Reading the chorus of celebrative obituaries that have followed Claude Parent’s death on February 27, 2016, I remembered the first time I met the already-famous architect. The scene took place in the spring of 1968, on Paris’s Boulevard Raspail, near the École Spéciale d’Architecture, where the students had followed their peers from the École des Beaux-Arts, and engaged in a radical strike, occupying the school day and night for two months. Supremely elegant in his tailored suit and flamboyant sideburns, Parent was cruising in his shockingly white Rolls-Royce in front of the school, with a skeptical smile on his face.
For the radical students of revolted Paris, this provocative spiel added to the negative reception of the extravagant drawings Parent and his then-partner Paul Virilio, a city-planner-not-yet-turned-philosopher, were publishing of their “oblique” megastructures. In contrast to the subversive discourse of groups such as Utopie, or the rather touching drawings with which Yona Friedman pleaded for a “democratic” architecture, the designs of Architecture Principe—the name the partners coined for their two-man group and magazine—seemed at worst oppressive, and at best apolitical, in the highly loaded atmosphere of 1968.
Born in 1923, Parent had been among the most subversive students of the École, studying first from 1936 onward with Noël Le Maresquier, whose name still remains synonymous with conservatism, and then at the atelier of Charles Nicod. With his friend and first professional partner, Ionel Schein, a young Romanian refugee, he succeeded in inviting modernist designer Georges-Henri Pingusson to lead the atelier, before engaging in a successful Parisian career. Together with Schein, Parent was one of the few architects designing modernist houses in the conservative atmosphere of postwar France, and they won a competition organized on this theme in 1953 by the large-audience magazine La Maison Française, building an
innovative prototype in Ville-d’Avray.
Suma supermarket in Ris-Orangis, France, 1969. (Pierre Bérenger)
In 1952, Parent helped the publisher of L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, André Bloc, an engineer turned sculptor, to build his studio in the Parisian suburb of Meudon, before designing his imposing house on the Riviera (1959–1961), using a monumental exterior skeleton in steel. He also built a series of striking residences, playing with geometry and structure, as in the Bordeaux le Pecq house in Bois-le-Roi (1963–1966), covered by ample concrete waves. Thanks to the support of Bloc, Parent became the editor of L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui and a frequent contributor to Aujourd’hui, its sister magazine celebrating the encounter of art and architecture. He worked with the painter Yves Klein at imagining an architecture of air and fire. In 1961, under the auspices of Bloc’s architecture magazine, he conceived a provocative plan for a “Parallel Paris”—a new town the size of the French capital.
But his encounter with Virilio was a turning point: In the early 1960s both friends started documenting the leftover bunkers of the Atlantic Wall. They published their pictures in 1966 in the nine issues of Architecture Principe, before completing in the same year their own interpretation of the bulky concrete volumes—the Church of Sainte-Bernadette in Nevers. One of the main features of the building was its sloping floor, an example of the “oblique function” promoted by Parent and Virilio in their short-lived periodical, and in dozens of striking drawings by the former, which depicted vertiginous slopes ascending to the sky. In contrast to these ambitious landscapes, the two shopping malls built for Goulet-Turpin in the northeast of France (1969 and 1970) seem almost tame, yet they remain to this day among the boldest statements of Parent.
Another memorable building of his still hovers above the Paris beltway: The Pavilion d’Iran at the Cité Universitaire remains a unique illustration of the megastructural concept, with its two blocks of dormitories suspended under a gigantic steel portico. In the 1960s, Parent played a significant part in establishing design guidelines for the flourishing French nuclear program. The sculptural shapes of the power plants he built in Cattenom and Chooz (1978–90), in which the streamlined blocks of the reactors are in dialogue with the hyperboloids of the cooling towers, remain as monumental evidence of the Gaullist technological utopia.
Always polemical in his writings and his verbal statements, Parent remained close to the world of fashion and of contemporary art, building numerous public facilities throughout France. In 2010, a retrospective exhibition at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine gave an account of the full extension of his built and graphic work. But the most telling legacy of the architect whose former draftsman Jean Nouvel considered “a Piranesi of our times” is another structure standing by the Paris beltway: The new Philharmonic Auditorium, with its slope and its walkable roof a belated homage by his disciple to the “oblique function.” — Jean-Louis Cohen
Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay in Nevers, 1963–1966. (Gilles Ehrmann)
In 2005, French architect Odile Decq wrote the following about the late Claude Parent:
If someone tells you that Claude Parent is over 80, do not believe it.
I have known him for more than 30 years and I can confirm that he did not change since the day in the 1970s when he gave this lecture together with his accomplice Paul Virilio in the newly built House of Culture in Rennes, talking about the strange objects called “Oblique Architecture” that were exhibited there. Indeed, the whiskers and long curly hair have turned into an elegant little white mustache and short hair. But nothing else has changed. Sharp eye and humor, often ironic, sometimes corrosive to some of his colleagues but also tender and showing indefectible friendship to those younger than him. The burst of laugh and energy expended to convince the younger to resist in front of the status quo of doctrine, to dare becoming their parent-teacher’s orphan in order to win freedom and wear it out.
His indignation is one that galvanizes and helps you to think about your dreams becoming possible. This drug is without any danger: It is a necessary prescription for today’s students in architecture, fully invested in project reality, but all frustrated with their dreams about tomorrow’s living. Though often on the edge, his own heart never broke down, repaired by surgeries on the side road, some oblique roads, so strong and intense was the energy Claude put in it.
One day, I asked him to come and direct a workshop at school. His first reaction was not positive. He had never taught—he had never wanted to do so as he was always liberating himself from studies and teachers. Then, he agreed: He proposed the theme “Urban surviving,” and the title was, “and if?”
With Claude, you cannot hide from imagination; you have to invent other possibilities!
[Upon his passing last month, she added]
Even if it has been repaired multiple times, last Saturday, while becoming 93, his heart has dropped off and I have lost a friend who was shaking my head to go further. See you soon, Claude!