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A word by Chloé Parent, cofounder of the Claude Parent Prize

A word from Thierry Verdier, Director of the ENSAM

Letters from the Organizing Committee

A word from Mehrad Sarmadi, co-founder of the Claude Parent Prize: 

“I hope that you will believe in something, and not merely collect knowledge. You can only step out of line if you have a deeply-rooted sense of the unprovable and, if you wish to go all the way, hold tight to that inner fire, by which I mean faith, fervor, impetus.

…Of you, I ask but one thing: flee the plague of our times, which is to want to be loved by all, to please everyone, attract fans… On the day you are applauded by a large audience, you can tell yourself that you have just made a big mistake.”

Regis Debray *


Dear readers and fellow architects, I am delighted to be here with you.

If I had been told that we would meet again one day, and that I would even help to create an architectural award… I, who often was criticized by Claude Parent for “having forgotten all about architecture, for having put it to the side, and setting out to make money”. Well, I can now say – and I hope he forgives me – that he was wrong, on both accounts. He was wrong, but he knew it. “Schein and myself were Sarmadi in the nineteen fifties. Despite the very small size of the audience, we always shone with muted anger. It’s good to see that the next generation is there… I can die in peace…” ** This is the type of comment, almost an injunction, which sooner or later forces you to commit, especially when they come from a master and friend.

This will be nothing new to you. The life of an architect, like any life actually, is made of ups and downs, intense experiences, good times and bad, and then all the rest. Only a handful are able to brush aside the rest and afford themselves the luxury of living only the ups and downs, intense experiences and the good times and bad.

To those, we wish you a very warm welcome. This is your home.

And since we are among ourselves, I might say a couple of words on the purpose of this competition. As although transgression is the visible title, transmission is no doubt the hidden driver.

For a long time, I believed that transgression as the idea of opposition seemed to suffice in itself. You can make a whole life out of playing the opponent. A life that begins and ends adolescently is one that so many architects have made their own. Thirty years ago I would admire them, today I find them boring. Overrated, hackneyed but above all sterile, transgression is vain and pointless if it offers no perspective, no pathway along which we may move ahead, step by step. A side step that leads nowhere is basically just another facet of idleness, the other facet of conformity. I might as well warn you now, don’t count on us to defend such an easy position.

Transmission is the hidden driver that has gathered us here today, but it is above all a reminder of our duty to remember and a gamble, that of doing at least as well as our masters and predecessors. Of course, wagering on transgression is increasingly difficult and is disappearing fast, but what does that matter? Little by little, the construction is taking form, in the likeness of a tradition, loyalty to a lineage and high standards. Following in Claude Parent's radical and subversive footsteps may not guarantee mainstream success, but it does help to build a body of work, to regain momentum, which may sometimes falter, but then picks up again from time to time. I’m glad to see you taking part.


                                                                                                                     Mehrad Sarmadi***


* Régis Debray, Bilan de faillite, Gallimard, 2018

** Claude Parent, Portraits d’architectes, Editions Norma, 2005

*** Largely borrowed from Nicolas Rey, Un léger passage à vide, Au diable Vauvert, 2010 et Régis Debray, Propos divers


A word from Chloé Parent, co-founder of the Claude Parent Prize: 

On the back cover of The Architecture of Transgression*, authors Jonathan Mosley and Rachel Sara give this definition of transgressive architecture:

“Transgression suggests operating beyond accepted norms and radically reinterpreting practice by pushing at the boundaries of both what architecture is, and what it could or even should be. The current economic crisis and accompanying political/social unrest have exacerbated the difficulty into which architecture has long been sliding: challenged by other professions and a culture of conservatism, architecture is in danger of losing its prized status as one of the preeminent visual arts. Transgression opens up new possibilities for practice. It highlights the positive impact that working on the architectural periphery can make on the mainstream, as transgressive practices have the potential to reinvent and reposition the architectural profession: whether they are engaging with conceptual art; pioneering urban interventions; advocating informal development; breaking barriers of taste; shifting between research and practice or creating critical projects”

We believe that this definition corresponds to the foundations that we find in the architecture and thought of Claude Parent. Repositioning the architectural profession, fighting the culture of conservatism, reinventing architecture, making unprecedented urban interventions, destabilizing environments, provoking mutations: these positions were dear to Claude Parent. Throughout his life, these actions, vital in his practice of architecture, motivated and guided him. Faced with criticism, mockery and resistance from a world too often reproducing its past, he never gave up questioning architecture, or risking his own reputation, opening the door to a new architecture freed from the sclerosis of classicism and modernist Cartesianism.


This is why, in his honor and in the spirit of his complete commitment to architecture, we created the Claude Parent Prize for transgressive architecture. But this prize is not only a tribute prize to honor or perpetuate his memory. It is intended to be an inspiration, an encouragement, an engine for change, and for the winner, recognition of their own commitment. Its primary purpose is to show young architects and students that any research, and in particular marginal research, can generate new fertile avenues leading to a change in our built, social or even natural environment, and therefore in our lives. This audacity, this temerity, this rebellion are necessary in a profession which loses the taste for risk and questioning, is afraid of questioning itself, avoids marginality, and tends to retreat more and more towards the comfort of doctrine.


The Claude Parent Prize will therefore reward an architect or studio who has shown in their architectural practice and philosophy a desire to rethink architecture in a transgressive, critical or pioneering way. We want to recognize their courage, the consistency of their risk-taking, the intelligence and relevance of their vision or their unique contribution to architecture. And this internationally, opening up a world of possibilities. Whether their reflection comes from the refusal of the status quo, from the desire to find new configurations for architecture and urbanism, or from that of responding to the current or future problems of the world, these architects will have brought something essential to their discipline, turning it upside down and creating alternative paths that hold promise for us all.


To use the words of Claude Parent at the end of his book Errer dans L’illusion:
If you want to go high, and see the world from above in its entirety without losing the earthly sensations of walking in the soil, then be an architect.

    Practice research, pursue the imagination.

    Venture into theory, stay awake in your dreams, leave the two plus two makes four to others, prefer chaos.

    Work in illusion.

    You will undoubtedly wander in this area for many years, you will exhaust yourself moving stubborn mountains, you will often doubt your sanity, but at the end of your wandering you will find your home, your mythical castle, and through the door yawning, you will enter the architecture standing up: this place inaccessible to ordinary mortals.

    Others have power, money, pleasure, glory, happiness, you have nothing, but you are the source of liberation in the way of living and thinking.

    You will be mobile, you will move what cannot move, you will cross the Mediterranean, you will topple all the citadels, you will make the broken surface of the planet continuous, then fracture it according to your desires, you will practice turning upside down, you will love the fragment much more than the whole, you will be an architect…

    Good luck.


* ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN magazine n° 226 (November/December 2013) “The architecture of transgression









A word by Thierry Verdier, Director of the ENSAM 

The Strength of Memory


As young architecture students in the mid-1980s, amidst the search for a language that could articulate our peculiar situation, we found ourselves detached from the ‘generation of ’68’. The tabula rasa advocated by the revolutionary petite bourgeoisie of Paris seemed to have given birth to a skeletal being of sorts. The pseudonym ‘academism of fine arts’, a true spectre of the École des Beaux-Arts, had become the object of widespread ridicule. Life drawing classes were no more; architectural theory classes were gone; and the ‘gallery’ had to focus primarily on sociology. Mathematics classes had been replaced by courses on sensory theory. What a state of affairs!


‘Sociologists’ (who never supported a sociology doctorate) ruled the architecture schools. They were the ones conceiving the ‘project’. Engaging in endless and soporific discussions, these ‘thought bureaucrats’ imagined themselves as great minds, deliberating for hours on the most banal of matters. They would take a word, any word – which they called a ‘concept’ to sound more scholarly – and explain that the word meant one thing, but also its opposite, and the opposite of its opposite, and so on. They pontificated on and on, listening to themselves string together phrases in a most pretentious display of empty arrogance. They had likely read Roland Barthes in a condensed version. They were fond of quoting Deleuze or Foucault, imagining themselves as revolutionaries of culture. Their compass was named Bourdieu. They despised Malraux and Aron without ever having read them. They detested the classics (Balzac, Zola, Flaubert, Stendhal, Maupassant, France ... and throwing in Mauriac, Giraudoux, or Montherlant for good measure) whose names they only knew from street signs at the corners of the roads they took to in their anti-bourgeois crusade. They idolised the ‘new novels’ of Butor, Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, Duras, and Simon, without ever realising that these authors were steeped in classical literature and ‘academic’ thought. Sartre began to smell as musty as Marx, Marcuse, and Stalin. The hedonistic revolution of the ‘peace-and-love’ generation that advocated the use of marijuana as destiny and free love as a sensory experience already seemed completely outdated. We looked on with pity at these lingering adolescents playing rebels, passing around a limp joint while lounging on faded cushions that had replaced the sofas in the cafeteria-turned-open-bar. Everything was ‘cool’. Men and women were ‘nice’. We learned ‘without shackles’, and Dad paid for our education....


Life was easy, but lacked character or mystique. We were shaping a generation of untalented architects who had been led to believe that they had to invent everything and that it would spontaneously spring from their brilliant minds and liberated thoughts. What a challenge, what a lie!


Then, almost by chance, we discovered a book free of pretence, or the enticing clichés of an architectural Woodstock that had become the altar for our ‘sociologists’. We passed it around from hand to hand. This book, by Michel Ragon, was titled Claude Parent: Critical Monograph of an Architect. It was published in 1982 but remained forgotten and forsaken on library shelves (fairly vacant after the rebels of ’68 had tossed heaps of ‘academic’ works out the windows). The book would have been acquired by the librarian at that moment but catalogued with books on the history of modern architecture. Light years away from idols and prophets like Le Corbusier, Mies, or Gropius, it was a book labeled ‘history’ but had no chance of escaping the hell that this hated and despised word cast on everything around it.


One of us, however, had ‘seen something about Parent in an architecture magazine’. Curiosity piqued, he immersed himself in Ragon’s book on Claude Parent and discovered all the facets of an architect whose work he knew so little about. His reading became ours. We then happily got lost in the pages of another book, an older one (from 1975), authored by Parent, in which he shared his thoughts on the architect’s profession. We had finally found the text we needed, the one we were waiting for without knowing it existed. He spoke about the profession, skills, relationships with the constructed article, and the links between client and creator. A framework was taking shape.


Then came, albeit belatedly, the discovery of ‘the oblique function’, ‘the Architectural Precept’, replete with references to dance by way of the ‘oblique gymnastics’ method as laid out by his sister Nicole, in Parent’s Les entrelacs de L'oblique (‘The Interlacings of the Oblique’) (1983); and also the truly admirable Colères ou la nécessité de détruire (‘Anger, or The Necessity of Destruction’) (1983), beautifully laid out by his daughter Chloé. We encountered Paul Virilio, the bunkers of the Atlantic Wall, memories of André Bloc and his monolithic villa, the Sainte-Bernadette church in Banlay, Nevers, Claude Parent’s house in Neuilly ... and unforgettably, Julien Gracq, whose image of a Rivage des Syrtes facing an unattainable Farghestan had regretfully become our reality.


A subversive spirit permeated our daily lives. Yet we were no longer in the realm of empty phrases and bazaar rhetoric; instead, we were in architecture, deeply entrenched in the creative process, in the refusal to become the L’Architecte Bouffon social (‘Social Jester Architect’) (1982), a disdainful figure in a de-cultured world. Julien Gracq said he did not like Rome: he dismissed the city as one ‘buried beneath our feet’, advocated for a different perspective on history, conceived catastrophe as allegory, and viewed it as a novel without a subject. We also learned in L’architecture et le nucléaire (‘Architecture and Nuclear Power’) (1978) that nuclear power plants were not mere Maisons de l’atome (‘Houses of the Atom’) (1983) but boundless reflections on the question of territory. We know what happened after the (justifiably) venomous backlash by environmentalists against the Fessenheim power plant. But what mattered most to us, was that between contingency and necessity, we believed in growing a new generation of architects. We were not subversive, but simply realistic. Upon closer inspection, the entire new generation – Nouvel, Portzamparc, Gaudin, Ciriani, Soler, Perrault, and others – had participated in this Enfin l’architecture (‘Architecture at Last’) (1984), celebrated in a foundational work by Jean-Pierre Le Dantec, and had been nourished with that same elixir.


We felt a bit like the children of Claude Parent. We hesitated to approach him because his intellectual authority overwhelmed us with its relevance. Still, his words had to be embodied in someone. We did not admire the ‘man of paper’ but rather the architect whose constructive practice was a lesson in courage. Therefore, we decided to invite him to the school to speak to us, to ‘correct’ our student projects, to impart some of his strength and determination to us ...

His arrival was one of the greatest memories of our student lives. We didn’t have much money, so he paid for his train ticket and hotel room himself. What’s more, he wrote us a check so that we could organise a trip to explore all of the architecture built in and around Paris. He insisted that we explore the structures, and that we cease judging architectural space solely through glossy photographs. He wanted to cultivate our gaze; to make our hairs stand on end when beholding the most striking edifices of yesterday and today; to help us appreciate the ordinariness of life and the elegance of simple gestures.


But more than this generosity and desire to make us ‘move’, Parent delivered, to an auditorium ready to explode like a political meeting room, *the* lecture that transformed the nonchalance of our lives into the promise of a profession. In contrast to architects who had previously presented their work through a deluge of slides, Parent showed three images: a fallen bunker, a mountain slope, and a transparent glass. He then made chalk renderings on a blackboard, erased his sketches, redrew, erased again, and composed again and again. Simple drawings, white lines, and hatched arabesques; lines that disappeared into the expanse of an invisible horizon; silhouettes in profile ‘quite alone on their slope’, he said with irony.


We all understood that genuine commitment, authentic subversion, transgression against the edict of official taste, and speech liberated from commercial servility, did not reside in beautiful ‘sociological-revolutionary’ speeches or in theatrical effects, but in the unfeigned knowledge of a pursuit that unites man, matter, time, and a certain idea of natural beauty (or ‘fortuitous’ to use Balzac’s term).


It is in these seemingly insignificant yet profound moments in which vocations are woven; where the veritable ethic of an architect is shaped; that the strength of memory is truly defined. For all of these reasons, we owe an immense debt to Claude Parent.


Thierry Verdier, Dean of Ensam

A word by Mehrad Sarmadi, cofounder of the Claude Parent Prize
A word by Thierry Verdier, Director of the ENSAM, architect
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