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Jean Dubuffet: architect without walls

The pioneer of Art Brut was a prolific architect, designing countless richly patterned structures that rejected the Modernist grid

It’s hard to believe that this self-described ‘anti-cultural’ artist and writer would try his hand at an art so essentially connected with structure, tradition, and permanency. Dubuffet’s postwar aesthetic, which sought to rehabilitate mud, rubble and base materiality, seems to represent the very antithesis of modern architecture’s transparency, geometry, and modularity. 

Yet, as evinced by a number of recent exhibitions and publications – Maquettes for Monuments by Jean Dubuffet (Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, 2001-2002), Dubuffet architecte (Palais des Archêques, Narbonne, 2008), Jean Dubuffet: Monumental Sculpture from the Hourloupe Cycle (PaceWildenstein, New York, 2008), Daniel Abadie’s catalog Dubuffet as Architect (Paris, 2011) which accompanied a show that travelled to Hovikodden, Norway, Lund, Sweden, and Brussels, Belgium, as well as an English edition of the artist’s Writings on Sculpture (Düsseldorf, 2011) – Dubuffet was not only a practicing architect, he was a successful one as well. 

A friend of Le Corbusier’s and erstwhile collaborator of the likes of Gordon Bunshaft, IM Pei, Helmut Jahn, and Marcel Breuer, he was, in June of 1982, the recipient of The American Institute of Architects annual Medal of Honour, the only major award the artist did not refuse in his lifetime. The AIA’s President Robert M Lawrence explained that Dubuffet’s ‘works provide not only scale, focus, color and texture but clear insights into the nature of the architecture they complement – its space, volume, structure and surface – blending architecture and sculpture into a single entity.’1 Dubuffet admitted he was ‘especially moved’ by this award and hoped his work would ‘inspire architecture to explore rich possibilities where we would begin to see new structures from which symmetry, rectilinear elements, and right angles would be excluded.’2

‘How can a purely mental invention become an actual three-dimensional physical entity, which one can occupy?’

Dubuffet’s architectural projects emerged out of his longest and most recognisable phase, L’Hourloupe (1962-1974).  This ‘interminable script,’ which resembles a jigsaw puzzle made of black outlined cells filled in with a limited palette of white, red and blue, was purportedly inspired by the artist’s haphazard doodles on a notepad next to his telephone. The Hourloupe gradually morphed from spontaneous scribbles, to magic marker drawings, to a ‘texte en jargon’ book (1963), to paintings, to a card game (the Banque de L’Hourloupe, 1966), to painted reliefs (eg Logos II, 1966), to architectural maquettes (eg Tour aux Figures, 1968), to the ‘expanded field’ of free-standing painted sculpture (eg The Gossiper II, 1969), to stage design (eg Coucou Bazar, 1973), and finally, to full-blown architectural environments (Closerie Falbala, 1971-1976).

Dubuffet’s move toward architecture was given a push in 1965 when he was commissioned, with Minister of Culture André Malraux’s approval, to create two large site-specific murals for the new Arts Faculty Building at the University of Nanterre. This inspired the artist to research new materials, work on a larger scale, think in three dimensions, and collaborate with other specialists. He first worked on ceramic reliefs with Roland Brice (who had carried out projects for Leger), and then experimented with enameled concretes with the sculptor Amado, light resins and thermo-formed plastics with the technician François Cante-Pacos, and finally, was introduced to the possibilities of plastic resins and polystyrene by Jean-André Cante and Gérard Singer.

The architectural projects that were eventually realised are by now well-known: Group of Four Trees [Groupe de quatre abres] (1972) in the Chase Manhattan Plaza in New York; Enamel Garden [Jardin d’émail] (1973-74) at the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands; Villa and Small Estate Falbala [Villa et Closerie Falbala] (1969-1975) at Périgny-on-Yerres in the Valley-of-Marne; Monument with Phantom [Monument aux fantôme] (1983) in Houston; Monument with Standing Beast [Monument à la bête debout] in Chicago (1984); Tower with Figures [Tour aux Figures] (1988) at Issy-les-Moulineaux, a suburb of Paris; The Small Wood [Le Boqueteau] (1988) at a ski resort in Flaine, Haute-Savoire; and Boiler Room with Chimney [Chaufferie avec cheminée] (1996) in Vitry-on-Seine.


Enamel Garden (1973-74) at the Museum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo. Source: Wikimedia Commons

From these it is possible to generalise six key characteristics of Dubuffet’s architecture (in addition to its non-Euclidian and anti-rectilinear givens):

1. It calls into question the divide between monumental sculpture and architecture, and, as such, perhaps stands as evidence of a ‘sculpture architecture complex’ in advance of today’s ‘art-architecture complex.’3

2. It rejects the idea of the monumental base or foundation and foregoes the idea of place or site specificity. It is, in a sense, ‘wandering’ architecture, as Hubert Damisch has called it.4 Gilles Deleuze, likewise argues that it ‘overtakes monadology with nomadology.’5

3. It emerges from a combination of the traditional architectural plan and elevation. The realized projects often resemble a verticalisation of the horizontal rendering, and vice versa – precisely what Geneviève Bonnefoi, foreshadowing Manfredo Tafuri, referred to as the ‘wall and the labyrinth’ effect.6

4. It is not anthropomorphically inspired. Nor is the human body invited to interact with it. There’s no kitchen, no fireplace, no running water, no furniture — with the exception of the Chambre au lit sous l’arbre [Bedroom with Bed under a Tree] (1970), which contains an uneven bed and table. These items, however, are as unusable as the artist’s earlier hourloupian ‘utopic utensils’ [utensiles utopiques].

5. It contains few, if any windows – which, according to Dubuffet’s friend Louis Soutter (Le Corbusier’s artist cousin and alter-ego), are architecture’s ‘useless eyes.’7

6. It is often located on the peripheries of cities, and as such, blurs boundaries between the metropolis and the suburbs. If it is set in a more rural setting, its artificiality contrasts with its natural surroundings. If it is located in a metropolis area, it appears antithetically organic compared to the urban grid dominated by rectilinear architectural structures.

‘Only a very small percentage of Dubuffet’s architectural works were ever realised. He seemed quite okay with this, in fact it may have been the whole point’

Seeing his architectural projects in their completed state baffled Dubuffet, as they hypostatised a philosophical conundrum that the artist continually explored; namely, how can a purely mental invention become an actual three-dimensional physical entity, which one can occupy? For Dubuffet it was like an imaginary snail growing a real shell, or as he put it, when ‘you constitute your mental creations in such a way as to actually inhabit them, to make them your surroundings and, in short, your world secreted by yourself, then what you get is the mind working in a closed-circuit.’8

Of those projects eventually built noteworthy is the time lag between Dubuffet’s conception of them and their realization. Many were completed posthumously. Others were famously started and aborted, such as the Jigsaw Tower [Tour de Chantourne], which Dubuffet began in 1972 as part of the Art and Technology Program sponsored by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Dubuffet abandoned it, as was often the case, over the issue of authorship, that is, the very wording of the contract: ‘I want to be the donor, which in fact will be according to reality and as such just opposite to the wording of the contract you have sent me in which the author of the monument, strangely enough, was considered as receiving a gift.’9 Other projects that were started but never finished include: Scriptuary Site [Site Scripturaire] (1973) in the centre of La Défense in Paris, Summer Salon [Salon d’été] (1974) for the Headquarters of the Renault Corporation in Billancourt, and Welcome Parade (1974) in front of Pei’s East wing of the National Gallery in Washington, DC.

In fact only a very small percentage of Dubuffet’s architectural works were ever realised. The artist seemed quite okay with this, in fact it may have been the whole point — as it was in the case of the unrealisable architectural projects dreamt up by many of the art brut artists Dubuffet so admired, or those by Claes Oldenburg who, at the same time, was conceiving of his impossible Proposed Colossal Monuments in America.

Group of Four Trees

Group of Four Trees (1972) in the Chase Manhattan Plaza, New York. Source: Padraic/Flickr

In ‘Dubuffet dans le ventre de la mère architecture’ [‘Dubuffet in the Womb of Mother Architecture’] (1969), one of the first intelligent articles on Dubuffet’s architectural projects, critic Marcel Cornu emphasizes its anti-functionalism above all else. Further, he observes that it does not subjugate itself to the limits of the possibilities of construction; it represents the liberation of architecture as a conceptual art, and demonstrates the edifice as a ‘plastic idea.’ Cornu argues that Dubuffet ‘formulates his imagination with architecture;’ his architecture is not a ‘machine for living in,’ but rather ‘a chateau for dreams.’ And he describes Tower with Figures [Tour aux figures] as a ‘24-meter home for one inhabitant, Dubuffet,’ who is for Cornu ‘a 1968 version of Jean des Esseintes’, the reclusive character in Joris-Karl Huysmans’ novel, Against The Grain.10 A few days after it was published, Dubuffet praised Cornu in a letter to the author: ‘You said it extremely well… The architecture of our time is dismaying – completely devoid of imagination.’11

Cornu’s article was written in response to the exhibition, Jean Dubuffet, Édifices at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris (1968-1969), which marked the public debut of Dubuffet’s transition to architecture. The accompanying book, Edifices (1968), written by Dubuffet, was ready before the exhibition. Indeed, it had already been translated into English by Teri Wehn in preparation for Dubuffet’s earlier show Jean Dubuffet at the Museum of Modern Art (New York, 1968). The show that Cornu saw featured this book and a few maquettes, but nothing was actually built yet.  

‘Dubuffet’s architecture ultimately begins and ends with the book’

Architecture for the imagination, architecture of the imagination? Architecture en papier, which exists in its fullest form only in a book? Additional questions arise: do Dubuffet’s larger authorial, literary, and publishing aspirations subsume his architectural endeavors? Can we think of Dubuffet’s architecture imaginaire in relation to Malraux’s musée imaginaire, that great postwar literary project which, with help of photographic reproductions of works of art (or, in his words, ‘fictive works of art’), presents the world’s masterpieces in a three-volume book?12

As Denis Hollier has shown, architecture did not, and could not, fit into Malraux’s imaginary museum because it does not lend itself to photographic decontextualisation; the actual monuments resist detachment from their geographical surroundings, their anchoring in reality, and as such, only refer to real spaces outside the book. How would it be possible for architecture enter into the imaginary museum? Hollier writes: ‘It would require an architecture that would be able not to take place, that would be able both to happen and not to find a place, an architecture that would be able to be cut off from its premises … The most literal way for an architectural work not to take place remains its failure to reach its destination, in other words, to exist only on paper, that is, in theory.’13

Or, in other words, it would have to be a species of theoretical architecture that exists only in the book. Dubuffet’s architecture ultimately begins and ends with the book, first in Edifices, and then in volumes 20 to 27 (1972-1974), and 31 (1981) of his multi-volume Catalogue des travaux (1966-1991), a kind of musée imaginaire he dedicated to himself.  

Welcome Parade

The playful figures used in the sculpture The Welcome Parade (1974) in front of Pei’s East Wing of the Washington DC National Gallery. Source: Yann Caradec/Flickr

Like Malraux, Dubuffet’s prime medium was photography. However, there is one major difference between their two projects. Dubuffet strategically inserts photomontages – or ‘fake (truqueés) photographs’ of his architecture into these books; indeed, one graces the cover of Edifices.14 Via photomontage Dubuffet’s imaginary architecture is situated in real spaces. By the reverse logic of its exclusion from Malraux’s musée imaginare, architecture enters into Dubuffet’s books.

To fully understand the historical context of Dubuffet’s paper architecture it is necessary to fast-forward from Malraux the author of Musée imaginare to Malraux, the Minister of Culture (1959-1969), who was busy cleaning and repointing the most important architectural structures in France and creating a network of maisons de la culture across the country in hopes of decentralising culture and making it popularly accessible; doing for it what Jules Ferry did for education in the 19th century.15

The same year Edifices appeared Dubuffet also published Asphyxiating Culture [Culture Asphyxiante], a thinly veiled diatribe against Malraux, and official state sponsored culture, which the artist describes in overtly architectural terms; culture takes the ‘same hierarchical form as the Church in the olden days, that is, a well-structured pyramid, a vertical arrangement.’ The best antidote to this, posits Dubuffet, is the conscientious strategy of the horizontalisation and dispersal of culture: ‘creative thought would gain strength and health in the form of horizontal proliferation, in an infinitely diversified expansion.’16

Tour Ballerine

Tour Ballerine (1974) Source: Yann Caradec/Flickr

Dubuffet, who had already in a 1956 radio interview with Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes called for the erection of an immense monument in every town square celebrating Forgetting [L’Oblivion],17 finds an ingenious way of subverting Malraux’s attempts to protect, eternalise, and popularise France’s national treasures, cultural heritage, and architectural patrimonie. By overseeing, publishing and distributing a series of books that amount to an imaginary museum of his own conceptual architecture, Dubuffet, the author as architect, the author as producer, replaces France’s history with his own.

In 2007 Catherine de Smet published her fascinating study, Le Corbusier, Vers une architecture du livre. Students, scholars and practicing architects alike would benefit from a similar book-length study dedicated to Dubuffet, l’architecture et le livre.


[1] The award was announced in Memo. The Newsletter of the American Institute of Architects, no. 622 (March 19, 1982); reprinted in Jean Dubuffet, Prospectus et tous écrits suivants, vol. IV (Paris: Gallimard, 1995), p 636.

[2] Dubuffet, letter to AIA President Robert M. Lawrence, in Prospectus IV, p 421.

[3] Cf., Hal Foster, The Art-Architecture Complex (London: Verso, 2013).

[4] Hubert Damisch, ‘The Offense of Wandering,’ Anymore (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), pp 78-85.

[5] Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p 137.

[6] Geneviève Bonnefoi, ‘Sculptures, murs et demeures pour un nouveau Minotaure,’ XXe Siècle 32 (June 1969), pp 17-28.

[7] Quoted in Le Corbusier, ‘Louis Sutter [sic], l’inconnu de la soixantaine,’ Minotaure 9 (October 1936), pp 62-65.

[8] Dubuffet, ‘Maquettes,’ note for a television broadcast of ‘L’homme en question,’ which aired November 17, 1977, Prospectus III, pp 513-514; translated in Writings on Sculpture (Düsseldorf: Richter Verlag 2011), pp 47-8.

[9] Maurice Tuchman, ed, A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art and New York: Viking Press, 1971), p 94.

[10] Marcel Cornu, ‘Dubuffet dans le ventre de la mère architecture,’ Les Lettres Francaises (January 8, 1969), p 24.

[11] Dubuffet, letter to Marcel Cornu, dated January 12, 1969, in Prospectus III, pp 497-8.

[12] For more on Dubuffet and Malraux’s relationship see, Jean-Paul Crespelle, ‘Dubuffet and Malraux,’ France-Soir (December 24, 1960); Jacques Michel,  ‘M. Malraux, Jean Dubuffet, et l’art brut,’ Le Monde (September 15, 1967), p 11; Julien Dieudonné, ‘Dubuffet l’accusateur: le dialogue Malraux – Dubuffet,’ in Anissa B. Chami, ed, Quêtes d’un idéal humain et de valeurs transcendantes (Casablanca: A. Retnani  édition - La croisée des chemins, 2006), pp 237-253; Baptiste Brun, “Musée imaginaire de Jean Dubuffet? Réflexions sur la documentation photographique dans les archives de la Collection de l’Art Brut,” Cahiers de l’École du Louvre. Recherches en histoire de l’art, histoire des civilisations, archéologie, anthropologie et muséologie 1 (Septembre 2012) [].

[13] Denis Hollier, ‘On Paper,’ in Anymore (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), p 61.

[14] Dubuffet, Letter to Francoise Choay, dated November 29, 1967. Here Dubuffet admits that he is making some ‘for his up coming little publication (Edifices).’ Prospectus III, pp 496-497. For a history of photomontage in architecture in the previous decades see, Andres Lepik, ‘Mies and Photomontage, 1910-38,’ in Barry Bergdoll and Terence Riley, eds, Mies in Berlin (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2002), pp 324-329.

[15] Rosalind Krauss, ‘The Ministry of Fate,’ in Denis Hollier, ed, A New History of French Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), pp 1000-1006; and Dominique Hervier, ed, André Malraux et l’architecture (Paris: Éditions du Moniteur, 2008). Interestingly, at the very end of his tenure as Minister of Culture Malraux had a work of art brut architecture, the Facteur Cheval’s Palais Idéal, categorised as a national historic monument.

[16] Jean Dubuffet, Asphyxiating Culture and Other Writings, translated by Carol Volk (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1988), p 10.

[17] Jean Dubuffet, ‘Radio Interview with Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes’ (September 5, 1956), Prospectus II, pp 204-210; translated into English in Valérie da Costa and Fabrice Hergott, Jean Dubuffet: Works, Writings, Interviews (Barcelona: Ediciones Poligrafa, 2006), p 135.

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