENT — Yes, architecture is the global art we have at our disposal, since we are building entire cities. Yesterday I heard that to house more billions of people, we’re going to have to dig cones into the earth. Instead of building up we’re going to build down. It’s not a bad idea. It might open up something that has been blocked.

City Shelters the Migrating People and Protects the “Knowledge,” Tissable, August 2010, published in Stop and Go by Claude Parent, Manuella éditions

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you think architectural thought is blocked?
CLAUDE PARENT — Yes, and we need to think before we draw again. Soon they will invent machines that will be able to give you more possibilities. Right now you associate the pencil with the thought and the drawing. When I draw, I always ask, “Who’s taking the lead? Who’s dominating?” Sometimes I’m dominated by my own drawing. Sometimes I just draw two or three lines, and that’s it. I start drawing in a corner, as if I were knitting. Sometimes the drawing doesn’t end where I thought it would in my head. So my thoughts are modified.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is that what’s so important about the hand?
CLAUDE PARENT — I don’t know if the pencil is drawing by itself or my hand is guiding it, or if it’s reflecting my brain and all of a sudden it sends me elsewhere.

DONATIEN GRAU — It’s interesting that your architectural drawings tell stories.
CLAUDE PARENT — Yes, some of them are indeed stories. And I would love to not be so old, but I am. I would like it if all of a sudden, there could be a focalization of the forces around architecture, which are always dispersing and fighting with each other, and that one day we could focus these forces and these minds.

DONATIEN GRAU — Do you think a new avant-garde is possible?
CLAUDE PARENT — Sure, but for the moment, we’re all separate.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Someone like Rem Koolhaas thinks about social relations, the media, all the present and possible technologies. What do you think of him?
CLAUDE PARENT — He’s one of the great ones — Jean Nouvel, too, who is my protégé, and who worked five years with me and has never spoken ill of me. He has no reason to, because he was inspired by my way of doing things, my way of driving a project to its conclusion. He says, “I learned everything from Claude Parent.” He designed the new Paris Philharmonic Hall and said to the jury, “I did this for Claude Parent.” I was quite moved, because I’ve had a long life. But I think one day there will be a great human alliance exploring these questions instead of being separated by them and fighting over them like the architects who hate each other. Look at what happened in Rome. Unfortunately they had only one goal: to dominate the world. But they did extraordinary things. There was a wild wheeling and dealing that helped the human race advance in leaps and bounds. But now we aren’t in the same position, even though people are inventing such extraordinary things. But they are all in the service of the same world domination. Even politics has lost its dignity. But I still can’t stop being optimistic, thinking that someday something will happen. Or maybe humanity will die out, disappear in a cataclysm it will have caused itself. Science fiction is writing that scenario. I still think that there will be a turning point. Will it be a great catastrophe or a great invention? I’ve done drawings where people are walking in the air. I didn’t stop myself. That’s how I protect myself. I say stupid things. I affirm my own idiocy, so I can draw men who walk through fluids and who all of a sudden reintroduce the square house.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve moved from obliqueness to fluidity?
CLAUDE PARENT — Yes, I talk about it in a lot of my books. Fluidity is extremely important. As is air.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It brings one back to Yves Klein, in a way.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Now at the end of your career you return to fluidity, the abolition of walls and barriers that separate.
CLAUDE PARENT — Absolutely. Each time you build a wall you commit a crime. When you say it like that, it isn’t so nice to hear, but an intelligent person is not repelled by a too-strong image. When I’m asked if I succeeded in life, I think I have missed a lot… Well, Koolhaas has stirred my ideas up a bit. He’s the one who, in terms of dimensions and ideas, has done something that resembles a world. I wasn’t able to do it. My drawings are not only about fluidity in architecture; they are also about migration — a future civilization of migration based on permanent traveling all over the world, people circulating on massive roads that transform into cities and buildings where people can come and go.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What about your vision of the future of architecture?
CLAUDE PARENT — I believe that we should no longer build walled cities, closed up on themselves by their own territorial boundries, protected by insur­mountable defenses. Let’s unfurl onto the Earth passages that billow like continuous ribbons, which will guarantee the continued movement of humanity on foot.


[Table of contents]

F/W 2013 issue 20

Table of contents

purple EDITO

purple NEWS






purple BEAUTY

purple TRAVEL

purple SEX

purple PHILO

purple NIGHT

purple STORY


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