JULY 3, 2019
SOME PEOPLE ARE BORN on the other side, but others have to travel there, detaching themselves from reality through mysticism, intoxication, insanity, hypnosis, or sex.
French architect Claude Parent (1923–2016) may not have been born there, but he achieved what Baudelaire — writing in a century tantalized by opium — called les paradis artificiels simply by using his pencil. Trained in classical architecture at the Beaux-Arts in France during and after the War but disaffected with Doric capitals, Parent graduated from the school able to draw anything. But what the rebellious student really wanted to draw wasn’t clear, and he spent years gradually developing a vision, eventually using drawing itself as a tool of liberation and invention. The functionalism of Le Corbusier, who said a house is “a machine for living in,” wasn’t enough for Parent. In the French (and international) context, Parent found Corb’s modernist machine too limiting, and it certainly didn’t open the door to the other side. Its Euclidean format lacked nuance and subjective shading, and offered no intimations of otherness. Parent rejected the boxed room, the boxed building, and cities of boxes, and set out, like Columbus, to sail to a new utopia beyond textbook geometry. He used drawing techniques based in the 19th century to achieve visions anticipating the 21st century.
Claude Parent: Visionary Architect, edited by his Los Angeles–based daughter Chloé Parent, and containing essays by Frank Gehry, Odile Decq, Jean Nouvel, Donatien Grau, and others, is the first book published in the United States to introduce this architect who crossed into the strange realm of the oblique. For readers unfamiliar with him, his work will be a discovery vested with premonitions of the digital. Starting a half century ago, Parent’s spatial explorations supplanted the horizontal of classical temples and the vertical of modernism’s skyscrapers. Unlike any architect before him, he found the hypotenuse of the right triangle much more promising than its supporting orthogonal legs. Emily Dickinson had advised poets to “tell it slant,” and for decades, Parent designed just that, hypothesizing what it meant to live on an eccentric slope, in disequilibrium. The shift was fundamental, and the slant spoke directly to the body.
Befitting its subject, the monograph itself isn’t linear but a free-form mosaic of pithy, unpretentious, often friendly essays written by a half-dozen critics, scholars, and friends, mostly French. The juxtaposed essays don’t add up to a plumb and tight narrative, each essay overlapping and underlapping the others, but somehow this lively volume amounts to a surprisingly perceptive portrait, that of an architect with a high-risk career who performed brilliantly for decades without a safety net.
Perhaps because his father was an aeronautical engineer in the early century (and an amateur automobile designer), Parent was predisposed to search for movement in a field normally understood through statics. Though he got his diploma at the Beaux-Arts, his real university was the post–World War II Parisian art world to which he was introduced by André Bloc, the sculptor-editor of France’s leading avant-garde architectural journal, L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui. Bloc believed that what all the plastic arts had in common was space, and he invited architects and artists into an interdisciplinary confraternity, where he collaborated with artists representing the many strains of a century still illuminated by white-hot movements — Constructivism, Suprematism, De Stijl, Elementarism, spacio-kinetics, and others. Parent suspended his belief in the discipline as then practiced as he worked with other artists, absorbing logics and approaches that spun architecture’s compass off true north.
Yves Klein, who painted canvasses with nudes dipped in ultramarine blue, and scorched paintings with fire-breathing torches, was perhaps the artist who influenced Parent most deeply. Klein released control over the object, guiding unruly phenomena, which had a life of their own. Klein, who at the beach one day autographed the sky, declaring it his first artwork, decided to build with air, and enlisted Parent to draw up houses and furniture built with forced air blown by machines hidden underground: air was the brick. It was the first inkling of architecture that British architecture historian Reyner Banham would later call the “well-tempered environment.”
Parent could draw these air buildings in the form of simple architectural tales that made difficult ideas understandable. Architecture had always been ruled, but in Klein’s invisible architecture, there was nothing to measure. It was a prelude to his own oblique architecture of slopes without walls, where space dominates surface, encouraging the movement of people.
Through his artist friends and collaborators, Parent was already stepping through the looking glass, even as he maintained a more or less conventional practice. But in 1963, he met Paul Virilio, a theorist interested in architecture’s phenomenological potential, with an emphasis on lived experience, and Virilio brought to Parent’s attention concrete German military bunkers on the French coast that, loosened from their foundations, surfed down embankments overlooking beaches. Inside the dark, topsy-turvy bunkers, lit only by light filtering through small artillery slots, the spaces lost their Cartesian coordinates: all surfaces slanted.
Not long before the 1969 moon landing, as though the two had just stepped outside a satellite into outer space for a stroll, Parent and Virilio were cultivating a strange new gravitational field. The sensation of living on the tilt was, for them, physically thrilling: senses came alive. Together they wrote their 1966 manifesto, The Function of the Oblique.
They went on to build a controversial masterpiece, the bunker-like Church of Sainte-Bernadette in Nevers, generously illustrated in the book. The church proved controversial. Virilio and Parent risked excommunication. Nuns wept. Coffins tended to slide off catafalques unless stopped. Just going downhill from the back of the church and then uphill at the front to take communion tugged at the body, alerting it to different gravitational pulls. Perhaps the mind was contemplating divinity but the body was constantly adjusting its position gyroscopically, living through an instability that provoked “body consciousness.”
Commissioned by the government to curate the French pavilion at the 1970 Venice Biennale, Parent built an environment that took even these oblique ideas to an extreme. He shaped an angled landscape of sloping walls, ceilings, and floors that turned the otherwise conventional rooms into spaces in which visitors caromed like billiard balls in an omni-dimensional field.
Misunderstood by the public and critics, Parent at least expected collaborating artists to respond with art that participated in the idea. He had hoped they would create illusionistic paintings that opened walls and deepened spatial complexities in the way that Renaissance and Baroque artists long before had fused reality and illusion in the quadratura heaven-scapes of church and palace ceilings. Few of Parent’s French artists, however, RSVP’d to Parent’s spatial invitation.
Disillusioned by the artists who would not fully translate the new potential of this ecstatic space liberated from statics, Parent closed the doors of his office to the artists who, for the previous 15 years, had come knocking to experiment with their architectural ideas. Artists had helped him loosen his ties to traditional practice, but now he loosened his ties to artists, free to pursue a vision that neither previous artists nor previous architects had identified. He tapped his skills as a master draftsman, testing the spatial consequences of structures built on the oblique, where the degree of the slope defined use.
In 1963, he had already completed the Maison Drusch, a concrete villa in Versailles, a city saturated with the classical ideal, balancing the cubic living room of the house on one thin edge. But by 1970, we see that he introduced the oblique to the commercial world, designing a shopping center in Sens, its long volumes rising from the surrounding asphalt parking lot like a submarine surfacing. Other statically eccentric commercial centers would follow.
Parent disciplined his freedoms through drawing, but at a certain point, the drawings broke away from the reality of the ground. Alone at the drawing table, he escaped clients, codes, and construction into graphic reveries, plunging into an oblique world that he would pursue with artistic fury until the end of his career. Like his pal Yves Klein, who photomontaged himself in a dark suit throwing himself off a Parisian rooftop into the void, Parent was diving into thin architectural air. The blank sheet of paper was the diving board. His graphic ruminations fill much of Claude Parent: Visionary Architect, many culled from Parent’s private archives and published for the first time anywhere. Even readers familiar with his work will find many discoveries in this volume.
On each fresh, blank sheet, Parent characteristically set a theme — incision, anger, vortices, volcanic eruption — and then developed the idea without knowing where the drawing would lead, working in a no man’s land where few architects venture. He called drawing an “adventure that fascinates and sustains me, the daily quest of architectural utopia.” He pursued an architecture that would establish an appropriate architectural language, which he felt each new era deserved as a birthright of its own times.
No longer thinking just in terms of commissions, he opened his unwalled visions beyond the building into the landscape, envisioning continuous, dynamic, oblique fields and cities where inhabitants became mountaineers on the slopes, hiking through new, evolving organizations of space predicated on bodies in motion. He imagined the facades of existing cities invaded by slopes, ramps, ascents, and descents, “tentacles of the oblique,” as he wrote, that generate spaces of encounter and communication. In one series of drawings illustrated in the book, he carved deep Vs into the earth, canyons occupied by people who moved along as though on the sides of a mountain. Other images show giant occupied waves, megacities scalloped from the earth, splashing into the air, liquid forms suspended between land and sky.
The wonderlands that populate these pages, some more inspired than others but all inventive, were not graphic dead-ends. They were decades ahead of their time, but eventually, powered by the computer, their time would come. His built work and the drawings anticipated by a generation the international Deconstructivist work of Zaha Hadid, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Odile Decq, and Daniel Libeskind, and by two generations the topological digital paradises of Studio Asymptote, Greg Lynn, and Reiser + Umemoto — many of the projects built in Asia, where clients over the last generation have been defining a new Asian century in unprecedented architectural terms.
But perhaps the most explicit embodiment of the oblique function was realized by Parent protégé Jean Nouvel, who worked in Parent’s office in the late 1960s, and who dedicated his Philharmonie de Paris to his mentor at its completion in 2015, a year before Parent’s death. The mountainous building connects the flat playing fields of Parc de la Villette to the adjacent boulevard on higher ground with trails and planes crossing its seismically fractured oblique surfaces. Inside, an undulating topography of terraces are arranged in a vineyard plan that seems to behave by its own anti-gravitational logic.
The controversial hall is a dazzling interpretation of Parent’s brilliance. It must have been gratifying for Parent to see his ideas interpreted at a scale approaching the landforms he drew. Parent’s impossible, large-scale wonderlands had finally yielded an incontestable fact on the ground that was remarkable in itself, but all the more remarkable in the country that produced Descartes. Parent was off the grid.
Joseph Giovannini is a critic, architect, and teacher based in New York. Trained at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, he has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, New York Magazine, Architect Magazine, and Architectural Record, and has taught at Columbia, Harvard, UCLA, USC, and SCI-Arc.