Oscillatie tussen materie en concept: De architectuur van Patrick Berger (Oscillation between material and concept: The architecture of Patrick Berger)

Indeed, Berger had built very little when, in 1988, he won the international competition for the park. His Parisian production was limited to a handful of discreet buildings, the kind of which are too  delicate to please the media or to fill the front page of an architectural magazine. Discreet also is the architect – suspicious of  the `star system’, he instead develops his work on a long term programme away from the pressure and voracity of the media. He is usually described as a `minimalist architect’ who has at the same time a certain concern for time, history and tradition. Unfortunately, the apparent simplicity of his architecture may hide the richness of his approach.

Berger does not belong to a specific school or trend. No great figure has marked his architectural training, and perhaps this is an important condition for his independence. From his teaching practice (first in St Etienne, then in Paris and now in Lausanne), he learned the value of time and the necessity to judge an architectural work not as a singular building but in the perspective of the architect’s history and intentions. A bad building can thus be considered an important step or even a crisis later to be overcome. Contemporary conditions of architectural production, the power of fashion or the fear of an unaccepted failure can create such an inhibiting stress that architects cannot develop a true body of concerns. The French system of architectural competitions has, from his point of view, more perverse effects than good ones on architectural production. According to Berger, an architect should practice at least 20 years before being seriously evaluated.

Permanence and evolution

However, Berger was made famous through two media-oriented projects: the reconversion of the Palace Theatre into what became the most fashionable Parisian discotheque (1978), and the competition for the France-Japan monument (1989).

It is somewhat paradoxical that Berger’s first realization was dealing with the ephemeral and futile nature of amusement. Berger was interested in creating a `lieu total’ for the night life, exploring all kinds of sensations, mixing the old theatre with new technologies (where the laser was used for the first time in Paris). `The new thing – said Barthes – is this impression of synthesis, of totality, of complexity: I am in a place which supports itself alone. It is this extra which makes the “Palace’ not a simple enterprise, but a true work of art, and those who designed it can consider themselves as true artists.’2) The Palace was also the occasion of structuring a work on a specific theme, the `theme of party’ and a reflection on the notion of representation both in terms of a spectacle being represented and of spectators representing themselves. This theme would be used again later in the project for a theatre in Blois.

The France-Japan competition was a competition for a `Monument of Communication’. The brief involved the integration of communication technologies into monumental architecture. The whole entreprise was highly publicized and the best projects were shown in the Pompidou Centre. Berger’s winning project was not dedicated to new technologies; instead his monumental slab of granite, to be erected on a Japanese island, was a statement proposing poetry as the only possible means of communication between two foreign cultures.

The poetic dynamic is typical of Berger’s approach. It expresses the confrontation between simple elements: the immutable stone, the running water, the plants. It comes from the use of mythical themes like earth, water, wind and fire, or the dialectic between the idea of nature and the idea of the city.

Berger had discovered the importance of myth during a trip to Panauti, Nepal, where, for two years, he studied the development of the city. His work on myth and origin then became a recurrent theme. But it is important to see that this quest of origin is not regressive, nor does it translate a frozen conception of history. Berger considers the modern condition under the mark of existential loss in Walter Benjamin’s sense, where there is no longer mythical space or mythical time, nor is there a possibility for recreating them. (This position dooms to failure any attempt to recreate new mythical objects.) Berger treats myth as an investigation of its processes, its persistant functioning through time which is not a nostalgic fascination. This conception of a permanent structure of myth becomes one root of Berger’s architecture which links the past, the present and the future in a space out of historical time. It is also through the concept of structure (in a formal sense) that the notions of permanence and evolution find their synthesis in his architecture which always remains open. For example, two projects, the Augarten-Prater Axis in Vienna and the redevelopment of the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris try to integrate evolution in the design process.

In Vienna his urban design creates a structure of urban forms which would guide the future urbanization of the Danube River. The axis parallel to the river is punctuated by four sucessive perspectives or urban parks. Each park refers to a theme concerning the cultural identity of the Danube River.

Berger’s project for the romantic section of the Père Lachaise Cemetery reflects upon a landscape where the idea of death is combined with that of nature and the city for a specific epoque. Time, as a subject, also determines the strategy of intervention. At the starting point is a chaotic space. Like the first explorer of an unknown country who would name specific places, Berger identifies and designates punctual elements, like a tomb or a tree, by adding a wall, a few steps or a gateway made of vegetation next to them. He thus demonstrates that the work is one of chance, and he reveals the picturesque nature of the cemetery (though his approach is not picturesque). At the same time he introduces a structure into what was random, and opens up various possible future developments.
The idea of permanence in both projects is always mixed with a reference to the present time, but Berger’s work does not try to represent an idea in an iconological sense. The concept is a tool, but contrary to conceptual architecture, it never totally absorbs the form. Rather than representing, his architecture presents itself, expressing the tension between the sensitive and the intelligible with minimal means. In Berger’s architecture, materials and substance are primary to form, and physical matter dictates its laws to architecture.3)

Rather than a search for perfect congruence of form and idea, it is a permanent oscillation between matter and concept that characterizes Berger’s architecture, oscillation which allows it to escape from the paradox of `minimalist or literalist art’. However it is probably in that domain that Berger’s main reference has to be found. In many ways, his work of stripping materials refers to the work of artists like Frank Stella or Donald Judd: there is the same will for the autonomy and the presence of the object, the same fight against illusion. (Berger is suspicious of the primacy of the `visual’ and its translation into narrative architecture.) But to Stella’s famous statement, `What you see is what you see’4) Berger echoes with `Materials only tell their own story’.5) Though the tautological aspect is obvious in both cases, Berger (as against Stella) opens his art to the space of aesthetic judgement, where meaning is not totally repressed. Meaning is not found in the articulation of a conventional language. Indeed presence is opposed to representation, but it is in the stripping process or movement that expression emerges from the inside of the material like a symptom.

Physical experience

`Materials only tell their own story.’ It is significant that Berger used this statement about his school of architecture in Rennes. Granite and wood are used as raw, untransformed materials. He does not reveal this `story’, but goes beyond the `visual’ and calls for other senses and the pleasure of the body. Later in the project for the theatre in Blois, he will show that it is the internal quality of the materials which, by association, can express some cultural meaning. There, the specific story of materials meets the memory of culture. Copper refers to masks and music instruments, wood to the first theatres.

All these different aspects of Berger’s work, (the reference to myth, the oscillation between matter and concept. . . ) can be found in the André Citroën Park. The park occupies 14 of the 24 hectares of the former Citroën factory on the `Quai de Javel’. After La Villette, it is the biggest open space ever planted in Paris since the Second Empire. While La Villette fits inside a pocket which is somehow disconnected to the rest of the city, the André Citroën Park is designed in continuity with the urban fabric, in such a way that `the city penetrates it and that it penetrates the city’.6)

The continuity and openness of the park was originally in contradiction with the necessity of controlling the boundaries in order to define the space. As the existing buildings surrounding the park are heterogeneous in form and architectural quality, an elegant solution is offered by the constitution of a second and discontinuous boundary made of built elements like glass houses or fountains. Unfortunately the city’s obligation to close the park at night, turns the continuity between the park and city into wishful thinking. Coming from different parts of the city, the park is perceived more as an obstacle than an open and fluid structure. The real openness of the park is not to the city but to the landscape of the river which structures the park’s entire organization.

Around the main open space of 320 x 13 m which goes down to the river, a succession of serial gardens shows the permanent work of nature where one can see the confrontation of stone and plant. The planted sequences express the movement of nature as opposed to the immutable stone. However, `Plants, free of any other discourse, only represent themselves’ Berger says7), showing a similar treatment of plants and stones.  Here again priority is not given to sight but to the other senses as well – corporal experience becoming a main objective. Thus, the labyrinth, occupying the large central space in the original scheme, was not a formal one in the French garden tradition, but rather the result of the natural and chaotic growth of vegetation. The labyrinth was later replaced by the existing blank open space.

The central vegetation, however, is missing. Unfortunately, the hierarchic and rigid structure of the park, with its axes and perspectives, does not find any corrective. In five years, when plants and trees have grown in the different gardens, the park will then achieve its real balance. It will then be twenty years since Berger started his practice. It will be time for a serious evaluation of his work, interesting as it already is.


1. The park was designed for the City of Paris by the combination of the two winning teams of the competition: Patrick Berger, architect with Gilles Clément, landscape architect, and Viguier Jodry and Associates,  architects, with Alain Provost, landscape architect.
2. Roland Barthes, `Au Palace ce soir’, Vogue Homme no. 10, May 1978.
3. In this sense Berger is not a formal architect. If he can be considered as a classical architect it is in the non-formal tradition of Quatremère de Quincy whose conception of architecture was that of imitating nature, not by imitating its productions, but by imitating its processes.
4. Bruce Glaser, `Questions to Stella and Judd’, in: Regard sur l’art Amricain des années soixante, Paris, Territoires p. 58.
5. `Trois démarches’, L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui no. 277, Oct. 1991, p. 110.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.

Architectuur in het nauw (Architecture forced into a corner)