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Claude Parent (1923-2016)

Radical, uncompromising, contrary: the father of fonction oblique (together with Paul Virilio) devised an architecture that was both praised for its dynamism and criticised for its appropriation of a wartime aesthetic

Reputations illustration

Claude Parent illustration by GEORGE DOUGLAS

Illustration by George Douglas

If Claude Parent is remembered outside his native France today, it’s chiefly for his five-year partnership with Paul Virilio, which lasted from 1963 to 1968 and produced not only the infamous bunker church of Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay in Nevers, but also the ramped-up joys of the fonction oblique, of which the church was just one example.

But Parent’s was a long career, spanning six decades, with numerous surprises and plot twists. To describe the man and his oeuvre, three words suffice: radical, uncompromising, contrary. Where the man alone is concerned, one might add dandy, but also witty, articulate, elegant and warm-hearted. Not to mention rebellious, as his educational trajectory testifies.

It began classically enough, at the Toulouse École des Beaux-Arts in 1936, but war got in the way and Parent came to Paris a decade later to complete his architectural studies at the prestigious, if conservative, École des Beaux-Arts in the capital. Except that he never did complete them: at first bored, and later frustrated, he left the school without a diploma, and was only finally admitted to the Ordre des Architectes in 1966, after 14 years in practice.

Bunker 2

Paul Virilio Bunker Archaeology

Paul Virilio made an investigation of the ‘bunker archaeology’ of the Nazis’ Atlantic Wall. Image © DACS 2019

As Parent recounts it, one day at the Beaux-Arts, at the end of a particularly unedifying lecture, ‘my gaze struck a stranger who seemed to me, in a flash, so sick from isolation and at the same time so open to adventure, so available, that across 25 student-filled benches I instinctively called out to him, and he heard me.’ The fellow traveller, from whom he would become inseparable until their sudden, brutal break-up in 1955, was the Romanian Ionel Schein. At the Beaux-Arts, the duo brought in the dashing, progressive, amateur-pilot Georges-Henri Pingusson to found a rebel teaching atelier and, when that wasn’t enough to beat the system, turned their attention, in 1951, to the monumental figure that was André Bloc – founder and publisher of the influential review L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, but also, from 1940, a sculptor. 

In the wake of this encounter the avant-garde group Espace was born – besides Bloc, Parent and Schein, its members included the artists Yves Klein, Gérard Mannoni, Nicolas Schöffer and Jean Tinguely – which would give rise, on Parent’s part, to a series of artistic collaborations and ‘Neoplastic’ houses (inspired by Schöffer’s interest in van Doesburg and Mondrian) that culminated in the Côte-d’Azur Case-Study homage that is the Maison André Bloc in Cap d’Antibes. Designed in partnership with the sculptor-publisher himself, it overcomes its difficult coastal site with a cobalt-blue grid of a steel frame into which accommodation units are slotted, and from which a sculptural spiral stair is suspended. Bloc and Parent would push these ideas to their logical, monumental extreme in their last completed project together, the Maison de l’Iran at the Cité Universitaire in Paris, where, rather than being slid within the frame à la Unité d’Habitation, the student accommodation is dramatically hung from it, and the spiral escape stair used to spectacular effect on the entirely blind facade that defies the petrol boom of the Boulevard Périphérique.

Church 3 sketch crop

original pencil sketch of the Church of Sainte-Bernadette

Original pencil sketch of the Church of Sainte-Bernadette

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Parent’s hermetic, brooding Church of Sainte-Bernadette in Nevers

Virilio’s ‘bunker archaeology’ fed through into Parent’s hermetic, brooding Church of Sainte-Bernadette in Nevers, which caused outrage at the time. Image Gilles Ehrmann

Biography

Key works:
Maison André Bloc, Cap d’Antibes, 1962
Maison Bordeaux Le Pecq, Normandy, 1963
Church of Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay, Nevers, 1963
Maison Drusch, Versailles, 1966
Maison de l’Iran, student housing, Paris, 1968
French Pavilion, Venice Art Biennale, 1970
Shopping centres, Sens and Ris-Orangis, 1970
Nuclear power station, Cattenom, 1990
Théâtre Silvia Monfort, Paris, 1991
Nuclear power station, Chooz, 1991
Roissypôle building, Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris, 1996

Awards and honours: 
Grand Prix National de l’Architecture, 1979
Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur, 2010

Quote: 
‘Architecture will once again be a part of the domain of self-evidence. It will be indisputable, undisputed. It will remove itself from the domain of the vanguard. It will just be’

While the French, with their usual public coyness about money, never actually say so, it seems obvious that Parent came from wealth. How else, given a career that advanced in fits and starts, does one explain the expensive English cars – a black Triumph with a red interior, a Jaguar E-Type, a Rolls-Royce – that complemented his soigné sartorial style, of which the bespoke Mandarin-collar suits, tailored for him by Gilbert Feruch in the ’60s, have become legendary. Born in what is today France’s richest municipality, the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, Parent would establish his family (and later his office) there in 1952, in the extremely chic Bagatelle neighbourhood, a stone’s throw from Le Corbusier’s celebrated Maisons Jaoul. Parent and Schein had of course fervently admired the master as students – their inclusion of a quotation by Le Corbusier in a school project had caused a scandal among the teaching staff – and it was perhaps inevitable that they should seek to intern in his office. Though they lasted a mere three months, Parent never forgot their time there in 1953: the clocking-in, the rigid hierarchy, the petty squabbling, Corb’s hard egotism, but also his stature. ‘We didn’t have much occasion to talk, but one word from him sufficed to remind you that he really was the man of the myth, a god’, he recalled. ‘He taught me to think about the why behind things … [and that] one must arm oneself to defend every point, because the slightest detail can suggest you haven’t sufficiently thought through your ideas.’

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Maison Bordeaux Le Pecq

Maison Bordeaux Le Pecq featured a pagoda-like roof with clear references to Frank Lloyd Wright. Image by Dominique Delaunay / Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine

‘Wright is the one who freed me from Le Corbusier’, Parent would later declare, and two of his houses from the early ’60s betray something of the Tyrant of Taliesin’s influence. Both date from 1963-65 and were designed just before his fateful encounter with Virilio: one, the Maison Bordeaux Le Pecq in Normandy, features pagoda-like roofs tailored to the hillside in a manner that is even more shining-brow than Taliesin itself; while the other, the Maison Drusch in Versailles, seems less inspired by FLW than by a famous Hollywood riff on Wrightian tropes, the Vandamm House in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. Moreover, with a cubic concrete exoskeleton daringly skewed at 45°, the Maison Drusch clearly anticipates the fonction oblique, whose sources must also include the never-ending spiral of the Grand Ramp at Wright’s Guggenheim in New York.

With his inclination towards theory, Parent could but only thrive in the company of Virilio. Their coming together was the latter’s doing: initially trained in stained glass, he’d heard about the competition for Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay and was on the hunt for an architect. Since he’d just moved into a building by Parent, he worked his connections and a dinner was arranged. It would give birth, almost immediately, to the movement (and magazine) Architecture Principe. Since 1958 Virilio had been researching the Nazis’ Atlantic Wall (a study he later published under the title ‘Bunker Archaeology’), a reference which came together with Parent’s nascent fonction oblique to produce their design for the church, the fortified meeting of two inclines. In the French context of 1963, just 18 years after the war, the scandal was huge: the appropriation of an architectural vocabulary originated by the hated occupiers which, where the Atlantic bunkers were concerned, had been constructed by forced French labour enslaved by the Organisation Todt, was too much for many. But for Parent and Virilio, a bunker was about protection, not aggression; Sainte-Bernadette was a ‘disarming’ of the bunker, an ‘architecture répulsive’ involving the crossing of a repellent threshold to a haven of peace and serenity. Moreover, the image of the Wehrmacht’s abandoned bunkers, inclined at crazy angles on the shifting sands of France’s coasts, was a potent metaphor for the fonction oblique itself.

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Maison Drusch

The daringly skewed Maison Drusch. Image courtesy of Dominique Delaunay

‘I don’t claim to have invented the slope – nature took care of that – nor even the ramp (Le Corbusier used them). I just recommend living on inclined planes,’ Parent declared in 2010. A latter-day admirer, Rem Koolhaas, put forward a comparison between the fonction oblique and the work of Tim Nugent, the man who pioneered the introduction of wheelchair ramps for the disabled and whose birth and death dates are just months apart from Parent’s. On the one hand, you have increased ease and comfort – perhaps a form of decadence, Koolhaas suggests, compared with the effort of moving around on crutches; on the other, the introduction of difficulty into a situation deemed too comfortable – the postwar French economic boom known as les trente glorieuses

Parent’s daughter, Chloé, in a text entitled ‘The Lucky One’ written for her father’s 2010 final big retrospective, in Paris, thanked him for the opportunity of growing up in the fonction oblique. ‘Living obliquely,’ she wrote, in reference to the Neuilly house from which almost all doors and furniture had been removed to make way for diagonal planks, ‘was neither an adventure nor an experiment – I never felt I was a guinea pig. And it’s even less of a concept, in the end. Living obliquely is among the most natural and intelligent ways of inhabiting space – one of the most dynamic, mobile, evolving, renewable, interactive, natural and healthy – which allies you to the architecture you live in, makes you rethink your way of life, develop your sensitivity to space and to others, as well as keeping you fit.’

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Maison de l’Iran Cité Universitaire in Paris

Defying the Périphérique, Maison de l’Iran housing for Iranian students at the Cité Universitaire in Paris. Image courtesy of Darren Bradley / Otto

Among those working in the offices of Architecture Principe was a young Jean Nouvel, who would ultimately pay homage to his mentors in the inclined foyers and extensive exterior ramps of his mountainous Philharmonie de Paris. But Parent and Virilio’s partnership would founder, like the École des Beaux-Arts at which Nouvel was then studying, in the storm of May 1968. Virilio took the students’ side, preferring to distance himself from power and officialdom, whereas the patrician Parent had no problem promoting the fonction oblique at court, so to speak, which landed him the prestigious commission for the French Pavilion at the 1970 Venice Art Biennale. Featuring work by, among others, Mannoni, François Morellet and Andrée Bellaguet, it introduced the fonction oblique to an international audience, its contents and scenography afterwards going on a four-year tour of France. But this, as it turned out, would be the oblique’s last gasp, the utopia surviving only in Sainte-Bernadette and Parent’s own house, as well as in the remarkable Brutalist shopping centres he completed in Sens and Ris-Orangis.

The Venice Biennale, it later transpired, was a pivotal moment, not only as the swansong of the fonction oblique, but also because it was Parent’s last, and ultimately unhappy, attempt to integrate architecture and the arts, the end of a 20-year quest begun with Bloc. Discouraged and defeated by what he saw as the irreducible egotism of artists, who refused to let their work be subsumed into a whole, he turned his creative attention elsewhere. 

In 1975 he defected to the technocracy when he was recruited by Électricité de France as a consultant on the firm’s ambitious atomic programme, resulting in a 20-year partnership that saw him build two nuclear power stations: Cattenom, whose cooling towers dominate the landscape for miles around, and Chooz, dramatically sited on a bend in the River Meuse.

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sketch for a nuclear power station, 1975

Sketch for a nuclear power station, 1975. Image courtesy of Frac Centre-Val de Loire

Supermarket

1970 Brutalist shopping centre in Ris-Orangis featured parking and shops linked by a faceted footbridge

This 1970 Brutalist shopping centre in Ris-Orangis featured parking and shops linked by a faceted footbridge

He carried on practising right up to the end of the millennium – notable late work includes the steel tipi that is Paris’s Théâtre Silvia Monfort and the rather Deconstructivist ‘habitable sculpture’ Roissypôle building at Charles de Gaulle Airport – and only finally closed his office in 2004, at the age of 81, when he sold his Neuilly property (which the purchaser, no doubt kicking himself today, promptly demolished). 

‘Rediscovered’ in his twilight years, Parent finally gained the recognition many felt he’d deserved all along, being accepted into the Académie Française in 2006, honoured by Koolhaas at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, and generally fêted as a grand old man of the postwar avant-garde. Interviewed in 2010, on the occasion of his retrospective, he’d lost none of his militancy: ‘We have to chuck out architecture that contributes to closing off and withdrawal’, he asserted. ‘We can’t carry on building houses as we do. The time has come for a much-needed revolution in mentalities. As of man’s very first shelter – from the weather, from enemies – architecture’s vocation has been to close things off. The moment there’s a crisis, we build a wall: Berlin, Israel … When I say continuity must be re-established, I mean it in the wider sense: the total suppression of all frontiers on the planet.’ But this, as anyone who had visited his office knew well, came with a caveat. On the door was a souvenir from America, a sticker that read, ‘Warning: beware of the architect.’

Claude parent

Claude parent

This piece is featured in the AR April 2019 issue on Oceans – click here to purchase your copy today