There’s something dark and paradoxical about Parent’s view of the world
Claude Parent is an appealing figure. Now aged 87, his collaborations with artists including Yves Klein and Jean Tinguely, and the cultural theorist Paul Virilio, are inspiring for those of us who think there’s not much point to architecture if it always stays within its own boundaries. We can envy a time when a theorising architect such as he could be given free rein to design shopping centres and power stations.
So it was fitting that the Cité de l’Architecture et Patrimoine in Paris should have held an exhibition of his work, well resourced with archival material. In an installation designed by Parent’s ex-employee Jean Nouvel, it revealed a restless, exploratory imagination. Often architects’ exhibitions present their work as a long march to the inevitable conclusion of their mature style. The Parent show had dead ends and digressions, and material ranging from photographs, analytical drawings and videos to his big, sweeping drawings, in steep perspective, of semi-abstract urban visions. The latter, in my humble opinion, are bombastic and puerile, but they’re all part of the story.
The exhibition revealed the early Parent as a skilled maker of rectangular modernism, often with a frisson of peril, such as an unusually vertiginous gangway. From here he grew into his next phase as pioneer of inversion and dislocation, as in his Maison André Bloc in Cap d’Antibes of 1962. This pulls apart and reassembles the elements of a house, and layers inside over outside space, long before Peter Eisenman and Rem Koolhaas started playing similar games in their own ways. Working with Jean Tinguely, Parent also came up with the Lunatour proposal of 1964, a sign-strewn structure that parallels some of the ideas Archigram was beginning to produce at the same time.
But it is his work of the later 1960s and early ’70s that most commands attention. Here he set about challenging the boundaries of architecture, both through a series of cultural actions such as a billboard campaign, and disrupting the orthogonal geometry of his early work with free-form curves. Most famously he, with Virilio, came up with the idea of the fonction oblique: the notion that more free, open and flowing networks of inhabitation could be created if the traditional dominance of horizontal and vertical divisions were replaced by diagonal and oblique planes.
This work could be described purely in terms of the sunny ideas of liberation that existed at the time, but this would be too simple. There’s something darker and more paradoxical about Parent’s view of the world, manifest in his unsettling Church of Saint Bernadette in Nevers, France, and the fact that he would later embrace the chance to design something as un-hippy as nuclear power stations.
’At the centre of Parent’s work is an apparent naivety or flaw, which lies in the literalness with which he translates a theoretical concept into architectural form. This is most obvious with the fonction oblique: if the theory of the oblique is liberating, the creation of fixed pieces of architecture at unusual angles can become the opposite’
Images of the interiors Parent created according to this theory, including his own home, show people perched on their slopes, awkward and constrained and, to all appearances, very much un-free. The liberation the architect experiences in disrupting traditional patterns is not necessarily transmitted to the users, it seems.
The interest of Parent is not quite what it might first appear: it is not exactly in his ability to translate art and theory into architecture. It lies more in his adventures as a player of both form and ideas, and in the failures and mismatches of his attempts to bring them together, as well as the successes. Among the most striking projects are the shopping centres he designed in the late 1960s. Here the rhetoric of the empowering oblique was frozen into forbidding concrete, utterly at odds with the bovine happiness proposed by the retail content. Astonishing confrontations of ideologies, they could be called either critical architecture or a series of spatial car crashes.
Claude Parent, Architectural Work, Graphic Work
Where: Cite de l’Architecture et Patrimoine, Paris, France
When: Closed 2 May