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Displacing the grid

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The depressed state of British architecture in the early 1990s was as nothing, it seems, to conditions in France today. Odile Decq and Benoit Cornette, who have made a serious career out of being the enfants terribles of French architecture, are suffering with the rest. 'In France we do a lot of competitions,' says Cornette. 'When you win competitions today you are published, you have an exhibition, but you don't build the building.'

Not surprisingly, they are looking for work outside their home country, and particularly at England, a country for which they have always had great respect. In the days when sensitive uk architects were dreaming wistfully of a country with a culture of grands projets, Decq and Cornette were making frequent forays to London visiting 100-200 new buildings.

Why this interest? 'We always entered buildings under construction,' said Decq. 'Architects in the uk are much more interested in construction.' And they are much more interested in steel, which is almost unknown as a structural material in France, but which Decq and Cornette love to use. 'We are interested in the relation between structure and the construction of space,' says Decq. Cornette adds: 'We prefer steel because it is more rigorous, precise, constructive'.

One critic described their still best-known major project, the Banque Populaire de l'Ouest in Rennes, completed in 1990, as looking as if it had been designed by a cross between Nicholas Grimshaw and Zaha Hadid. The philosophy which underlies their buildings, which share little but a kind of controlled idiosyncracy, is, says Decq, a concern with 'the displacement of the body in the space. Space is not only a volume. You open the door and understand the space in one view. We are interested in what you discover along a walk.'

Their projects not only all look different, they also have very different briefs: university buildings, social housing, exhibition design, a motorway operations centre, and the most recent competition wins, a rugby stand and a research centre. The common theme, the pair feel, is complexity, which Cornette sees as an integral part of today's buildings. 'In the past buildings were for only one function. Now there is complexity, and different parts with different roles. It is not really efficient to express this within the same organisation and facade. We like to reorganise the complexity with very efficient and creative links.'

This is why they rebel against much prevailing French architectural orthodoxy. 'Many architects call themselves neo-Modernists, neo-Corbusians,' said Decq. 'We think it's not possible to do this on such different types of work. And for us, the neo-Modernists are something from the 1930s.'

Their current workload is as eclectic as ever. The Saint Gobain research centre involves the renovation of an existing building and the creation of a new facade. The economic science and law library for the University of Nantes is, at £360 per m2, apparently the lowest-priced construction for a university in France. Their largest project is the masterplanning of the 400ha Gennevilliers docks just outside Paris, an area that has gradually become, with virtually no planning, the second largest inland container port in Europe.

Despite these projects, the office is down to about a dozen, from its top strength of 25, and actively looking elsewhere for work. They are depressed by the French scene, not only because of the state of the economy but also because of attitudes. When Jean Tiberi was installed as Mayor of Paris, he opened the first new exhibition at the Pavillon de l'Arsenal and declared, according to Decq, that it 'was now time for small projects without ambition, which can disappear in the landscape with no controversy'. Decq and Cornette feel that French architecture is stultified by the tradition of expecting everything important to happen in the public realm. 'In the uk,' says Cornette, 'people think architecture adds value.' And, sacreligiously for a Frenchman, he goes on to equate British architecture with British food: 'Even the cooking is interesting here now. You can invent new tastes, new sensations.'

It is a shame, then, that the two have had such a rough ride in the uk. They recently fell at the last hurdle in Glasgow's 'Homes for the Future' competition, and their appointment to redesign the Cambridge Arts Cinema looks likely to fall victim to financial troubles. However, intriguingly, they are working for a mystery client on a themed restaurant to be built near the new Tate at Bankside.

Decq and Cornette evidently have a creative relationship, happily interrupting and contradicting each other. It is not easy to tell who contributes what to the partnership, but Decq says that Cornette, who trained as a doctor before turning to architecture, 'thinks like a scientist'. They are highly efficient, claiming they can tackle projects with three or four people, where others expect it to take 15. In the slimmed-down, competitive 1990s, that should help win them the wider client base they seek.

Odile Decq and Benoit Cornette will give the aj lecture at the riba on Tuesday 10 February. Their work can be seen in the 'Displaced Grid' exhibition at the riba Architecture Centre

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