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All Ramps and Spirals and Mosquito Landings


Release: 2010-3-13 08:15 |  Author: XianBao |   View: 163time



Claude Parent: Graphic and Built Works, at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris, features the Église Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay, in Nevers.


The model of a small experimental theater designed in 1962 in collaboration with André Bloc for a site in Dakar.

There’s something both touching and disturbing at the heart of “Claude Parent: Graphic and Built Works,” a marvelous exhibition at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, Paris’s architecture museum, and it has to do with what the show tells us about our diminished cultural expectations.

Organized by Frédéric Migayrou and Francis Rambert, the show takes us back to a bolder and more innocent age. In the process, it re-establishes the 87-year-old Mr. Parent as a pivotal force in European architecture after decades of neglect by the design mainstream — a force whose influence can be clearly felt in the works of younger luminaries like Wolf Prix, Rem Koolhaas and Jean Nouvel.

Mr. Parent’s work, most of which was designed in the 1960s and 1970s, appears to point a finger at our own world. Its concrete forms, full of ramped spaces and oblique angles, come across as acts of defiance, against both the excesses of global consumer culture and the architects who are hired to dress it up. Its confidence would be impossible to summon today.

Mr. Parent began his career as France was just emerging from its postwar misery, and like others of his generation — Serge Gainsbourg and Boris Vian were contemporaries — he cultivated a theatrical persona and an open distaste for bourgeois uptightness. He was often seen zipping around Paris in an Army jeep or a Bentley convertible and once plastered the Boulevard Raspail with posters bearing slogans like “Put yourself at risk!” and “One day you will live in cities that resemble petrified oceans!” His dream, he said recently, was that architecture would one day share a place in the popular consciousness with soft drinks.

The Paris show begins by mapping out the twists and turns in Mr. Parent’s early creative struggle, including a series of remarkable collaborations with artists and sculptors. A photograph of a modern glass-and-steel house built in 1962 for the engineer and sculptor André Bloc focuses on a big exterior spiral staircase, emphasizing Mr. Parent’s early fascination with movement. (He said that he wanted the house, which sits at the edge of a steep hill, to rest on its site “as delicately as a mosquito landing on your arm.”)

In contrast, a small experimental theater designed later that year in collaboration with Bloc for a site in Dakar evokes the surreal, womblike forms of Frederick Kielser’s “Endless House.” Its smooth ovoid form, which enclosed a stage and seats that could in theory be reconfigured at will, resembles a polished stone.

In a later project, the unbuilt Lunatour designed in 1964 in collaboration with the sculptor Jean Tinguely, Mr. Parent creates a fantastical tower packed with carousels, ramps and escalators and emblazoned with gigantic advertising images. Conceived as a vertical city in miniature, the structure glorifies what Guy Debord called the “society of the spectacle” — the delirium at the core of popular consumer culture.

These early experiments crystallize in a series of mostly unbuilt civic projects designed between the mid-1960s and the early ’70s. These monumental buildings at first seem to have been inspired by the postwar Brutalism of architects like Le Corbusier and Peter and Alison Smithson. In fact, they are firmly planted in the technological assurance and psychic anxieties of the cold war period.

The Église Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay, completed in 1966 in the small city of Nevers, can be read as a brash critique of Le Corbusier’s 1954 Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut — one of the great monuments of postwar Modernism. Le Corbusier’s composition of concave and convex forms evokes primitive temples and mosques; Mr. Parent’s building — massive concrete walls with rounded corners and slot windows — is the expression of a culture living under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation and still haunted by the devastation of World War II.

Inside, two sloped seating areas converge under the light of a long, narrow window running the length of the roof, creating a space of disquieting solitude. The message is ambiguous. Is it a safe haven from the vulgarities of the new consumer society? Or the final resting place for a fixed moral order that is dying out?

Either way, this zone of intimate, even tender social encounters carefully sheltered from the outside world became a recurring motif in Mr. Parent’s work, and is the aspect of it that can make it so moving despite its aggressive qualities.

For a 1966 proposal for the unbuilt Palais des Expositions in Ardennes, Mr. Parent created a gigantic slab building that extends out over the Meuse River from the edge of a small plaza. When I first saw it, the project reminded me of an afternoon in the Santa Monica Mountains when I looked up from a backyard and caught a glimpse of a stealth bomber drifting ominously across a California sky. Yet it also evokes something mystical. The enormous roof, which slopes upward as it reaches out over the water, is an informal public amphitheater. Ramps and stairs spiral down into the cavernous main hall and out through the belly of the building to the water below, a sequence suggesting a shared descent into the sanctuary of a prehistoric cave.

Perhaps the most memorable project is Mr. Parent’s losing entry in the 1971 competition for the Centre Pompidou: an enormous pyramid-shaped hill covered in dense vegetation. Inside, visitors would have moved up and down on ramps spiraling among the museum’s galleries. It is as if Wright’s famous Guggenheim ramp had been buried inside a funerary mound, an image as cheeky as his earlier take on Le Corbusier’s chapel.

The show goes on to examine a number of nuclear plants Mr. Parent designed in the late 1970s, when France was developing its image as a technological leader. There are also a series of increasingly utopian drawings of ribbonlike cities that unfurl across barren landscapes and oblique towers that pierce through the earth’s surface.

Yet nothing matches the work he created in the five years from 1966 to 1971. And part of the pleasure of seeing it again today is realizing the degree to which these designs anticipate current trends in architectural thought. The ramped surfaces bring to mind the fluid spaces of the emerging information age; the Brutalist forms echo our recent fascination with large-scale urban infrastructure.

Those who follow contemporary architectural trends closely may even notice more direct influences, like the similarity between Mr. Parent’s proposal for an Education Ministry building at La Défense and Coop Himmelblau’s European Bank design, currently under construction in Frankfurt. (Both Wolf Prix, a founder of Coop Himmelblau, and Jean Nouvel, who worked in Mr. Parent’s office in the 1960s, consider Mr. Parent a mentor. Mr. Nouvel, who designed the installation for the show, even dedicated his proposal for a new Paris Philharmonic hall to him.)

Mr. Parent, for his part, sees all of these projects as elements in a more ambitious urban vision that he calls “the oblique city” — the final stage after the fall of the traditional horizontal village and the densely packed, vertical city of modernity. New York, to Mr. Parent and his longtime collaborator, the cultural theorist Paul Virilio, represented a conclusion: “The epitome and the end of verticality.” His inclined forms were meant as a way to resolve the schism between ancient and modern precedents, and to reconnect us with the natural undulations of the earth’s surface.

Some may find this idea terrifying. But I suspect the work will only get more seductive as time passes. As the deadening visual noise and consumer distractions of our cities continue to thicken, the quiet force of Mr. Parent’s designs begins to look like a heroic resistance. At their core, they embody a desire to preserve a small kernel of humanity amid all the waste.

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