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Remembering Architect Claude Parent and His Avant-Garde Legacy

The philosophical French designer inspired with abstract, theoretical designs

French Architect Claude Parent, who passed away over the weekend at the age of 93, was shaped by World War II, but perhaps not in the way one might expect. While exploring the Atlantic coast with friend and philosopher Paul Virilio, Parent came upon a series of bunkers that were part of the Atlantic Wall, the German’s extensive line of coastal defenses built to withstand an Allied amphibious assault. These concrete structures had slipped down the dunes to create a radically sloped interior. Parent would often speak of this warped space as an inspiration for many projects later in his career. It’s certainly a fitting metaphor for his relatively small yet extreme body of work. Philosophically driven, his pieces often recalled sculptures, and would form a bridge between early modernism and challenging experimentalists such as Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel.

A former Le Corbusier student, Parent played the role of heady creative well, partying with the avant-garde (he was friends with Yves Klein and collaborated on utopian designs) and created buildings according to his concept of oblique functionalism, laid out in the "Architecture Principe" manifesto. Parent was a master at bending and reinterpreting space, making the most solid seem in flux. Even his choices of projects seemed to question long-held assumptions. He drafted cooling towers for nuclear power plants, supermarkets that looked like Brutalist wedges, and a church that resembled an above ground bunker (his famous Church Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay). He was literally at home with his thoughts and theories, redesigning his home in the ‘70s to incorporate numerous sloped surfaces and ramps. In retrospect, many of these projects were early examples of Deconstructivism in architecture writ large, challenging structures in their day that now earn scholarly praise from Frank Gehry, Bernard Tschumi, and Jean Nouvel, an early student. Based on Parent’s playful yet probing style, it’s likely he would have accepted the compliments and moved on to the next challenge.

"What would it be like on the other hand, if space were understood more playfully, more free, if movement and being in a space also could mean climbing, reclining, sliding?" Parent once said in an interview.