The exhibition contains 41 projects, 900 drawings, 24 large and 231 small models, collages, paintings and slide shows. Besides the pleasure of encountering a collection of creative tools, the visitor feels a certain unease because he has a sense of being drawn step by step into one particular vision of the city and architecture.
And that at a time when there are no longer any theoretical certainties, when modernity has become an outworn habit, deconstruction has had its day and there are few takers for Rem Koolhaas’s intersecting dimensions (S, M, L, XL). The minimalist tendencies developing in Europe are personal quests rather than the premises of a new style. Is the demonstratio looking exhibition on De Portzamparc able to fill the increasing theoretical void?
The architect reveals his work, 25 years of his life, along a route which immerses the visitor in his architectural and urban aesthetic. This will persuade some that a fresh wind is blowing through our stifling cities; others will be afraid of a new dogma arising from the combined ruins of the old city and modernity. They will perhaps feel nostalgic for the days when every building by De Portzamparc seemed unique, a work of art, designed according to his intuitions about movement and gravity, the totem and the open place, creating a subtle link between the object and the space, a link whose inimitable secret was known only to the architect.
When the Cite de la Musique opened in 1984, long before De Portzamparc talked about the ‘alot ouvert’, a variant on the open block, or the ‘third era of the city’, which are now key concepts for him, I ran into a baffled colleague who said, ‘I don’t know whether we should approve of that’. Personally, I hadn’t such moral standards. I was delighted, and that was enough for me. The body was at ease amid the distinct volumes that seemed to slip past each other; the eye found allusions in a new freshness to modern masters, to the baroque, to art. This pleasure had nothing to do with dogmatic laws. It brought me to the central idea of De Portzamparc, for whom that pleasure is (still) the primary mission of architecture. ‘I shall never forget the happy faces of the first people to move into the rue des Hautes Formes,’ he says today of his first now-famous housing project in Paris (1979).
The seeming chaos of the exhibition brings to mind the architect’s studio in the elegant neighbourhood near Parc Montsouris in Paris: from floor to ceiling models of studies or completed projects, sketches, pages torn from notebooks, computer print-outs, perspectives, photos. The work in progress takes up the whole space. Each project is an answer to the one before, a dialogue with the next one, and is fed by words, silences or doubts. In the studio the artist sets architecture in motion with his certainties and fears. The exhibition, on the other hand, is more like a snapshot.
The documents are presented in series, in open thematic blocks: the urban fabrics and housing in Paris, the transformations of the block, the ‘alot ouvert’, the great scale, the institutes and monuments, the Cite de la Musique, the towers, the art schools. This makes it possible to draw links between one project and another and to discover the coherence of the method. You see how an idea develops from building to building. In the Cite de la Musique, for example, the dome of a concert hall rises up in a courtyard, while in the new Espace Culturel in Rennes (1993) it is the hall that ‘breaks through the paving stones’.
The exhibition shows too how the ideas, whatever their scale or content, are blown into the various programmes. The mechanism of borrowing is almost surrealistic in the way each project becomes the ready-made, as it were, of the next one. What do the designs for Euro Disney (1988), the housing in Fukuoka in Japan (1991) and the project for a neighbourhood in Marseilles have in common? Referring to Fukuoka and Euro Disney, De Portzamparc speaks of ‘buildings like rocks’, of mineral masses against which dynamic fragments stand out in relief. And taking this further, he arrives at a similarly territorial idea for Marseilles, where the rock is not a construction but a transformation of the place, since he cuts through the rock with an artificial creek. Another such transformation: the large concert hall of the Cite de la Musique has acoustic recesses lit by immaterial chromatic variations – we find these duplicated vertically on the gigantic facade of the Bandai Tower in Tokyo (1994).
The early research into the Parisian block (the rue des Hautes Formes, the competition for la Roquette) led him to the recent urban design projects: Atlanpole in Nantes, place Coislin in Metz (1990), the Massena district in Paris (1995). Here the concept of the ‘ilot ouvert’ is used in an area where urban regulations and finances have removed all traces and laid down the basis. For Masscna he designed a system of ‘ilots ouverts’, creating a dense fabric of streets. This design includes a deliberately undefined, aleatoric strip. The transparency of the block and its irregular pattern offer an abundance of possibilities. The architect condenses time to make room for changing references to past and future.
De Portzamparc has recently been honoured by several publications: a monograph was published by Editions du Regard; Architecture d’Aujourd’hui devoted an issue (December 1995) to his work; and there is the album of the exhibition. In these publications he predicts the coming of a third era of the city. This will not mean plagiarizing the old city (the first era) or continuing modernity (the second), either in its purity or its perversions. No, the third era will be based on the riches of both preceding ones and will seek out new ways.
One of the ways De Portzamparc is offering is the typological invention of the ‘ålot ouvert’. He tried this out on the large scale of architecture in the Cite de la Musique: ‘with solid, opaque volumes, very diverse dimensions and forms which contrast with transparent volumes, light shafts linking them like interstitial tissue. They are the transitions between interior and exterior, circulation points roofed by glass or located outdoors. Between the solid volumes and those transparent passages there is a correlation that is a metaphor for the system of the city, with its buildings and streets.’ The Cite benefits from the dynamics of the exception. Its effects are felt over a whole district, as far as the Porte de Pantin, where he built a hotel and offices. There the third era has found its architecture.
Is this kind of combination of circumstances conceivable in problem areas in cities? When in Massena Portzamparc offers his idea of the ‘alot ouvert’, a strange hybrid of Haussmann and Le Corbusier, of continuity and fragmentation, he is concerned with the essence: ‘opening, movement, breath’. But when other authorities fix the framework, when other architects erect buildings, will they go further than a compromise between two eras, between two forms of urbanity? Whenever we expect the work of an intuitive, expressive, talented artist to serve as an example, the snares of fashion and the model are not far away.
That is the dilemma.
Let us hope the exhibition in Centre Pompidou will avoid this trap and that, through lack of a better doctrine, there will not be neighbourhoods ‘la Portzamparc’ sprouting up on every building site. Let us assume that De Portzamparc will go on surprising us.
The exhibition ‘Christian de Portzamparc. Scenes d’atelier’ can be seen until 22 May at the Centre Pompidou, Paris.