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Odile Decq: Punk rock architect

The French designer on gender and the future of the field

Roland Halbe/Courtesy of Studio Odile Decq

French architect Odile Decq is used to hearing the word “no.” Heeding it, however, is not her specialty.

Growing up in the small town of Laval in western France, the award-winning architect first studied art history in Rennes, the capital of Brittany. There, she fell in with a group of young architecture students and decided to switch majors.

Her father’s response to her architectural ambitions?

“He told me ‘This is not a profession for women,’” Decq recalls during an interview in her studio in Paris’s 4th arrondissement.

Decq protested, and in response her father invited a male architect to lunch with the family to discuss his daughter’s ambitions. At one point, the architect asked why she wanted to choose this career.

“I want to build a theater,” Decq responded. Then, she recalls, “he turned to my parents and said ‘Oh, you know, it’s good that now young ladies will study architecture because they will be very good in our office at designing kitchens and cupboards.’”

For Decq, a female architect’s place was not in the kitchen—far from it. Often described as a rebel or radical, she has become one of the most successful women in the field and serves as a role model to many others.

Although she remains less-known in the U.S. than in Europe, Decq’s accolades are numerous. In 1996, she received the Golden Lion at the Venice Architecture Biennial. More recently, in 2016, she won The Architectural Review’s Jane Drew Prize for women, and she remains a sought-after lecturer and ambitious educator, unafraid to campaign for equality. In 2014, she founded Confluence Institute for Innovation and Creative Strategies in Architecture in Lyon, France, with the aim of reinventing architecture education entirely.

“You have to fight when you are a female architect,” Decq says fervently. “It’s a strategic war where you need to maintain your position from the beginning to the end and at the same time you need to be able to negotiate—to be able to make others understand your vision.”

The architecture field has come a long way in its acceptance of women. In 19th-century France, women could study architecture, but they could not practice. It was only after educational reforms in 1968 that many women began to pursue academic architectural ambitions in earnest.

But there is plenty of distance still to be traveled. In the U.S., the first woman to earn a degree in architecture, Mary L. Page, did so in 1873. But in 1953, women made up only 1 percent of registered architects in the U.S., and in 1988, they made up a whopping 4 percent. It wasn’t until 2004 that Zaha Hadid became the first woman to win the prestigious Pritzker Prize.

Decq has dedicated her career to helping women succeed in the field. “They are not used to facing women—the clients are mostly men,” she says. “The heads of companies are men ... at the end, engineers are men, heads of contractor companies are men, so this is really a man’s world and because of that it’s not so easy for women.”

A recent survey found that 72 percent of women experience sexual discrimination, victimization, or harassment in the profession, while figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor show full-time female architects earn 20 percent less than male colleagues.

Perhaps this goes some way towards explaining why one in five women would not encourage their female peers to take up a career in architecture, according to a survey of women in the U.K. Or why, although nearly half of architecture graduates are women, only 18 percent of licensed practitioners are. A 2016 American Institute of Architects study found the field to be highly unequal.

Recently, members of the AIA wrote a letter protesting the lack of gender diversity on the panel for the organization’s national conference in Orlando. The AIA has since added one keynote panel featuring several women.

“When I started to be an architect at the beginning, I was not looking at other people as masters or anything like that,” Decq says, although she admits to being inspired by the work of avant-garde Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa. Instead, Decq’s influences include cars, planes, boats, and the world around her, she says. “Everything is nourishing when you have to do a project,” and can inform how an architect conceives of spaces. “The form of a building is really the end of a process.”

Decq’s own process of building her career involved an affair with London in the early 1980s, where she and her former professional and romantic partner, the late Benoît Cornette, traveled every other weekend after she established her practice in Paris. “We were mixing our weekends between architecture and music,” recalls Decq.

Becoming entrenched in the punk and goth scene while browsing the latest architecture, the duo was inspired by what Decq describes as the radical nature of London, which she felt was at odds with what Paris offered. Decq also adopted her signature look back then—her penchant for black clothing and thick black eyeliner to accompany her spiky black hair. She still listens to the same bands she heard during her sojourns in the English capital, she says.

Opera Restaurant in Paris, France
Roland Halbe/Courtesy of Studio Odile Decq

The duo was eyed curiously back home for their U.K. influences. “People were looking at us and asking ‘Are you in France or are you in London?’ And we always said ‘We are in the channel maybe,’” Decq recalls with a wistful laugh.

The first work to bring them fame on the international scene was the Banque Populaire de l'Ouest et d'Armorique in Rennes, completed in 1990. The building netted several awards and raised plenty of eyebrows.

“It landed like a UFO because nobody was thinking about us or thought that this kind of architecture would come—and then it happened,” she says.

Their primary inspiration was the deconstructivist style of architecture that flourished in the U.K. from the mid-1980s to early 1990s (which itself drew on the Russian avant-garde constructivist movement of the 1920s). Deconstructivist buildings often featured highly technical design elements and forms that were twisted, fragmented, or disharmonious, as described by New York’s MoMA, which put on an exhibition of such works in 1988. Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid remain prominent names in the genre, with Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind also featured in the original exhibition.

After opening their firm, ODBC, in 1985, Decq and Cornette made a name for themselves as designers who specialized in projects with high-tech elements. After the success of the bank, the pair gained notoriety for several Paris designs, including a housing project in Rue Ernestine in 1995 and a masterplan for the Port de Gennevilliers the same year. The interior of the French pavilion at the 1996 Venice Architecture Biennial won the pair a prestigious Golden Lion award. They worked together closely until Cornette’s death in a car accident in 1998.

Decq, who was also injured in the accident, eventually reopened her practice under the name Studio Odile Decq. Her work, she says, has continued to evolve, although her love of steel has remained constant: “I love experimenting with steel, going as far as I can. When I do a building in Lyon with four floors on a cantilever of 25 meters above the quay of the river, this is still something that can’t be done in concrete.”

A turning point in her work, says Decq, was the highly publicized addition for the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome, inaugurated in 2010. In MACRO, Decq used less of her beloved steel and instead used as much glass as possible. “I wanted it to be soft and magical at the same time,” she explains. The building, originally a brewery, was built by famous Italian architect Gustavo Giovannoni in the early 20th century. Decq’s design, which added contemporary architecture to the Art Nouveau edifice, includes a bright red auditorium that sits in the large space like an intergalactic womb. Like Zaha Hadid’s renovation of the MAXXI contemporary art museum, Decq’s MACRO design caused a stir in the city’s historic center.

Le Cargo, office building start-ups for the tech and creative industry, in Paris France
Roland Halbe/Courtesy of Studio Odile Decq

Last fall, Decq saw the opening of Le Cargo, Europe’s largest business incubator space, designed to host 150 companies. Rising to the design challenges of today’s interest in open-plan offices, the building features terraces and porthole windows, and displays Decq’s penchant for strong organic forms.

And while she still hasn’t built the theater of her adolescent dreams, she has left her mark on one of Paris’s most important venues—the Palais Garnier opera house—in a restaurant she completed in 2011. Decq’s modern interior, with a curvaceous bi-level seating area in her signature bright red, contrasts sharply with the late-19th-century style of the building. The project was especially difficult for Decq and her team, as their new design was forbidden from touching the building’s historic walls. “I enjoyed the challenge because I found Garnier interesting,” says Decq, adding that she used to poo-poo such historic buildings, but found Garnier to be an exception. “[Charles Garnier] won the competition for the opera house when he was very young, and the style on the outside did not copy the style of the time.”

The competition Garnier won in the 19th century called for a design that would best represent the artistic liberalism of the Second Empire. In his time, Garnier’s work stood out as highly unconventional. Interior spaces, for example, were designed to surprise visitors through shifts of scale and sudden changes in atmosphere: The opera house’s marble entrance hall, with its low ceilings, opens to the colorful grand staircase area. “He was a bit of a rebel, and somebody who thought outside of the box,” says Decq. “That’s how I felt comfortable to do that with him.”

“Given that we did not do anything classic, we expected to have strong opinions about the design of the restaurant, with people who love it and people who hate it,” says Pierre Blanc, CEO of L'Opéra Restaurant. Yet he was taken aback by how well it was received. “We were very surprised, but we were congratulated by everyone—customers, design experts, the Paris Opera Department, and journalists. Even the National Commission of Historic Monuments welcomed our work,” says Blanc, adding that such accolades are “incredibly rare” at such a Parisian establishment.

A five-hour drive south of Paris, Confluence Institute for Innovation and Creative Strategies in Architecture sits in a former docking area perched between the Rhône and Saône rivers in Lyon. The school, founded in 2014, grew out of Decq’s decades-long passion for teaching.

Although she was initially skeptical of entering the educational realm, her career as an educator flourished, eventually leading to a prestigious post heading Paris university École Spéciale d’Architecture for five years. During her time in the position, Decq added courses in English, organized exhibitions, and invited guest lecturers from outside of the milieu, much to the dissatisfaction of many colleagues, as Decq tells it. The disagreements eventually led to her resignation. “It was the right time,” she says. “People around me were really asking me to not continue.” Undeterred, Decq decided to take matters into her own hands and resolved to develop a new kind of architecture school. The result was Confluence, housed in a former market hall renovated by her firm.

Coming from an architect who studied art history, political science, and urban planning, it is perhaps unsurprising that Confluence is not your average place of learning. Decq took inspiration from sources as diverse as Finland’s interdisciplinary educational system and a Taiwanese university where art and architecture are joined seamlessly. The aim is to promote what Decq refers to as “architecture thinking”— essentially, interdisciplinary problem-solving with the goal of reconsidering the role of architecture in the world.

For example, although academia may equate architecture with designing buildings, says Decq, it can and should be much more comprehensive. “At the beginning of the 20th century it was much larger; people educated in architecture would be designers, singers, philosophers, scenographers, or artists,” she says.

The way architects are taught to problem-solve, she adds, is unique and can be used not only when designing a building, but also to design cities or design shelter for people of all income levels. “We have a way of thinking that is helpful for the world,” she says. Decq herself has worked on several social housing projects.

“I don’t want to be an architect if by architect you mean someone who builds buildings,” says 24-year-old Maxim Baudoncq, a student at Confluence from Brussels, Belgium. “Being an architect from my point of view is building experiences, not a concrete space like a bedroom or living room or any other word with room at the end,” Baudoncq, previously a literature student, says during a phone interview. He shares Decq’s view that reevaluating the definition of “architect” will be important in coming years and needs to include a wider range of possibilities for those studying it. “I really like the new approach of [working with] technology and the relationship to new possibilities of 3D printing and virtual reality,” he adds.

At Confluence, students hail from around the globe. Special care is taken to ensure there is an equal number of men and women in both the student body and staff. Famous instructors like Sir Peter Cook, founder of the London-based radical architecture group Archigram, teach students in a hands-on, intensive, seminar-based model.

“Of course we have philosophical and theoretical practices, but nothing should stay abstract. Everything should be tested, fabricated, and prototyped,” says Nicolas Hannequin, an architect and professor at Confluence.

Confluence Institute
Roland Halbe/Courtesy of Studio Odile Decq

Many of the course offerings are unconventional. One of the most well-received was a seminar with a choreographer that culminated in a class performance at Lyon’s Dance Biennial in 2015. “The students learned to dance and in the end of the week they had to create their own choreography, and also draw their body moving in space,” describes Hannequin.

“Having a dancer teach a workshop in an architectural school makes total sense to us because it raises this question in another way rather than looking at the technicality of the body dimensions when creating architecture,” he explains.

Confluence also offers a course on neuroscience, which Decq says is important to the way one conceptualizes and understands space: “Architecture is also for your body.”

Hannequin says the students generally react well to the unorthodox methods, but admits that confusion can be part of the process. “They might be a little lost at times because they don’t always see the direct implications on architecture, but I feel that if they do the whole curriculum, at the end they will understand why we tried to work on those ideas,” he says.

Although there are no plans for the school’s replication elsewhere, Hannequin believes the school is part of a global movement towards interdisciplinary, project-based teaching, what he calls “learning by doing.”

“It is a formidable undertaking to start up an independent school that defies standard architectural academic procedures and proposes trans-disciplinary thinking and experimentation,” says designer Francesca Garcia-Marques, who invited Decq to speak at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Distinguished Architects Lecture Series this past December. “I believe Odile Decq’s Confluence Institute will become as important as SCI-Arc [Southern California Institute of Architecture], that was founded with a similar philosophy in Los Angeles in 1972.”

For Decq’s architectural endeavors, 2017 is a year full of promise. Her projects, including a Paris building, a Barcelona apartment building, and a private home, continue to push limits. A private residence in Brittany will also push the use of glass to new heights, with a glass façade offset by a roof topped with large stones. The effect creates what Decq describes as a “heaviness that is soft underneath.”

The Barcelona high-rise, Decq’s first, will include an infinity pool on top and curved balconies. “We are continuing to push some details very far, to have sinuous glass, a single sheet of 10 meters high, so this is really pushing the possibilities as I like to do. The goal is to go further,” explains the architect.

Her office, which maintains a staff of around a dozen full-time employees, chooses projects carefully—and no more than she can have a hand in. “I can’t manage an office of 80 people, because then you have hierarchy and I don’t want to have hierarchy in my office,” she says, confirming that she has no aim to become a “starchitect.”

Decq is especially outspoken on that topic: “Everyone wants to become a star architect and this is stupid. An architect can’t become stars because they have to help people. You can be known, no problem—that means people come to you to ask questions, but not more. You don’t work for yourself, you work for others.”

Editor: Sara Polsky


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