Christian de Portzamparc: “No One But an Architect Can Solve the Problems of the Contemporary City”


Luxembourg Philharmonie, Luxembourg, 2005. Image © Wade Zimmerman

Luxembourg Philharmonie, Luxembourg, 2005. Image © Wade Zimmerman

Of the Pritzker Prize’s illustrious list of laureates, the 1994 winner Christian de Portzamparc is perhaps the least covered by the media. However, this relatively low profile belies the subtle and insightful understanding of architectural and urban issues that in many ways puts him decades ahead of the curve – with the sociologically-led principles he has been developing since the early 1980s now becoming widely popular in architectural circles. In this interview, the latest in Vladimir Belogolovsky’s “City of Ideas” column, Portzamparc explains the journey that led to this unique take on architecture.


Suzhou Cultural Center Proposal, Suzhou, 2017. Image © Christian de Portzamparc

Suzhou Cultural Center Proposal, Suzhou, 2017. Image © Christian de Portzamparc

Christian de Portzamparc: …Architecture often comes out of a controversial matter, drawing. In the 60s and 70s, we were contesting the drawing. I went to the Beaux-Arts school here in Paris, in which drawing was an end in itself. But in the Modern teaching to draw was viewed as dangerous, meaning to be absorbed and seduced by the quality of the drawing itself. I was thinking and drawing at the same time. In fact, a drawing may come before a particular imaginative idea sparks. 

Vladimir Belogolovsky: A drawing to you is a subconscious process.

CP: Maybe… It is not necessarily associated with thinking and explaining…


Cite de la Musique West Wing, Paris, 1990. Image © Christian de Portzamparc

Cite de la Musique West Wing, Paris, 1990. Image © Christian de Portzamparc

VB: Is there continuity in your work from project to project? Do you see it that way?

CP: Sure. I am always attracted to something new but I think about things that interest me continuously. And when I work on new projects I often realize that I am solving a problem which I tried to resolve five or ten years before. Certain ideas or formal relationships come up again and again.


Paris Opera Ballet School, Nanterre, 1987. Image © Atelier Christian de Portzamparc

Paris Opera Ballet School, Nanterre, 1987. Image © Atelier Christian de Portzamparc

VB: What sparked your initial interest in architecture?

CP: Well, when I was 15, I discovered drawings and projects by Le Corbusier. His Open Hand drawing and images of Chandigarh made an impression on me. I was drawing and painting before that, but I did not realize that a drawing could be a place, that a drawing could become something real; something in which people can live or work. I was also fascinated by the city. Around the city of Rennes in Brittany where I was living, I saw new, white, rational buildings arriving as a new concept of a city; they were like an army fighting against the old concept. There was a clash of old and new, like Le Corbusier’s famous 1922 proposal “La ville sans lieu” for three million inhabitants, which literally translates as “The city without place.”    


Flagship Dior, Seoul, 2015. Image © Nicolas Borel

Flagship Dior, Seoul, 2015. Image © Nicolas Borel

VB: Did you revolt against this radically new vision?

CP: Not at all, not then. It was only in 1966 when I was living in New York and later when I worked with sociologists that I started learning about the inhabitants’ reactions to all these urban changes.

VB: I read that in the 1960s you were interested in inventing new neighborhoods and the idea of sequences, as well as the relationship between the city and the film – the city as “scenario.” Could you talk about that?

CP: Going back to before the time I was living in New York, I was excited about the ideas for new, perfect cities but I realized that imagining the future is not necessarily about erasing the past, which was the motto of Le Corbusier. In the films by Jean-Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni from this period I found an image of the real modern city: the camera was moving from the idealized, perfectly geometric suburbs of Milan and Paris, towards historical neighborhoods and back. In the 60s, here in Paris the urban rules were to widen the roads to adapt to the automobile and to clear space for new housing. The traditional street was under attack, but the idea of the street has been around for thousands of years and it is more powerful than we are.


Cidade das Artes, Rio de Janeiro, 2013. Image © Nelson Kon

Cidade das Artes, Rio de Janeiro, 2013. Image © Nelson Kon

VB: Around 1966 you began to feel that “architecture alone was dry and unrelated to real life in the city.” And in 1967 you even decided to quit architecture altogether. You were just 23. What happened and what made you stay with architecture?

CP: I was in New York for a year in 1966. There I was, involved in artistic life such as painting, music, theater, reading, and I was thinking about becoming either a painter or a writer. It was the time when I wanted to experience many possibilities. I was supposed to work in an architectural office, meet Paul Rudolph and Edward Larrabee Barnes, but then instead I chose to work part-time as a bartender on 57th Street, making more money than I could possibly make as a draftsman at an office, so I could enjoy the city and meet many people. I stopped believing that I would be an architect. My interest in architecture was reignited through my interest in politics and sociology, concern for people who were not happy in their crowded neighborhoods and claustrophobic apartments. And I never stopped perceiving space as an artistic medium. I understood that no one else but an architect could solve the problems of the contemporary city.


Cidade das Artes, Rio de Janeiro, 2013. Image © Nelson Kon

Cidade das Artes, Rio de Janeiro, 2013. Image © Nelson Kon

VB: You understood that architecture could be more than just an object.

CP: Exactly, but more than that. When I came to New York in 1965, I was under the impression that architects were obsolete. I thought the city of the future would be designed by sociologists and computers. Houses would be assembled in factories, people would buy what they like, and sociologists would assemble them. Why would you need architects then? It would all become like a living process, just as Archigram and the Metabolists envisioned. That’s why I was losing interest in architecture. I didn’t want to become an engineer to assemble these plug-in cities. Then by working on new urban developments in France, and visiting new cities, I realized that space is a problem of perception, which is not far from conceptual art that was also my interest. I understood that the idea of space is crucial in the new world where the street has vanished and cars are everywhere, and people now feel lost.


Cite de la Musique West Wing, Paris, 1990. Image © Nicolas Borel

Cite de la Musique West Wing, Paris, 1990. Image © Nicolas Borel

VB: When you won the Pritzker Prize in 1994 the Jury citation said, “Every architect who aspires to greatness must in some sense reinvent architecture.” Is that something that you try to do? Is your work about reinvention or is it more subtle?

CP: I remember that from 1966 to 1971, I was still searching and constantly asking this question – what is architecture for? And I thought that an architect who is not asking this question is not an interesting architect. You have to understand why you do what you do and how useful it is. What is it that makes you passionate artistically or sociologically? Once you understand this, you have a chance to be understood by others. I think I understood in the early 70s why I would want to do this project and which way. But reinventing is a very pretentious position. Instead, we recreate things through an intense dialogue between generations and ideas. We start again.


Les Hautes Formes Housing, Paris, 1979. Image © Nicolas Borel

Les Hautes Formes Housing, Paris, 1979. Image © Nicolas Borel

VB: Would you say that you felt capable of bringing another vision, a personal stand?

CP: Yes. Well, I did not think then that I had a personal vision, but I thought I had a vision for how to make space perceivable, something lost in new developments; how we could integrate new with old, how we could improve the existing city. In the past, architecture succeeded as far as a form of a singular building and how these buildings would line up along the street and around the plaza. In 1975, in my competition project for a residential complex on Rue des Hautes Formes I proposed not one building, as my competitors did, but seven. They were planned around a void that was organized into walkways and small plazas. In fact, I always thought of space as void. In his famous verse Lao Tseu said, “My home – it is not the ground. It is not the walls. It is not the roof. It is the void between all these elements because it is exactly where I breathe and what I inhabit.”


Les Hautes Formes Housing, Paris, 1979. Image © Christian de Portzamparc

Les Hautes Formes Housing, Paris, 1979. Image © Christian de Portzamparc

VB: In other words, a void is not a mere definition, but experience.

CP: Sure, and sensitivities, and traditional values are important. But to Modernists, architecture was a tabula rasa. Modernism to Le Corbusier was like Christianity to Saint Paul. There was no tolerance for anything that was existing before. I realized that if we have inherited this word “Modern,” the artistic banner of the 20th century, its meaning is lost. This word cannot have the same meaning now as when Apollinaire declared one century ago, “I never want to stop being amazed by the locomotive.” We cannot have the same basic experience that Le Corbusier had when asserting: “We, the first in history, saw the machine.” The meaning of the word “Modern” has to be reinvented. Modernism is a disruption in something existing and we live in an era of constant change and willingly or unwillingly architecture reinvents tomorrow from project to project. I believe that the best projects are about reinventing this confidence in the future.


Credit Lyonnais Tower, Lille, 1995. Image © Nicolas Borel

Credit Lyonnais Tower, Lille, 1995. Image © Nicolas Borel

VB: In one of your earlier interviews, you said that you “see a fundamental evolution in which the expression of individuality over collectivism is coming to the fore.” What do you think about this now that our society is less and less willing to celebrate individuality? What do you think about the fact that architects’ voices are becoming less pronounced and more and more indistinguishable and less personalized?

CP: The celebration of the individual came with such artists as Andy Warhol who popularized this notion with his irony. In architecture, the desire to express individuality started in the past, when Modernism stopped being the only model. We may see the inauguration of the Pritzker Prize in 1978, marking the end of International Style. It was meant to celebrate an architect as author.  


Nexus II Housing, Fukuoka, 1991. Image © Nicolas Borel

Nexus II Housing, Fukuoka, 1991. Image © Nicolas Borel

VB: And even before the Pritzker, it was Venturi with his Complexity and Contradiction book that first blew up this model of puritanical, religiously obeyed Modernism back in 1966.

CP: Absolutely. And the Pritzker could not have existed in the 1940s or 50s. Both Venturi and the Pritzker unleashed a new epoch in architecture when architects began questioning everything. It was a new evolutionary turn, very different from the architecture of Le Corbusier or Aalto.


Les Hautes Formes Housing, Paris, 1979. Image © Nicolas Borel

Les Hautes Formes Housing, Paris, 1979. Image © Nicolas Borel

VB: Let’s go back to your residential project on Rue des Haute Formes. Was that also your attempt to break away from the anonymous character of architecture?

CP: Exactly. I tried to provide different types of dwellings with several different types of windows and balconies. I felt it was important for people to identify with their place within the complex. There was a shift. My teacher Georges Candilis taught that if you are designing a residential block, you need to provide exactly the same situation and condition to everyone. Equality was a major concern. Yes, equality is an idealist notion but you learn with architecture and urbanism, and you realize that by treating things equally you ruin everything. Equality ruins everything because east and west is different from north and south. You must provide a variety of qualities – more gardens or more openings, etc. Only if you adapt to the specificity of the place and acknowledge its different qualities will you provide richness and character. This urge for varieties came out of 1968, which exploded this thinking; individuality became more and more acknowledged. In this first residential project if I had several types of windows it was a challenge for my contractor and 10-15 years later I could have as many variations as I wanted; it was no longer a challenge. And now almost anything is possible!


Luxembourg Philharmonie, Luxembourg, 2005. Image © Wade Zimmerman

Luxembourg Philharmonie, Luxembourg, 2005. Image © Wade Zimmerman

VB: If you were to describe your architecture what words would you choose?

CP: Overture, opening, opening in different interpretations, open block, softness, pacification, continuity, site-specific, happiness, individual character.

VB: You mentioned the Pritzker Prize. Curiously, at this time the Pritzker is no longer giving its coveted prize to architects concerned with individual character.

CP: It is still a glorification of one creative individual achievement, even if it is the concern we all share now about our planet and ecology, and the situation with public money, which is lacking everywhere. In my own work, my concern is in how to repair and continue building our cities – how to make them accessible and livable for everybody.


LVMH Tower, New York, 1999. Image © Nicolas Borel

LVMH Tower, New York, 1999. Image © Nicolas Borel

VB: Yet, you combine these concerns with work on such pleasure projects as a sculptural building for a luxury brand Christian Dior in Seoul or Opera houses by the Lake of Suzhou and Shanghai.

CP: We do both. And we continue working on urban neighborhoods and affordable housing here in Paris. By the way, we are losing money on these projects. But I don’t see a conflict here. Every project presents opportunities for solving technical problems or expressing artistically.


Cidade das Artes, Rio de Janeiro, 2013. Image © Hufton + Crow

Cidade das Artes, Rio de Janeiro, 2013. Image © Hufton + Crow

VB: You said, “The raison d’être of architecture is not to be found in language. When designing a project, I think in terms of space, figure, distance, shadow and light. As an architect, I work in an area of thought which is not accessible through language. I am thinking directly in terms of forms and figures.”

CP: When I draw or paint, I don’t try to reason my moves and preferences. It is not always necessary to tell why certain things are designed the way they are designed. Language becomes important when I involve my team to communicate my ideas and develop projects. Architecture cannot be reduced to language. Language is about communication but space is about presence, a primitive, ancient, and archaic way to relate to the world and express how we see it. Architecture can communicate because it goes beyond language.


Section of water tower, Seine-et-Marne, 1974. Image © Christian de Portzamparc

Section of water tower, Seine-et-Marne, 1974. Image © Christian de Portzamparc

VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.

Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas, introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions are a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title which premiered at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.

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