PRINT May 1996


Café Beaubourg’s indisputable victory over Café Costes—once the ne plus ultra of the ultra-now, today a Naf Naf boutique—constitutes a Parisian cautionary tale of contemporary architecture. A decade ago, in the environs of the Centre Pompidou, Philippe Starck’s Café Costes is what you “discussed”; Christian de Portzamparc’s Café Beaubourg was where you went. The consensus then, as now, favors such outmoded values as comfort, calm, and civility. Countering Starck’s insolent playfulness, Portzamparc had cannily displaced a tried-and-true model: salon-style seating in two column-protected aisles and gallery above, main drag down the nave, entrance on the transverse—a Via Veneto nestled and hushed in a sleek, soundproof cathedral. Conversation was possible, even concentration. That this concentration could be amplified a hundred-fold by the same architect within the imposing ellipsoid proportions of a major concert hall (Cité de la Musique)—whose modulability is actually a visual relief, the chromatic light displays of its acoustic niches oddly dignified and appeasing—nonetheless seemed scarcely imaginable. For, such virulently anti-Modernist commentators as Paolo Portoghesi had been quick to assimilate Portzamparc into a post-Modern still perceived as cut-and-paste. The stigma stuck. Only the Cité de la Musique, an eleven-year-long acid test with attendant creative chain-reactions elsewhere, would at least reveal a more singular identity in the making. The result: a Pritzker prize and a spring 1996 retrospective at the Centre Pompidou.

From the beginning, however, it was apparent that Portzamparc had several distinct merits. He instinctively junked classical citation and made a conscientious effort to loosen post-Modern “constipation”—the unwritten rule, so evident in the ’70s, that if you wanted to jumble registers and scale, you had to squeeze and stiffen. During the years when Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter were advancing ideas that would culminate in their 1978 book Collage City, Portzamparc was also leaping with celerity on the need to invert positive and negative values, to open spaces in both the edifice and in the city. All this was legible in his attention-snatching project to insert an airy “islet” into Paris’ sleazy Roquette/ Bastille quarter in 1974, which established Portzamparc as one of France’s more humane urban architects. But his much discussed Water Tower at Marne-la-Vallée, designed in 1971 when he was 27, still stands as the watershed. The piezometer, dissimulated by a rising heliocoïdal trellis, was built as a monument to the “ville nouvelle” to come. In its form, however, it evoked Babel and the young architect’s recognition that the language of late 20th-century architecture would be irrevocably polyglot, its mode of choice, monumentality. If the now completed Cité de la Musique is a success, this success resides fully in the imposition of an urban paradigm that permits the complex to be not only polyglot in itself but marked, ever so explicitly, by the very basis of architectural experience: the itinerary.

The Portzamparc paradox is this: with his own brand of scrambled Modernese, he occupies an improbable middle ground between an eclectic post-Modern, such as Charles Jencks first announced it, and the nuts-and-bolts of so-called deconstructivist experimentation, borrowing from and nullifying each of them. Call it an eclectic Modernism or a formalism of disparities. The “detachable pieces” so evident in his work will never “levitate,” in accordance with Fredric Jameson’s post-Modern rule, as a “sign” of architecture, nor will they seemingly teeter and totter, as in a Coop Himmelblau demonstration of instability. Instead they render theoretical buzzwords—such as “between-the-two,” “spacing,” “difference,” “de-centering,” “grid,” “stratification”—literal, thereby decontextualizing and deproblematizing them in the name of “form.” While the edifice, as we know too well, is foundering in its conceptual baselessness, Portzamparc takes to his drawing pad and “thinks with forms,” impervious to what he calls the “diversionary tactic” implicit in Rem Koolhaas’ gigantic cubic library and other such language-spawned curveballs. In a sense, this stance is unattackable. Once there’s a site, and a program, and a budget, and a green light to boot, the question of form’s legitimacy plays itself out in an architectural realpolitik.

Lauren Sedofsky

LAUREN SEDOFSKY: Does the explosion of the unitary and uniform architectural object sum up your work?

CHRISTIAN DE PORTZAMPARC: My point of view can be summed up by Lao-Tzu: my house is not the wall, or the floor, or the roof, but the emptiness between. It must be possible to create this “between-the-two”—spacing, the void, the concave—both in an edifice and in the city. Modern urbanism has often forgotten or rejected it. When I did my first projects, critics said, Portzamparc thinks emptiness can still be a modern value. It was an unwritten rule that the “between-the-two” was past history, but for me it remained universal, timeless. That explains the explosion, separation, subdivision, fragmentation you find in my work. I was trying to open the spaces between things and offer the attendant emotional experience.

LS: You conceive of architecture as an assemblage of distinct, disparate, contradictory, detachable pieces. What led you to this imprint of what you call “heterogeneity”?

CdP: I don’t like being confined to this definition, lest it become a kind of key to my work. When I do a tower, as in Lille [an office building that extends over the train station] or in Bandai [a structure that includes apartments and offices], I do a large unitary form of 100 meters that’s not subdivided.

LS: But the Lille Tower, though unitary, is a highly irregular consolidation of forms. And the Bandai facade is composed of three distinct forms that constitute a thin layer of a building, which is linked to two other disparate elements behind.

CdP: It’s true. Yet I often try to begin differently. At Fukuoka [a city in Japan where architect Arata Isozaki planned an apartment complex, inviting a number of architects to build individual structures] I arrived with a plan for a simple, linear, unitary building at the side of the road. But the Japanese wanted southern exposure for all the apartments. So I was forced to reorient the building in pieces. They even authorized me to assemble the pieces in the garden behind. Then they said, Very good, that’s much more Portzamparc. They wanted me to caricature myself.

LS: Are you trying, like some contemporary architects, to efface your signature?

CdP: I’ve never wanted to erect the detachable pieces into a system, although in the ’80s I had my students work on this theme. I try to escape from this schema when I can. At the outset, there was the pleasure of opening space. The closed mass has an impenetrable, mysterious, seductive otherness. What interested me was to provide the points of penetration where space enters and exits.

The city today is a zoo with a wide variety of animals. Harmony through homogeneity was a classical value still present in the Modernist image of the city. Now, wherever a city is in the process of transforming itself, this paradigm no longer holds. Styles change rapidly; they differ from architect to architect. Anywhere in the world, anything can be done. This opens a new, difficult period for architecture. The idea that the city will inevitably be heterogeneous forced me to confront the invention of a new poetics of contrast, a harmony of differences.

LS: So you view your constructions as microcosms of heterogeneity?

CdP: Yes, the experience of contrasts at the core of my architecture show what I was learning about this developing reality. For Fukuoka, Isozaki told each architect to do as he pleased, with no knowledge of what the others were doing. That pushed me to do three very different things—perhaps to the point of exaggeration. You might think they were done by three different architects; it’s like a mixed salad, but the whole neighborhood would be a mixed salad, unified by its differences: the neighborhood of the future.

LS: Your work is both sober and overwrought—a mass of detachable pieces, relatively pure in themselves. How and to what extent does this become a whole or is this a refusal of the whole?

CdP: No, the whole is a requirement. Venturi wrote very well about it. But the whole can be weak or strong, that is, subtle, with the parts struggling against it.

LS: You speak of your works in terms of subtraction, the void, the crevice, the broken corner, but your buildings look more like the result of an additive process.

CdP: I don’t experience it as additive but rather as the difference between the forms.

LS: The term “modern baroque” has been applied to your work because of these differences, not to mention your use of a spiral into the decentered concert hall’s ellipse in the plan for the Cité de la Musique, or the spiral staircases you’ve used elsewhere.

CdP: It’s quite possible. But that term lends itself to confusion. I’ve done spirals and ellipses in the expectation of doing a Möbius ring. I’m moving toward the moment when we’ll be able to quit Cartesian coordinates. The ellipse is an extremely subtle form, with two axes, the perception of which changes with your position. We haven’t lived much in ellipses.

LS: What were you trying to achieve with the Möbius ring experiments, in the Nara International Convention Hall, 1992, and the Bandai Tower, if not a way to dispense with detachable pieces?

CdP: An interior that would give the impossible sensation of not being closed. At Nara, since it’s a concert hall, the interior has to be closed, but the space should give the impression of being infinite. It’s a wave whose bottom is its top, and you’re like a surfer on and under the wave. It’s a form that dilates perception. With no angles, not only do we lose a sense of finitude, but also of vertical and horizontal. All together, this could provoke uneasiness. But you’re right to say that these experiments in limits can spawn a tendency.

LS: For the Bandai Tower, you abandoned the idea of a Möbius ring but it left its traces.

CdP: I began with the idea of simply enlarging the acoustic niches in the main concert hall of the Cité de la Musique into a large-scale colored-light phenomenon, and of letting the chromatic changes and movement provoke a sensorial experience. On a large scale, the acoustic niche’s rectangular form proved too symmetrical, too rigid. The project then passed through several monstrous shell-like shapes. This was necessary for its elaboration and returned to some extent in the LVMH [Louis Vuitton Moët Chandon Hennessy] Tower in New York.

LS: What motivated the colored light in the concert hall’s niches?

CdP: The niches constitute a contemporary equivalent of Renaissance veduti: windows onto somewhere outside the hall. Where a frame breaks the wall, light becomes color, suggesting an indeterminate depth. For the Bandai Tower, it’s a question of color in the night, a pictorial sensation.

LS: Evoking an animism.

CdP: You’re right! Something that comes from inside the form. I’ve never thought of this before: looking at coral reefs in the sea, you emerge with the impression that real life is there. Our world, palm trees, sky, earth, even flowers, is monotone and poverty-stricken compared to these changing colors, things that open, chromatic movement.

LS: Explain the inside/outside relations at the Cité de la Musique.

CdP: Where music is heard and requires insulation, you’re inside. In the park and the city, you’re really outside. Between the two, there is a luminous, transparent network, with a glass roof or no roof, so that it’s at once inside and outside.

LS: Passages with a view—of your structure.

CdP: Absolutely.

LS: In ’83, you published “La Spatialité n’est plus interdite” (Spatiality is no longer prohibited), a manifesto for open space. From your early project for Paris’ Roquette quarter to your recent design for the National Museum of Korea in Seoul, you’ve interpreted open space as an interior court, a rather traditional solution.

CdP: Exactly. But, at the Roquette the angles are open and there are openings elsewhere. Without wanting to, perhaps, I’ve always practiced this double gesture of holding a clearly perceptible emptiness and of opening a part to see further.

For the museum in Seoul, there’s a large central park and a river that sometimes inundates it. I wanted the extensive museum gallery to float over the park, so that visitors could not only see beneath the gallery but circulate under it. It’s not a gigantic obstacle in the middle of the park.

LS: It’s a firmly closed rectangular frame.

CdP: I recognized the necessity for the museum to remain a central symbol in the central park of a city, a symbol of the ancestral culture of Korea as a whole. The overall form had to be easily grasped. I managed to give it a form simpler than a rectangle—an island that can be crossed. The notion of a court is rather special. When you’re in it, you look out of it through the four distant piles.

LS: Why are you a proponent of the “grid,” even in your land development projects?

CdP: Since ’78 I’ve worked with the urban “islet,” because it’s my answer to claustrophobia or the need to breathe, as well as to a contemporary aspiration. Relative enclosure is acceptable in a historic quarter. Faced with a plurality of architectures today, merely to glue them together in rows is a regressive gesture, a treatment of the facade. This leads me to the open “islet,” open spatially, not only to the light inside, but to the different forms, configurations, materials. The grid becomes a way to install the “islet,” to create the “between-the-two,” with the “street” (not the traditional street) being a collective public space “between” private spaces. I can imagine achieving this with nonrectangular forms, but that’s a secondary issue. The American city is perhaps the best example of the grid and gives us a lesson in openness.

LS: The “clear edges” or “maximal tension” between nature and the constructed, so evident in your work, suggests that the “hetero” doesn’t extend to landscape.

CdP: Quite the contrary. If you don’t place a divide between the constructed and the nonconstructed, you no longer have either city, or construction, or nature, just an undifferentiated expanse.

LS: The Villette Conservatory’s massive, tilted cornice whispers Le Corbusier. Ditto, the lateral wing—an ocean liner with an undulating roof—as well as the pilotis for the NEC (Nouvelle Equipement Culturelle) in Rennes and the new facade of the Palais des Congrès. Does Le Corbusier still weigh on you?

CdP: Of course. We have a classical, primitive heritage, as well as a Modern one, even in our construction procedures. Before us, there was Le Corbusier, Auguste Perret, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright. I think I’ve digested, criticized, loved, and tried to come to terms with this heritage. Obviously, Le Corbusier wouldn’t recognize himself in the way the Villette Conservatory is fixed to the ground. Certainly, no citation was intended.

LS: Yet at the NEC, you harness the flamboyantly irregular forms with an austere parallelepiped.

CdP: Actually, I designed the parallelepiped first, then tried to break it open. But I’ve always been interested in introducing oppositions between regular and irregular forms. And Modernism’s presence seems to me inevitable. It’s present in the work of every architect I know. Where form is concerned, nothing comes from nothing.

LS: You often employ decentered fragments of geometric shapes. Don’t they attain the status of citation?

CdP: Well, of course. I was born into Modernism; it was the source of my enthusiasm. What bothers me is when contemporary Modernists are fixed either on obsolete urbanistic principles or when they use declensions of a compositional mode. I never do that. I begin with ideas that are sometimes foreign to architecture: literary, cinematographic, geological.

LS: Which brings us to the stratification in your work.

CdP: Painting in the ’60s gave us the flat surface and left architects faced with the impossibility of representation. The axonometric view seemed to be the legitimate representation for modern architecture. Perspective was attached to classical representation. So in my drawings in the ’70s, I investigated a depth that comes from the superimposition of different planes, as in primitive representation or what you call “le plan du tableau.” This gave me an interest in layering.

LS: With the LVMH Tower in New York, there was an initial intention to stratify in depth, to give the impression of several buildings of radically different registers, in recession, one behind the other. In the present flattened, more unified version, four distinct layers nevertheless remain perceptible.

CdP: What was requested was a building that differed as much as possible from the Chanel building next door. At the outset, the Wally Findlay Gallery left only a narrow terrain for a building that would have had to be so vertical it seemed strange. Stacking seemed less—though still a bit—strange, but stacking doesn’t exist in New York.

LS: Why, it creates its own small skyline. A bit megalo.

CdP: That comes with the project, a corporate building bigger than Chanel. That’s the game, with IBM, the giant across the street. You have to try to exist. When LVMH acquired Wally Findlay’s gallery, the project became too heavy for the wider space, wide enough for a more unified building.

LS: Oddly; Wally Findlay remains a kind of phantom limb.

CdP: You’re right, he’s been reconstructed. He’s even become vertical.

LS: Since you’re adding a facade/building to the already mammoth Palais des Congrès, it seems legitimate to ask what monumentality means right now.

CdP: Monumentality is vital in large cities: it places the body in relation to the whole city. We feel the city physically and need reference points. At Porte Maillot, a door to the city situated on the axis between the Arc de Triomphe and La Défense’s Grande Arche, there’s a vast space, a traffic circle and the Palais des Congrès, which doesn’t pull its weight the way Jacques-Ange Gabriel’s buildings do on the Place de la Concorde. To construct a building that harnesses these dimensions and makes the main axis readable, I took a tangent to that main axis, which is perceptible when you turn around the circle. The city is understood in movement, the dimensions territorialized by the construction’s luminous plastic qualities.

LS: Monumentality also has its politics.

CdP: It’s a question of how public institutions exist physically in the city, their readability or localizability. Architects participate in the positive construction of the world. Once you have a program to realize, you participate in a society that implicitly recognizes the power that organizes it, the power that governs it. You have to take responsibility for this “constructive” aspect, to dirty your hands in making the world and impacting on the quantity of order or disorder.

Lauren Sedofsky is a writer who lives in Paris. She translated this interview from the French.