Alex Ulam: In your Pritzker Prize acceptance speech, you stated that modernist architecture came to dominate in Paris after the Second World War. How did that affect the architectural ambiance there?
Christian de Portzamparc: The theme of this epoch was to start with a clean slate. People felt a moral need to make the future better. The theory was that three-fifths of the city would need to be erased, with a plan to transform and modernize all of Paris. Parts of the Thirteenth and the Fifteenth Arrondissements were torn down and replaced with modern buildings. In the Thirteenth Arrondissement, you have a strange hybrid scene, where half the buildings are facing the street and the other half do not relate to the street at all. After the war, the city planners had the idea that modern urbanization meant the separation between circulation and object. This approach was stopped around 1974, when I was building my first housing project, Hautes Formes, in the Thirteenth Arrondissement.
Were you uncomfortable with the tabula rasa approach? There were many possibilities to work on such a façade as the Louis Vuitton/Moet Hennessy building in Manhattan. In Paris, you have no opportunities like this.
Yes, but at the same time I was against imitating the old streets and existing blocks with (traditional) inner courtyards with no view and no light. I wanted to create a new form of urbanism, what I term “Open Block.” Currently, in a thirty-block area near Massena Paris Rive Gauche, for which I am the planner but not the architect, I am working on making open blocks with a lot of circulation of light and movement. Each building is separate. So instead of the traditional Parisian courtyards, you have apartments with many different orientations. Instead of the traditional enclosed courtyards, a garden can be visible from the street.
There were many possibilities to work on such a façade as the Louis Vuitton/Moet Hennessy building in Manhattan. In Paris, you have no opportunities like this.
What is the condition of Parisian architecture today?
Architectural confusion reigns throughout all of Europe. In the mid-’70s, there was a general feeling that modern urbanism was a mistake. Many architects went back to regressive images, saying, “Let’s return to the eternal city of yesteryear.” But the architecture they produced was not very good.
For more than two thousand years, cities had been organized around the street. In the 1950s, the modernist movement said that the traditional street, with its traffic, automobiles, and trains, was not the place for the future. They attempted to separate all of the objects. So you had the city of the void and of separate masses.
In the 1980s (came) a third age. We had two thousand years of age one; then twenty years of age two, where there was more architecture built around Paris than was built in all the years of the first age. With the present age, Paris entered a period during which new towns arose on the periphery of the metropolis and where styles could change every five years. The planners would say, “Let’s do the old village,” or they would try parks with modern, free-standing apartment towers, where no common theme bound these places, apart from the highways. We call this situation the “diffused city.” It is now found all over the world.
What is distinctive about designing in the heart of historic Paris?
Generally buildings have to align with the street, and you have to make a facade that connects them with the adjacent buildings. I don’t like this situation; I accept it when it is possible to include some type of modernity. But I do not copy the classical, because it is neither in line with my aesthetic convictions nor with my style. We don’t systematically destroy the past; we should transform it. One of the pleasures of the city is that our ancestors are speaking to us through historic architecture. Everyone wants to live in the Rue de Seine because it is magnetic; I myself have been living there. (But) today if I built a street of buildings like those of Rue de Seine in Paris, nine meters wide with an inner courtyard, everybody would say that I am crazy. If we build today, it is not to go back to the past. We must not regard the city as a museum — or worse, a museum of copies. Sometimes we have to transform or destroy some of the past so that our time period can affirm its values.
You built one of New York City’s most distinctive office buildings for the Louis Vuitton/Moet Hennessy Group on 57th Street in Manhattan.
One of my purposes was to avoid the black shape of the IBM building across the street reflecting on the facade of the LVMH building. I worked with prismatic shades of glass, using this broken facade which breaks the reflection; and I used sanded glass, which makes very good light inside and banishes the reflection of the IBM building, while giving a distinctive presence to the LVMH building itself. There were many possibilities to work on such a facade in Manhattan. In Paris, you have no opportunities like this: You cannot break the hole in the street wall; you cannot build with oblique lines; and you have to accommodate the height of ceiling limited to twenty-five meters.
It was big hit among civic organizations in New York.
It was a great thing for me that New Yorkers accepted this building. Since my days as a student, New York has been a great inspiration for me. Of course, as an architecture student, the standard thing to do was go to Italy, but during the ‘60s, I refused to go to Italy; my role model was New York. Even if there were not a lot of extraordinary buildings in New York, what motivated me was the urban space of the city: its modernity, its verticality, its grid of streets, the light from the river, the extraordinary setting of Central Park.
So I spent the year 1966 in New York. I was very interested in art, literature, and music. I was going to performances and to literature readings every night. I worked as a bartender, and I roamed the city, doing a lot of sketching and writing about my experiences. Without my time in New York, I would probably not have had this taste for verticality in architecture. Modern architecture was supposed to be about the horizontal lines at that time. Without this earlier experience, I would not have been (so) ready for the LVMH building or the new Park Avenue project.
You also designed the Café Beaubourg in Paris near the Pompidou Center, which has been one of the most fashionable cafes in Paris for the past eighteen years.
At the time I was designing the Beaubourg, I had just won a project to do the Cité de La Musique, a huge project. There was not enough time to do both. My wife Elizabeth told me, “No, you should do that; it is just as important. It is a café in the center of Paris that could change everything.” It is true; a café such as the Beaubourg can be more important for a city than just a tall building. A café can help transform the spirit of a neighborhood. I worked on physical and mental comfort. It was several old buildings put together, so I made a space with a huge open area where you could exhibit or parade yourself, and with little discrete areas where people could be alone or read the paper. People say the place has not gone out of fashion at all; the new generations go there.
Do you still paint?
I have painted for a long time. In the ’70s, I did work that was between painting and drawing. It is difficult to say whether it was abstract; it was related more to landscape and spaces than to architecture. In the ’80s, it became more related to buildings and construction. Later I began to play with space and color. When I do a drawing, the pleasure is immediate. When you are designing a building, you are creating something you will not be building yourself; it’s an intermediary thing. You may have to wait many years before seeing something built that you designed. With drawing, you have succeeded in one or three hours time.
The present is a terrible time for architecture. Eleven years ago we won the competition for the design of a library and museum in Britanny, which is still under construction. In Luxembourg we won an international competition for a new concert hall in the beginning of 1998, but we won’t finish until 2005. With architecture, you have to make a war sometimes to get something built. Everything can change: the rules, politics, laws, materials that are not available, the economics of the project. You always wait out a certain amount of difficulty. But I don’t engage in an antagonistic crazy war, just the normal war to convince or to find new solutions.