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Odile Decq wins the 2016 Jane Drew Prize: ‘I’m still at war - there’s so much to fight for’

Antti Lovag Bubble House Odile Decq

A creative powerhouse, spirited breaker of rules and a vocal advocate of equality

Odile jpg

Odile jpg

Read any recent article on Odile Decq in the French mainstream press and you’ll find a certain bellicose vocabulary that always crops up: combat, rebel, warrior, strong-willed, fighting, and such like. It’s not just her appearance (more on that later) that inspires these epithets, for she herself has done much to promote her image as an indefatigable guerrière. 

Born in 1955, the fifth of seven children, Decq was brought up in the charming but tiny town of Laval, in the Mayenne department of France, just east of her parents’ native Brittany. To hear her tell it, her rebellion began at an early age and first expressed itself through the traditionally feminine activity of sewing: as her parents refused to buy her jeans – clearly not the kind of garment that a well-brought up girl from a provincial bourgeois Catholic family should be wearing – she made her own. When she was 12 they had to lock her in her bedroom, she says, to stop her taking part in the events of May 1968, and the inevitable crise d’adolescence that followed saw her thrown out of every school in town. She passed her baccalauréat by the skin of her teeth, and then came the crunch – what was she going to do with her life? 

Antti Lovag Bubble House Interior Odile Decq

Antti Lovag Bubble House Interior Odile Decq

Source: Yves Gellie for the Maison Bernard endowment fund

Interior of Maison Bernard, renovation of Antti Lovag Bubble House, Théoule

‘Be an architect,’ she declared. 

‘Impossible,’ said her father, ‘there are no girls in architecture.’ Spurred on by patriarchal opposition, she eventually ended up at what is now the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris La Villette. Back then it was one of the unités pédagogiques founded in the wake of the post-’68 collapse of the Beaux-Arts teaching system, with former Maoist revolutionaries such as Roland Castro and Jean-Pierre Le Dantec among its staff. 

‘Impossible,’ said her father, ‘there are no girls in architecture’ 

Politics played a prominent role, with the result that the school was constantly on strike. It was therefore largely elsewhere, Decq insists, that she learned architecture:  with theorist Philippe Boudon, for whom she worked as  a research assistant to pay her way through school; with friends employed by architect Alain Sarfati, who taught her to draw axonometrics when, in her third year, she still didn’t know how; at Sciences Po, where she studied urbanism after finishing her diploma; and as a practising architect after founding her firm in 1978.

Fangshan Tangshan National Geopark Museum Studio Odile Decq aerial view 2

Fangshan Tangshan National Geopark Museum Studio Odile Decq aerial view 2

Source: Studio Odile Decq

Fangshan Tangshan National Geopark Museum, Nanjing

Asked ‘Which city are you?’ in a recent interview, she unhesitatingly replied ‘London’. For it was there in the 1980s that she forged her professional persona. With Benoît Cornette, her then partner in both life and work (who was tragically killed in a 1998 car accident), she would spend every weekend on the King’s Road, pogoing  in the mosh pit of the indie Goth scene. But not only. For it was also the beginnings of Canary Wharf, whose building sites fascinated the young architects, and inspired in Decq her love of steel. 

‘I don’t like concrete,’ she laughs. ‘It’s dusty and it’s dirty! It’s less precise. I prefer steel. I prefer the articulation,  the construction, the structure. I prefer to imagine the structure and the manner of construction at the same time as I imagine the space – that is something you do with steel but you can’t with concrete.’ 

Confluence architecture school Lyon Odile Decq

Confluence architecture school Lyon Odile Decq

Source: Roland Halbe

Confluence Architecture School, Lyon

Yet another Oedipal rebellion – this time against la France bétonneuse, the land whose construction industry couldn’t make the Centre Pompidou (it was manufactured by Krupp), the homeland of François Hennebique, Freyssinet, Auguste Perret, Bouygues and Lafarge − pioneers, champions and tsars of reinforced concrete. 

‘Perhaps it’s fitting that her star sign is Cancer, the crab: spiky and defensive without, soft and sensitive within’

It was also in 1980s London that Decq began her love affair with black − ‘A hard drug: once you’re hooked there’s no going back’ − and developed her I’m-with-the-band, Siouxsie Sioux look (which even extends to her choice of vehicle − a classic black Mini). Perhaps it’s fitting that her star sign is Cancer, the crab: spiky and defensive without, soft and sensitive within. It’s a description that also seems apposite for many of her buildings. 

The first one to bring her attention was the Banque Populaire de l’Ouest in Rennes (1990, and today threatened with demolition), whose riot of cable-tensed double glazing (developed with Peter Rice) was pioneering at the time. Later in the decade came a Golden Lion at Venice (1996) and projects such as her rakish Nanterre motorway bridge and control centre (also 1996). The turn of the millennium saw a gear shift to bigger and more complex buildings in which the mature Decq blossomed, beginning with the MACRO contemporary art museum in Rome (2001–10), whose hard external shell of shiny black glass hides a beating red heart within its industrial-chic spatial complexities. A similar approach governs another large art gallery, the Frac Bretagne in Rennes (2012), as well as her headquarters for GL Events in Lyon (2014), while the Fangshan Tangshan National Geopark Museum in Nanjing, China (completed last year), swirls in sensuous white contours in response to its green and hilly site.

The Cargo incubator building  Paris Odile Decq

The Cargo incubator building Paris Odile Decq

Source: Roland Halbe

The Cargo Incubator Building, Paris

For Decq there is no ideal programme: each new project is a challenge and an adventure. And a large part of the adventure has been teaching. She refused to do it at  the beginning, feeling she should forgo the financial crutch it represents and first prove herself as practitioner. But after 10 years she began to dip her toe in the water as  an international visiting lecturer, before joining the staff of Paris’s École Spéciale d’Architecture (ESA) in 1992. 

In 2007, she was elected ESA’s director, a post she held for five years, before finally quitting in frustration. ‘Why not make it happen my way?’, she thought afterwards. This led her to establish her very own international school in Lyon, which opened  in 2014. Baptised Confluence: Institute  for Innovation and Creative Strategies in Architecture, it seeks to promote experimentation and transdisciplinarity,  and is housed in a former market building beautifully converted by Decq herself. Viewed with hostility by some  in France, Confluence aims to shake up the status quo.  If it succeeds − and its battles are only just beginning −  it will ensure that her influence on the discipline, and on future generations of architects, will be considerable.  ‘I’m still at war,’ says Decq, ‘there’s so much to fight for …’ 

DSC 7674

DSC 7674


The judges praised Decq as a creative powerhouse, spirited breaker of rules and a vocal advocate of equality.