Some architecture cultures have founding figures, the George Washingtons of their time who shaped their country’s theory and practice. In Brazil it was Oscar Niemeyer, the inventive modernist of Brasília who had the integrity to leave the country during a military coup he couldn’t accept. In France, it has been Claude Parent, who since the 1960s has riled the profession by positing the oblique instead of the vertical and horizontal as its structuring fundamental, and who designed houses, shopping centers, even nuclear silos, all architecturally energized by his sloping architectural landscapes. Parent has been France’s Philip Johnson for the last half century, but a better Philip Johnson—more talent and integrity, and a vision based on a belief system rather than power and PR.
In January, le tout Paris d’architecture paid homage to its George Washington at the fashion designer Azzedine Alaïa’s private gallery in the Marais in Paris, not far from the Louvre, where Parent presented four unbuilt museum designs in parallel with four unbuilt museum designs by Jean Nouvel, Hon. FAIA. A Pritzker laureate, Nouvel worked for Parent in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and has since credited Parent as a formative spiritual influence: When Nouvel won the competition to design Paris’s Philharmonic in the Parc de la Villette, Nouvel dedicated the design to Parent, his teacher and mentor. The ramps and plateaus of a building that looks more like a hilly landform or cloudform than a structured, institutional building owe much to Parent’s theory and advocacy of the oblique.
The opening of the exhibit, “Jean Nouvel/Claude Parent: Musées à venir” (which runs through Feb. 28), was Parent’s first sorti after a bout in the hospital, and the 92-year-old architect arrived in a wheelchair pushed by his wife, Naad. He was immediately surrounded by admirers and well-wishers, including Nouvel and Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, who has an office in Paris. The gallery, a two-story 19th century structure with a glazed roof built in cast iron, was packed. The event celebrated not only the work, but the man, his career, and especially his spirit.
Parent’s career was unusual: early on, he disrupted the generally accepted discourse of orthodox modernism by collaborating with artists, including Yves Klein, from whom he absorbed notions of dynamic form, spatial plasticity, and precarious stability, which challenged reigning doctrines of functionalism and formalism. In the mid-1960s, he partnered with cultural theorist Paul Virilio in one of the first and few viable collaborations between an architect and a public intellectual. But like some good wines and cheeses, Parent didn’t export well (he speaks no English), and he is little known on the international scene. He was a forerunner of Deconstructivism long before it became a word, and fought the good fight, mostly uphill, a full generation before any such movement was acknowledged. A masterful draftsman, even artists asked him to illustrate their ideas, a skill that has served him well as he developed his own sweeping panoramas of utopian cities and landscapes predicated on the oblique.
The curator of the exhibition, Donatien Grau, edited an interdisciplinary catalogue with poems, artists’ drawings, and even music to accompany the eight projects. Organizationally, Grau centered the exhibition on Parent’s drawings, hung in the middle of the hall, with Nouvel’s work on the aisles that are formed by two partitions running the length of the gallery.
For Renzo Piano, the exhibition undoubtedly holds special interest: Both Parent and Nouvel had entered the 1971 competition to design what became the Centre Pompidou (just a subway stop away from the gallery). Parent, escaping formalism, presented a forested, pyramidal hill for the middle of Paris, centered on a crane which could lift building materials and sculpture down into a partially underground space, equally deep as it is high. Never a Euclidean, Parent torqued the space into a many-level parallelogram, “circled” top to bottom by a spiraling angular ramp of terraces, à la the Guggenheim. Parent proposed what he calls “habitable circulation,” which fused promenades and galleries around the huge void.
Nouvel, still working in Parent’s office at the time, submitted a competition entry that built on Parent’s oblique. Nouvel created an agitated landscape of tubular structures that wove over, below, and around each other in a complex architectural fabric whose interstices would be public outdoor space. Inside, the extruded tubes were terraced in gradients that created slopes that interlaced space into an asymmetrical cat’s cradle. The scheme anticipated by decades the writhing “groundscrapers” of Thom Mayne in the early 2000s.
In 1972, Parent designed the Musée d’Art Modern Oblique, which looks like a Mayan landscape of conjoined pyramids all tilted off the vertical. Parent carried the exterior slopes inside, with walls and ceilings so slanted that they can no longer really be called walls and ceilings. Parent also sloped the floors, to create a logical progression of spaces, but all within a three-dimensional dreamscape of spaces built off the orthogonal, the light penetrating through the fissures left between the pyramidal enclosures. The exhibition’s photographs depict the beautifully crafted wood models of the project that were characteristic of the time.
Parent’s two other projects dispense with the issue of enclosure, one by creating a landscape of oblique planes, in plan and section, for a gallery within a given, conventional structure: the drawings show the conceptual methods with which he works and reworks the studies, using different pencil colors, noting angles and dimensions. These studies were done as he designed a small exhibition of his work at the Tate Liverpool in 2014: In the drawings as in the show, the sloping platforms and ceilings obliterate any feeling of being sandwiched between floor and ceiling planes, as they propel visitors on an angle through space. Parent extrapolates the same ideas in his fourth project, an imaginary museum in which a vast cage of tubular passages crisscross each other in an open skeletal armature, turning the 15-story structure into a building-wide jungle gym of activity.
The problem for Nouvel, as for all young architects who have to escape their respected masters, was developing his own vision after being submerged in such a compelling and innovative logic. It’s a sensitive subject for Nouvel. In a festschrift published in 2006, “Claude Parent: vu par…,” he wrote, “I owe him nothing.” He meant that Parent’s irrepressible spirit freed Nouvel from dogma, giving him the courage to be “reckless” in the pursuit of his own approach.
Nouvel, in fact, did not pursue the oblique that was so promising in his Pompidou Center proposal, but instead he went on to a very successful career in which solutions emerged from the programs as he found them. Though the Musée de la Flèche of 1989 in Salzberg, Austria—where galleries were to be excavated in an apparently randomized pattern in a mountain at the flank of the city—echoes the organization of his Pompidou Center proposal, Nouvel’s other two projects are very specific site and program responses that have little in common. For a proposal to build a Guggenheim in Guadalajara, Mexico, he designed a honeycombed cube of galleries organized in a block teetering at the edge of a bluff overlooking the city’s gorge. For the Musée de Lascaux in France, he proposed a long, low linear project at the edge of a forest that meandered in plan, enclosing reproductions of grottos within.
There is little pattern of development in Nouvel’s work in the exhibition, a fact mirrored in his larger portfolio. We will never know how Nouvel would have developed had he taken the huge head start he acquired in the Parent office and developed those seminal ideas into inventions of his own. It seems Nouvel had an approach/avoidance relationship to the master to whom he was, and remains, so close.
The show, besides exhibiting new and rarely seen work, opens a window into the professional relationship between Parent and Nouvel, hinting at a generational issue shared by many architects who have found themselves caught in the separation anxieties of a parent/child relationship. A show about unbuilt museums, “Jean Nouvel/Claude Parent” is also a touching exhibition about a shared biography and a raw and tender subject.