Gérard Grandval: An Architectural Dialogue
In an exclusive interview with Parisian architect, Gérard Grandval, he reflects on his experiences as an architect and his hopes for the future of the architectural design conversation.
By: Anthony Price
Gérard Grandval in his Paris studio. Image captured by Sarah Piiparinen Sanou.
In his work, Prix de Rome recipient Gérard Grandval incites conversation. Whether the reaction is of praise or critique, Grandval sees the necessity in continuing the social conversation around where one lives, not how one lives. Les Choux de Créteil, an apartment complex resembling pale cylinders of cabbage leaves, rises over the suburban landscape of Créteil. Its blend of futurism with the imposing façade of brutalist architecture weaved together in an organic reference makes for quite the conversation piece for anyone that lives there.
To Grandval, maintaining clarity in discourse is paramount; not only should the conversation happen, but it should be lively, far from understated or industrial, and healthy. Inspired by what he sees around him, the architect and poet wants to remind us to break banality and remain far from silent.
Center: Portrait of Gérard Grandval in his Paris Studio. Shot by Sarah Pipariinen Sanou.
Left & Right: Sketches and notes by Gérard Grandval.
Is there some sort of reaction or idea that you’re after through your creations?
Within the cities, the architecture of the cities, as with the landscapes, maintains a conversation. We as architects pursue a long and fertile dialogue. For me, the architecture of cities is not silent. This dialogue with the humanized space is vital. I, therefore, refused to adhere to the silence caused by architectural deterioration from economic industrialization that confined and condemned the urban residents.
Your designs seem to pull from futuristic designs with some organic flairs. From where do you draw your influences?
With the passage of time, I believe that my old projects were not futuristic, but anticipatory. Reconciliation of the cities in the natural world and the mineral space for which I was in, Créteil was one of the initiators and has become commonplace for which I welcome it.
Tell us about the process of receiving approval to build your buildings and projects like Choux des Créteil.
This approval had a resonance and generated a curiosity that was always present, it made this city known and brought its name beyond France. Its media effect continues, although at first, at the time, the marketing of housing was slow and the pressure mounted on the architects was quite trying. In a way, this project was a response to a provocative invitation from the Mayor of this city, General Billotte, formulated in these terms during a meeting: "Show me that something else is possible!". It was 1968; the slogans and key phrases of the "revolution" of May were: "The imagination in power" and "Let's be reasonable, let's ask the impossible." I had in mind a quote from the French writer Henri Michaux: "Who hides his fool dies voiceless" and I thought I should not, that I would not, shy away: it would be that or nothing.
Underlying the architectural choices, there was an equally rational approach: give this social housing, whose surfaces were limited by standards, so cramped, important exterior surfaces out of sight and in spirit, reconciling the mineral and the vegetable, the durable and the variant. Currently (50 years later), these notions are admitted, they are even perhaps exaggerated and trivialized.
After that ensemble was revealed, what were the reactions to it like?
Every project is a world. Sites, situations, programs differ. I'm not very supportive of this often asserted desire to deliver the same architectural answer in any situation as if in a certain way, the time and space did not exist. In my opinion, an architect does not have to defend a brand image. The entirety of the fashion exhibition I made in the Louvre, whose use varies constantly, is invisible and even supports gardens planted with trees.
How do you find your inspirations?
I look at everything around me.
Are there messages or statements that you seek to make with your buildings and designs?
Essentially, in the often painful difficulty imposed by the need to resolve contradictions, to reconcile antagonisms. The analogy with political choices seems obvious to me. I remain convinced that there is always somewhere a space of freedom.
Is there a specific decade or movement that you prefer to emulate or base your works off of?
I stood against the reductive dimension of functionalism. However, built buildings are most often in response to a demand, a need for limits imposed by gravity, and their cost is important.
Center: Photography of Mr. Grandval's Créteil commune in France (Built in 1974).
Left & Right: Water colors of Créteil by Gérard Grandval.
As an architect and a poet, how do the two interact? Do they interact?
Some areas of architectural creation are rarely explored today. It has been sometimes rather mysterious. I think of the truncated column of the Desert of Retz, the leaning house of Bomarzo Park, the palace of Picassiette in Charts, Watts towers, some tiny houses… Architecture, because of these dimensions, is rarely a lonely passion.
It is not every day that we get to speak with a Prix de Rome recipient. Can you tell us about that experience and what the Prix de Rome entails?
At the time I was a student at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and it was a composition exercise on an ambitious subject. A certain underlying philosophy, which was not explained or formulated, was:
A. That the laws of architecture transcend eras and techniques. In other words, designing a building made of a stone wall and timber frame or metal frame and glass frame did not make a difference.
B. That in a set, the different elements are part of a hierarchy, as in a social organization.
C. That in a particular program, a singular character was needed. In other words, we should not put anything into specific boxes.
D. That the reading of the plan should appear as clear evidence, readable at a glance.
E. Finally, and it was part of the unspoken: A project had to affirm the unity of the world.
The "one" and the "three" express the good, the "two" expresses the duality, the dichotomy was not receivable.
The laws were not written but known to all.
The observance of these principles of composition, although admissible, had still led to a form of resistance.
Architect Frank Gehry once said, “98% of architecture built today is shit.” Architecture today has changed greatly over the past century due to technological advancements and thoughts. When M. Gehry said this, what do you think he feels is missing?
To the affirmation of Frank Gehry, I will say that maybe not 98% but a strong proportion of architectural production, and therefore the work of architects is subject to the requirements of profitability, corseted by prescriptions and administrative boundaries that limit the scope of designers' freedom. That is painful for architects who have an inclination to express themselves. Other artists, when they find the means to live from their production, escape more easily.
Where do you think architecture is heading today?
At worst, towards the realization of the tower of Babel; at best, towards a reinvented world.
What was one major take away from the education that you received at the Beaux-Arts school and how did it influence your professional work?
I remained attached to the notion of readability of public buildings. I do not support the idea that they are not easy to find; the entrance of a large public building for example. I estimate in Paris, that the relationship of the Opera Garnier with the city is more obvious than that of the Opera Bastille.
Cities must be clearly written for our mental health. The readability of cities matters. The space between the buildings must always makes sense. The identification of the urban space should prevent us from the despair of the labyrinth. It should remain possible to read a city without having to read the labels.
Do you believe anyone can be taught how to be an architect?
In architectural education, there is a push to return to the teachings of classical architecture. Do you agree with this change? Is classical architecture still relevant today?
It is likely that we can learn from everything, from the primitive hut, to troglodyte life, and to the hanging gardens of Babylon, but I do not think we can escape from our history.
Left: Plan drawing of the 10 towers of the Choux des Créteil Commune ["Créteil Cabbages"]
Right: Water color of the Choux des Créteil by Gérard Grandval.
Below: Water color ofExhibition of Fashion for the Louvre Museum (1993).