A major retrospective of the work of the French architect Claude Parent has been designed by his famous protégée Jean Nouvel and is accompanied by Nouvel's personal account of one of the grandfathers of Modernism. In “My Token Words in the Form of an Alphabet Primer”, Nouvel describes Parent from A for Art Lover to Y for Youth.
“He is not only a great poet of lines, but also one of the
deepest creators of a new living-together and a new
policy of space. If he can sometimes be described as
an utopian, I would prefer to say that he has always
focused on the asymptotic realization of his dreams,
those of a humanity reconciled with its environment
and with itself.”
- Frédéric Mitterrand
French Minister of Culture and Communication.
The French architect Claude Parent is an icon of Modernist design, having pioneered the use of concrete to create fluid structures that range from spectacular private houses (Villa Bloc on Cap d’Antibes and Maison Bordeaux in Le Pecq) to large public projects (Church of Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay in Nevers and a series of nuclear power plants for EDF in France). Together with the urbanist Paul Virilio, he developed the famous “oblique function theory” in the 1960s, which, in Parent’s own words, stated that “buildings should be all about ramps, slopes and angles, wall-free where possible; space should predominate over surface.”
Parent’s influence on architecture is such that a major retrospective of his work has recently opened at the Cité de l’Architecture & du Patrimoine in Paris. The exhibition is designed by the Pritzker prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel, who began his career in Parent’s studio. Referencing Paris-based Parent’s signature style, Nouvel divided the four sections of the show, which includes 92 projects in the form of models, sketches and photographs, with inclined surfaces.
As part of the retrospective, Nouvel wrote an essay for its catalogue published by Hyx-Cite de l‘Architecture for Claude Parent. Entitled “My Token Words in the Form of an Alphabet Primer”, Nouvel describes Parent from A for Art Lover (Parent believed in the integration of art in architecture and collaborated with the artists Yves Klein and Jean Tinguely) to Y for Youth (Parent continues to work even at 87-years-old). Just like the Paris retrospective, it is essential viewing for fans of the genius that is Claude Parent.
CP loves art and artists, he rubs against them, is con-
taminated: he becomes one. His life has been drawn
like a work of art. His love of cars is self-explanatory:
for him, the type E Jaguar or the Maserati Indy are
works of art.
His venerated building material: he looks for its expres-
sion, he constantly thinks of formwork, the truth of the
material, the nobility of raw concrete. CP has always
detested mawkishness, “prettiness”... He likes the
unpopularity of this material. The bunker invents a
powerful concrete aesthetic. He cultivates it. He pre-
ceded it with Bloc because among the adventures
with artists their encounter became, as his name indi-
cates, a work on mass, on heaviness. CP’s architec-
ture of forms thought out with Bloc: the beauty of the
Maison d’Antibes [Antibes Center] and the Maison
de l’Iran [Iran Center] in Paris prove the depth of
Drawing – Design
CP loves to draw. With a pencil, pen or black felt-tip
marker. From the simplest, smallest project, from the detail of
a concrete angle to the evocations of the utopias of
oblique cities, a distant design. When reality becomes
too hard, thankless, drawing is a genuine refuge from
which singular evocations regularly emerge.
No one could win an elegance contest against CP. His
Mao-collar Feruch suits, his coral or cyclamen shirts,
his broad ties and richly colored pocket squares, plus
his shoes, his collector’s cars, his silver pen, his frizzy
hair and his meticulously contoured sideburns, every-
thing was mastered, measured and illuminated with
broad smiles. His passion for aesthetics applies to
Michel, his brother, writes, oversees the Burgundy
festival and patrimony.
Nicole, his sister, dances... and Claude draws.
Naad, his wife, moves the young architects of the Rue
Madeleine-Michelis, sober, silent, mysterious and
luminous. Chloé, his daughter, is a website architect and draws
plans on paper of books and posters.
And Patrice Goulet, his brother-in-law, fascinated by
CP, comes in as an “architecture critic”...
Étienne Follenfant is a model-maker who sculpts in
wood – in linden – models of houses, hypermarkets,
but also urban utopias by CP and Paul Virilio. The
arrival of the latest model is the emotion of the week.
Emotions, verifications and enthusiasm.
I’ve known CP in a state of fury about not having
access to a commission that reflects his ambition and
fame. He felt he was being forgotten, underemployed,
ill-loved by politicians and economic decision-makers.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t just an impression, CP would
spend his time fighting with small projects, fragments
of reality into which he would insert pieces of utopia.
An ascetic who captures CP’s architecture on black-
The way CP regards himself and his little world of archi-
tecture constantly causes derision and good humor.
His little epistolary sketches are gems.
Starting with a somewhat banal commission that gen-
erally ends in parallelepipeds with siding in multicolor
graphics, CP builds immense rhythms of gray concrete,
unlikely tippings of masses that call on the oblique.
Infarction – Inventing
CP continuously battles with projects, whatever their
size, with the details, with the materials, he worries,
he is demanding, often tired and disappointed about
the absence of a major commission. CP is near col-
lapse: infarction. He then chooses life and more than
ever draws, and keeps on inventing, writes, polemi-
cizes. He only drops petty and exhausting battles on
often vain subjects.
A khaki-colored army vehicle with the white
Architecture Principe acronym on it in which CP drives
around Paris with Paul Virilio, an example of the proud
stylistic provocations that mark his life.
Meeting Yves Klein, his memorial project for Nice,
the fact of having discovered burned wood in a stor-
age room, so many mysteries that strengthen, for me,
the aura born out of the friendship between two free
CP has always criticized and denounced the social
housing production conditions in the 1960s.
Monolith – Mass
CP is fascinated by the power of the scale linked to
mass and matter, he pierces the monoliths deeply or
fractures them as he did in his powerful project for the
Ministry of National Education in La Défense.
The Rue Madeleine-Michelis, CP’s little architecture
agency with a 3-meter façade, a windowless drawing
studio under a glass roof and his own office in the base-
ment with two holes in the concrete flooring. Alongside
this “Neuilly” architecture, contrasting with luxury stan-
dards and the bourgeoisie, CP erected, on the street,
his idea of a “Neuilly” building: a six-story façade
pierced with raw concrete beams serving as overhangs
between which natural aluminum beams are slipped!
Nuclear Power Plants – Nerve
CP isn’t afraid. He loves challenges. He can bear being
unpopular, finding a certain glory in it, laying claim to
it. Being the flagship architect of new atomic power
plants pleases him because the incredible scale, this
architecture’s mass must tame the energy and the
From the dynamic and focus of his projects for houses,
discussions with Paul Virilio on the meaning of an
architecture that connects body and mind, there will
emerge theories of continuous interior spaces based
on a series of oblique and horizontal planes. Through
their “radicalness” and expressiveness, these prin-
ciples will unsettle every convention of orthogonal
modernity. CP will dare, for over 40 years, to express
and explore unknown organizations and rhythms.
Pedagogue – Polemicist
CP has not taught in schools, he has never prosely-
tized, he has just drawn, spoken, critiqued but there
are a few of us who consider that he taught us a trade.
His art of polemics is part of his pedagogy.
“Radicalness” – Reality
CP doesn’t like the hybrid, the soft, the flabby, the
sham..... very much.
He likes to assert forms, reveal rhythms, in concrete,
steel, glass. He is not frightened of being frightening.
This results in the radical expressions that enter into
reality, from a small house to hypermarkets by way of
nuclear power plants. Without concession or compro-
mise. Those who are timid, please abstain.
Schöffer – Schelin
CP as a young student chose his friends... and we
wonder where his “radicalness” comes from. And how
did he cultivate it?
For CP, tension is the characteristic of a project that
has been thoroughly squeezed out, no fat or hesitation
remains. With him, we learn about the art of decant-
ing, the chasing out of flourishes, the meaning of the
line, the overhang, the precision of expression.
The 1960s wanted to invent new towns, new lives...
The 1960s got bored with old stone houses and hated
dust. Optimism is an instinct, exploration is carefree,
utopia an ethic. CP is a man of his time.
It was the love of concrete and provocation that first
united CP and Paul Virilio. Virilio is a man of predic-
tions – he will look for them in a spiritual and mystical
world, he is fascinated by war and religion, by beauty
and the art of war and its architectural production.
They invented another world with one man’s obses-
sions and the other’s desires. Their encounter was
totally synergic, the mid-sixties was a prolific period for
them. The wake of their collaboration is impressive.
May 1968 and its aftermath separated CP and Virilio
but they remained marked by one another: the archi-
tect would continue to explore through drawing, the
thinker would no longer build architecture...
His impertinent cheerfulness, his pertinent and often
cutting words, the dynamism of his style have always
given him, whatever his age, the virtues of youth.
Claude Parent, Architectural Work/Graphic Work, runs through to May 2, 2010, at the Cité de l’Architecture & du Patrimoine, Paris.