Interview with Odile Decq - ODBC Odile Decq - Benoit Cornette
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Interview with Odile Decq

ODBC Odile Decq - Benoit Cornette

Edited By Alessandra Orlandoni - 8 January 2010

Alessandra Orlandoni - In 1996, visiting the Ed Kienholtz exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum, I was struck by the artist’s official acknowledgement of the contribution made to his work by his companion Nancy. That same year, you won the Venice Golden Lion with Benoît Cornette, and last year Zaha Hadid won the Pritzker Prize. I see these as significant precedents encouraging an equality of the sexes that is still some way off.
Odile Decq – I have always wondered why there are so many women in architect practices and so few who branch out on their own. I have thought a lot about that. First, women can choose. Men cannot: they don’t exist except through their professional achievements, and that is a strong driver. Women who choose their family stop being architects because they have the idea that they exist through their children. I didn’t make that choice. Also still today women’s education is not geared to teaching them to believe in themselves, to create themselves and dedicate time to acquiring confidence. Architecture, in a certain sense, is a war. It’s a tough profession where you always have to fight. You have to have great stamina. I kept going because I started working as a team with Benoît who helped, supported and pushed me to go my own way. He treated me as an equal, strengthened my own resolve to assert myself, follow my own inclination and be as I wanted to be. I also tell students and repeat at conferences that you need a good dose of recklessness to go down the road of architecture because if you are too aware of the difficulties the profession entails, you might never begin. You have to keep fighting but without really knowing what the fight is. Very often this recklessness is considered folly. That’s wrong; it’s pure recklessness – something that is socially acceptable for men, but not yet for women.

A.O. – Are there any theories or maestros that have influenced you or that you refer to?
O.D. – I have no references. I love buildings, not maestros. I have never had a maestro. I am too eclectic in my choices and tastes, and too curious to espouse completely one theory or go down just one road, be it in architecture, fashion or music. I feel the need to take in as much as possible from the world. And that means you must be free of any influences. The big mistakes of architecture schools and most teachers is to teach architecture inside architecture. Architecture has to be seen “in the world”, and that’s very different.

A.O. – Places and non-places. Ettore Sottsass in an interview on his birthday said that architects must design places, and that “in his pavilion in Barcelona, even Mies felt the need to put a statue”(1*). Marc Augé says that our contemporary lives are lived out in non-places. Does architecture create places or non-places?
O.D. – Architecture creates spaces, places in which the human body must feel at ease. At the same time, our contemporary well-being is linked to non-places and things like communication, contacts and mobility. The question is to build places in which our condition of “non-places” can be a good experience. I think that architecture should create spaces for human beings who are constantly disconnected from the place in which they find themselves at that moment, spaces for our nomadic condition. Paul Virilio once told me that architects should always refer to the human body because the notion of place is closely linked to the body while the notion of non-place is linked to a mental dimension. Being constantly taken up with communication and virtual worlds, we forget that the body remains the material, physical substrate that feeds the spirit.

A.O. – Charles Baudelaire in his Tableaux Parisiens was fascinated by the metropolis, its contrasts and many tiers. Frank Ghery’s Bilbao Guggenheim or Peter Cook’s Kunsthalle in Graz, Will Alsop’s OCAD in Toronto, were constructed in urban fabric that is not generally familiar. That’s very different from your project for the MACRO in a city known throughout the world, Rome. Does your approach have to be very different depending on whether you are working in a place with no identity or a heritage site of world renown?
O.D. – The difference is only apparent. The problem in Rome is to integrate contemporary architecture. To become part of the 21st century, Rome must have architecture of the times and increase its visibility vis à vis contemporary structure. I think this is what the current administration wants. Rome is beginning to move towards the future. So it’s important new project areas be seen in this light.

A.O. -  Will the MACRO signal the contemporary character of the city?
O.D. – I couldn’t say. I was not able to demolish all the façades as I would have liked on the MACRO project, and the work is fairly concealed. That’s why I asked permission to cut away the corner and project the work towards the outside to signal that something totally different existed on the inside. When Piazza Augusto Imperatore was built, they had the courage then to introduce contemporary buildings for the time. Why then and not now? It’s important that the city take that cue and it’s a positive that there are projects like MACRO, MAXXI by Zaha Hadid, the projects of Richard Meier and Massimiliano Fuksas.  It revitalises the city. When I go to Rome and wander around the neighbourhood of the former Peroni factory, I always meet somebody who asked me the way to the MACRO. Obviously I tell them, and also say that I can show them the whole project if they want! People go to Rome to see contemporary art. I find that fantastic. New art galleries are springing up and the neighbourhood is changing. The museum is having an impact on the city through contemporary art. Perhaps next time, the architecture will be more apparent and impact the city too.

A.O. – Your architecture is disquieting. It is space designed to interact with the emotional, sensory side of its visitors. As you know, there is heated debate over the separation of domains: what should be architecture, what art and what design..
O.D. – A contemporary art museum today cannot be a neutral building, despite those who hold out for white aseptic spaces. I don’t agree at all. Museum rooms today must not be too expressive; they must be open spaces that allow for any type of artistic exhibition. All the other spaces, however, should be highly characteristic to help the general public get into a different world. Contemporary art is complicated; it asks questions and doesn’t give answers. A destabilising environment helps the public approach another different dimension, and get a deeper perception of what they are looking at. That’s why I have sensory circulation paths using materials that stimulate the physical sensitivity of the visitor: inclined surfaces that force the body to find a different rapport with the physical dimension and relate to the work of art in a different way and not as a tourist simply passing in front of something “other than self”. The ramp system obliges visitors to observe things from anomalous positions. Here you don’t walk around the art works, you get involved actively in discovering the art. Yesterday evening I was at dinner with artists and gallery owners, and someone said that art and architecture should keep within their respective confines. I replied that I didn’t agree at all. They are disciplines that have to dialogue and it’s the exchange that is interesting.

A.O. – East and West. Throughout the 20th century, the metropolitan model par excellence was New York. Although changes have been ongoing for years, only recently has the East emerged as a new economic and urban reality. Will the new eastern cities be the urban model of the 21st century?
O.D. -  I don’t know whether today a new model for the city is being laid down in Beijing or Shanghai. What is being built there takes the West as its reference point. They are two very different cities. Beijing extends horizontally. It’s centre, the Forbidden City and a few other traditional buildings, is not visible. The outward extension has been concentric, in Western style. It is a really huge megalopolis. Shanghai is a densely built city, but compact – you can cross it on foot. It’s not concentric in shape, although the outlying areas are beginning to follow this model. I don’t believe that it’s the formal model of the eastern city that will influence the West, rather people’s attitude to the city and change. Confidence in development has changed the East, thrusting it towards the future. Talking and working with people who live in China, you realise that for them nothing is impossible. There are few rules, just sufficient to give form to the system, and there are no urban codes. Anything new for them is an adventure to be experienced and for which risks are worth taking. What surprised me is the enthusiasm for projects that in France would have been refused outright. They strive to find solutions for any kind of proposal, and do in fact find them, albeit in their own way. Working with them is exciting. As to the West, there are differences between Europe and America. In Europe everything is codified, regulated, organised. There is very little leeway for action, and if you want to express yourself freely you have to find the loopholes in the dominant system of regulations. That can also represent a challenge but it takes up so much energy, and is tiring. Europeans are not ready, or not yet ready, to consider something different as interesting; they see it as dangerous and therefore risky. Then the economic crisis of the 90s, the breaking down of frontiers between East and West, the fragility of America as seen by 9/11… all these changes have caused objectives to implode; people are seeking short term security, and are fearful of taking on the responsibility of risk. This is a problem. Young people have grown up without desires because they have everything. They have lost their curiosity, and feel that leaving the family means suffering a loss. It’s difficult to set out on an adventure, look to the future with enthusiasm if you are convinced that your condition will only get worse. I have always thought that leaving one’s family for new  experiences gives you much more. Young students don’t have dreams or desires anymore. Teachers have the responsibility to push students to realise they must explore new possibilities, that they have the right to dream of a different world that can only be better, and that’s something worth fighting for.

A.O. – At the Beijing Biennial last year you participated with “Infinite Interior”, an interior design concept made to resemble a work of art. Yours was one of the ten projects realised. Can the interaction between art and design impact the domestic arena as well?
O.D. – The project in question was an apartment of 300sqm. Each designer had the same space and was given carte blanche. My objective was to create the illusion of a space larger than it actually was. I worked with oblique lines and extended the interior outwards by breaking down the boundaries set by the walls, giving the impression the space extended infinitely. What was interesting was the comparison with the project next door, developed by an Austrian group that had done exactly the opposite: a completely white environment (mine was black and red) with filled-in windows; a space that was closed in on itself, creating a sort of cocoon.  They shut out the city, the outside, while I worked to establish a rapport with the view over the city and with light.

A.O. – You mentioned your project at the former Fiat site in the Novoli neighbourhood of Florence.
O.D. – For me it’s a really interesting operation. Francesco Dal Co and the client invited three women architects to design three buildings of the same volume. There’s me, Zaha Hadid and Carme Pinos. We have created incredible architectures, three spectacular objects. The city has been introduced to the diversity of our work through a series of conferences and meetings.  We will show that despite the rules and regulations, contemporary architecture is possible. You just have to want to do it! Of course a lot, if not everything, depends on the client. If the client is willing to go with it and has the courage to take the risk, then things become possible.

A.O. – Your buildings will be built on the same area as the new courts designed by Leonard Ricci and the new university centre designed by Adolfo Natalini who, referring to contemporary experimental architecture said that “the world of architecture seems awash with the anxiety to renew; experimentation is widely acclaimed. But the failures are always more than the successes [….] I don’t believe that we are so rich that we can afford all this intellectual and construction experimentation”(2*). That’s the antithesis of your way of thinking..
O.D. – I think there are those who give up, and those who continue. There are those who never stop – I know that I will never stop, that I will always be interested in experimentation and research – and those who, probably, aim for a position, an important role in society and once they attain it, give up. In Italy, the only person who had not cease to push forward is Massimiliano Fuksas.

A.O. – You were on the adjudicating committee of the competition for the ASI headquarters in Rome four years ago that was won by Massimiliano Fuksas.
O.D. – On that occasion I wanted to support a young person because I think it’s right to give young people a chance, but it was not possible. Will Alsop’s project was not bad but a bit too chaotic. Fuksas’s project was a winner in the clarity of its presentation: in competitions, a great deal depends on the way projects are presented. It’s more important than in any other instance. A good project presented in a confused manner risks being penalised. The graphic impact, the quality of the representation and the organisation of the tables expresses an ability to communicate a project. Knowing how to communicate architecture is important.

A.O. – You have a new project with Ferran Adrià, the Spanish artist –chef whose gastronomic creations are influenced by design and fashion..
O.D. – Ferran Adrià is an artist of the senses. Together we devised a “restaurant” where food is not a material but sensory and artistic experience. Nourishment is by way of the imagination. It was to have been presented at the last Valencia Biennial but we didn’t have the financing. A pity! Let’s hope it will be for 2007.

Alessandra Orlandoni

Paris, Agence ODBC, October 7 2005    

(1*) Corriere della Sera, September 14, 1997
(2*) A.Natalini, Lecture delivered at the Florence Faculty of Architecture,
December 16, 2002

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