Sponsored by The Hyatt Foundation

Essay

Reinventing Architecture: Christian de Portzamparc
By Ada Louise Huxtable
Author and Architecture Critic
Pritzker Architecture Prize Juror

When Isaac Newton was asked how he saw so far into the cosmos, he replied, by standing on the shoulders of giants—acknowledging all that he owed to those who preceded him and made his own achievements possible. Today’s architects truly stand on the shoulders of giants. Their debt to Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright is enormous; they are the heirs of the broad and diverse contributions of those modernist pioneers, from de Stijl to Alvar Aalto, who led a twentieth-century revolution in the art and technology of building. Whatever one thinks of the world that followed them and betrayed their dreams, architecture was never the same again.

In their turn, today’s architects are creating revolutionary change. Building on, but transcending the modernist rationale of structure and function, they are pursuing a new and equally radical kind of design: sensuous, poetic, complex, often fiercely intellectual, frequently daunting, always eye-and-mind opening, offering brilliant and beautiful alternatives to conventional practice. There has never been amore extraordinary time for architecture than right now, more creative and challenging, more filled with the promise of great work and art.

Some of this new work has already been honored by the Pritzker Prize: Frank Gehry and Alvaro Siza, an American and a Portuguese of similar aims and strikingly disparate styles, have both been recent winners. This year’s laureate, Christian de Portzamparc, is French, like the others, he explores architecture in his own very original, distinctive, and one is tempted to say, distinctively French, way. Like the others, he is pushing the frontiers of the art. What all of these architects are doing, in a sense, is reinventing architecture. They are stretching accepted limits, discovering new ways of seeing and building, much as Mannerism and the Baroque stretched the principles of the Renaissance, forever altering its vocabulary and range.

These buildings must be visited personally; what one usually sees in pictures are strange shapes and stylistic mannerisms that merely hint at the unusual design strategies underneath. Portzamparc’s work, which invokes the shapes, colors and images of the 1950s and 60s with unabashed elan, is easily misunderstood. It would be simple to call it clever theater, an example of the fashionable appropriation of the remote (for these younger architects) near-past for its romantic and decorative appeal. His roofs soar, swoop and hover; free-form shapes are lovingly recalled; nostalgic details are reconstituted in aluminum, tile and concrete that honor Morris Lapidus’s “architecture of joy.” In addition to Miami-modern redux, there are echoes of Oscar Niemeyer and Roberto Burle Marx in the undulating curves that transform Corbusian austerity in Latin American exuberance. He clearly loves it all, without condescension.

To dismiss this work as homage to a trendy vernacular, however, one must overlook the logic and originality of Portzamparc’s plans, the expert and effective way in which his solutions flow and function, his sure grasp of scale and proportion, his superior sense of urban amenity, his lyrical use of light and color. Given cultural distance and European perspective, his sources transcend shallow sentimentalism. This is no artfully retro exercise; the timeless elements of architecture are being dramatically reinterpreted. These colorful, light-filled forms serve a functional and social organization of exceptional skill. Portzamparc transforms his obvious delight in Arp-like curves and giant cones and candy colors into a pop monumentality that takes serious high camp into the realm of serious high art.

Make no mistake; this is serious architecture. It is also serious hedonism and profound French chic. But unlike so much French architecture, where the chic is skin-deep, this is seriously innovative work with an impressive range of invention.

Only a seriously assured architect could carry it off. Official French taste tends to favor modish displays of real and faux engineering over a “humanism”—a loaded word—that delights in subjective and evocative images. But Portzamparc is not alone in the persistent incorporation of personal stylistic icons—James Stirling had his lighthouses and Aldo Rossi has his haunting skeletal stairs and lonely lookout towers.

At 50—a young age in a field where the more important commissions tend to go to experienced, older practitioners—Portzamparc is already the accomplished designer of a series of major buildings. He has not yet perfected the art of suavely flamboyant self-presentation of the celebrity architect. Trailing a well-worn raincoat that is somewhat more, or less, than Armani-casual, a gently beat-up fedora over curly dark hair and puppy-sad eyes lit by an occasional wan smile, he has the look of a star-crossed, rather than star architect. He is just as likely to wear out a visitor, preferably in terrible weather, with earnestly commendable rehabs than his star turns. But when one gets to them, they are breathtaking.

There have been approximately ten years between the start of the first part of his competition-winning design of 1983 for the Cite de la Musique in the redeveloped area of La Villette and the completion of the second half of this very large complex in the Parisian outskirts. One of Mitterand’s grand travaux, this national conservatory for music and dance is less well known, but more interesting innovative than many of the projects to come out of that imperial effort.

The completed structure, already in use, contains both performance and student facilities. There is nothing conventional about this building. A dramatic, multi-storied entrance serves as a circulation core; stairs, corridors, and tiers of open balconies surround this central space, creating visible stages at many levels on which people come and go. Natural light, top to bottom interior views, generous vistas out to those controversial cones and curving balconies (one is the organ recital hall, the other connects the roofs of separate units) belie the fact that the building is partially underground. Deco details beguile in colors that conquer an institutional air.

The second structure, which houses a major concert hall, a museum and studios, starts with a stunning public act. Visitors step down from several entrances into a plaza that serves as a collecting point for pedestrian traffic, which is then carried along a curving, covered promenade leading to and circling the concert hall. One follows and narrowing sweep until the corridor reaches the street. Walls change in hue as the corridor unfolds; Portzamparc is also a painter, with an artist’s eye for what color does to a place and the people in it ...

Click to download full text in PDF format