Past Present Future

PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE

about being an architect yesterday, today and beyond

The 2nd episode of ‘Past, Present, Future’ involves 13 internationally-renowned architects from Spain, Portugal, France, and Belgium. The project was curated by Gianpiero Venturini, founder of Itinerant Office, within the cultural agenda of New Generations. The second episode of the project has been kindly supported by Funder35.



EPISODE II

This video-interview series was designed with a double objective: firstly, to analyse the selected practices and understand their working methodologies, themes, and approaches, in order to learn by comparison what it means to be an architect in the 21st century. Secondly, as a source of inspiration for the younger generations of architects and architecture students, who are currently confronting the job market, or who have recently started their working career.

Through the 13 interviews, we unveil intimate details about the journeys taken by the architects to get to their current positions, revealing funny anecdotes about their student days, key moments of inspiration, and the reality of setting up a business. The architects discuss the ins and outs of their current practices and the foundations upon which they were built, going on to speculate about the future of the profession and our urban environments, discussing themes such as smart cities, sustainable approaches, and digital infrastructure.

In the following months, we will be rolling out the series of interviews on this page, publishing one interview every two weeks. Stay tuned to find out more!

    Date of office foundation:

    1974

    Location:

    Paris

    Number of employees:

    approx. 20

Odile Decq

Founder of Studio Odile Decq

PAST


GV: What was your first approach to the profession of architecture like? What were the steps that lead to the establishment of your own practice?

OD: I decided to establish myself as an architect immediately after graduating and since then, I have never worked for another architect. In the beginning, I was kind of frightened about what the profession would really be like and unsure about whether I would actually be able to make it as an architect. I was studying in the late seventies and it was an era where everything had broken down in architectural education. My first two years were in Brittany where we were not even taught architecture. Instead, we were learning art, video, photography, and corporal expression. Later, I moved to Paris for the last three to four years of my degree, but we were on strike all the time. That’s why I would always say that I was an autodidact, or that I didn’t actually have an education in architecture. Eventually, I started to do interior design projects by myself in order to learn and understand what the profession was really about. When I graduated, there were not many jobs because of the effects of the oil crisis, so I immediately opened my own office.

Odile Decq © Nicolas Guilbert
Odile Decq in her early days. Image credit: © Nicolas Guilbert

GV: Upon opening your office, how do you recall the ambience as a young architect? How did you obtain your first projects?

OD: Presenting yourself as a young woman architect at the end of the seventies and beginning of the eighties, in most European countries, was quite unusual for the client, for the institutions, and even for other architects who would meet us. Most of my memories and anecdotes that I have from that time are just the sheer surprise of other people wondering why I wasn’t working for another male architect or why I wasn’t training in another studio before starting my own practice. It seemed impossible to them that I could establish myself as an independent architect. After finishing my studies in architecture, I did urban planning in a political science school in Paris. Around that time, I started to find some urban planning commissions in a small village in a rural part of France. However, I continued doing small-scale interior design projects, however, it was thanks to this urban planning project that I could really sustain my own practice.

GV: Other than the interior and urban design projects, were there other interests that marked the beginning of your career? What was your main preoccupation?

OD: My main interest was simply to prove that I could become an architect; that I could express myself in a precise way, as well as follow the execution of my own work. When I was starting to consider studying architecture, my father would warn me that it was not a profession for women. One day for lunch, he invited a friend over to our home. This man, who was an architect, asked me why I was interested in architecture. Without thinking too much, I said that I wanted to build a library or perhaps a museum. He was quite surprised, but he remarked to my parents, ‘It is convenient that young women now want to study architecture. They are more pragmatic than us men. They can very efficiently work for us in our offices, designing the cupboards and the kitchens.’ His comment didn’t put me down. Instead, I was actually very happy to be recognised to be pragmatic. I wanted to put that to practice and prove that I could be very good at building on my own.

GV: Where did that initial determination lead you? How did you begin to experiment with your style in that period in the 80s?

OD: I had more opportunities in those years, when the French Government started researching and developing competitions, some of which were dedicated only to young architects. What was great about this period in France was that there were no differences between men and women, and we were all starting to compete with one another. Most professionals who started their office in the 80s worked by doing competitions as an opportunity to build immediately. However, when you start your own office, you have to really experiment in order to find out what you want to do. I was not very decided about what kind of architecture I wanted. The 80s was a time where deconstructivism was very popular but there was also the invasion of postmodernism which had started in the mid-seventies and eventually came to be everywhere. Accordingly, in the beginning, my projects were a mixture between some variety of modernity, some flavour of postmodernism and some flavour of deconstruction.

GV: Do any projects come to mind when you think of that period of time?

OD: The competition that I won in ‘88 for the Banque populaire de l’Ouest (BPO) in Renne was when I realised that I wanted to build with steel structures. This project came at a time where I was already doing small projects with steel structures and experimenting with the precision of steel. At the same time, in the 80s, I would go to London frequently. Although I went for the music, I discovered its architecture; the construction of the Isle of Dogs. I would go to the construction site and observe the new buildings being built by hundreds of architects. I built my knowledge in steel construction by visiting buildings of architects like Rogers, Foster, and Aelsop. Perhaps that’s why when the Banque Populaire was built, everybody in France was shocked. At the time, nobody was doing anything of the sort. To me on the other hand, it was normal.


«I built my knowledge in steel construction by visiting the buildings of architects like Rogers, Foster, and Aelsop. Perhaps that’s why when the Banque Populaire was built, everybody in France was shocked. At the time, nobody was doing anything of the sort. To me on the other hand, it was normal.»


GV: Was there ever any particular person, artist or musician that may have inspired you through those years?

OD: I was meeting a lot of people, especially in music and in architecture in the beginning of the 90s. Towards the end of the eighties, we started to make certain peculiar models. They were a sort of three-dimensional paintings that were hanging on the walls of the office where we worked before. Slowly, we started to exhibit them and eventually made a little catalogue which I then brought to Papadakis in London. He was very impressed, and he immediately invited me to attend a symposium he was organising there. It was through these symposiums in the early 90s that I met Rogers and other architects whose projects I had been studying. There, we debated in a closed chamber on certain topics like new modernism, pop architecture, and so on. The symposiums were every six months, and I was always invited. I would go there, and I was nearly the only woman. Even Zaha didn’t come at the time. She started to come maybe the second or third time that I was there. That way, I started to better understand my approach to architecture in France. The BPO was, at the same time, was being published and awarded widely so at the same time, I started to become more internationally-known.

GV: Apart from Papadakis was there anyone else who inspired you at the time?

OD: There is somebody else, Claude Parent, whom I met in ‘84. He was a French architect who was an avant-garde in France in the 60s. At the time, he was meeting the people of Archigram and working with Paul Virilio with whom he did the Oblique Function project. When I started my studies in Rennes in the mid-seventies, they were doing exhibitions all over France. It was always a dream of mine to meet Claude Parent so when I learnt that they were doing an exhibition in Rennes, I went immediately, and I was absolutely fascinated. When I had the chance to finally meet him in the mid-80s, we started to discuss things and eventually became friends. That is, until he died in 2016. He was very important to me, as was Paul Virilio. In the early nineties when I was in Paris, Paul Virilio asked me to conduct a lecture at the École Spéciale in Paris. It was thanks to him that I eventually started to teach there. These were the two main people in France that influenced me at the time.

Odile Decq

Founder of Studio Odile Decq

PRESENT


GV: What are some of the areas of interest that drive you today?

OD: Architecture to me has always been an adventure. I don’t always know where I will go precisely. I may have an idea but sometimes, it’s totally imprecise and it might come to me on the way. Architecture to me is much more than ideas. It has to be a place where people can move and live in good conditions.; a place where they can forget the hardships of life. Therefore, it must have a sort of humanistic approach, whatever the project may be, it must have something in addition to the functional programme to always provide people with something more comfortable than the minimum.

Odile Decq © Piero Martinello
Current day wrokspace of Studio Odile Decq. Image credit: © Piero Martinello

GV: Does that influence your office structure? What is your internal organisation like?

OD: My office is a workshop where we work as a team. However, it is constantly evolving all the time. I try to have an organisation but not one that is very strict. I like to find people who enjoy doing a bit of everything, even if it might be something very trivial like doing the photocopies or changing the toilet paper, but at the same time, be able to conceive a project, be interested in the execution of a project or even to go on site. I like when people are able to take that up, and if in the beginning they are unable to, my idea is always to help them to get there. When they don’t want to, they don’t stay much longer. Sometimes I’m travelling and at other times, I’m in Lyon teaching at my school of architecture. Sometimes I work on a project in the office or review them and at other times, I have an art project commissioned by a gallery. There are no days that are the same and that’s what makes it interesting. When there is too much repetition, I discover that I start to be bored.


«Discomfort is good for creation. To be destabilised, to be able to change your space and change your conditions of working, helps you to be more creative. If you disagree with that, you can’t be a creative person.»


GV: What type of projects do you develop? Do you find the time to experiment and research?

OD: Although we do both private and public projects, these days we tend to take up more private ones. We don’t really have the time for unsolicited projects. We would obviously like to be more like a research laboratory because we are always re-inventing what it means to be an office. I want people to propose new ideas and new ways of working. I’m opportunistic enough to think that it might benefit the office. At the same time, it’s fun for me, for the clients, and for everybody in the office too. I think that every five, six or even ten years, you have to reinvent yourself. I like to reorganise the space and the hierarchies within the office because I don’t like when people are anchored in their table and start to repeat themselves. Discomfort is good for creation. To be destabilised, to be able to change your space and change your conditions of working, helps you to be more creative. If you disagree with that, you can’t be a creative person.

Odile Decq

Founder of Studio Odile Decq

FUTURE


GV: What aspects, in your opinion, need reformulation for the future of architectural practice?

OD: Education. We need to change education even in schools, so children can understand what architecture is when they are young. Not just by looking at what the architects are doing as a profession but to see what good architecture is. To me, architecture is not just drawing plans. It is much larger than that. It’s a question of culture, of discipline, and it is a way to think about the world and to reorganise the situations we face in order to help people live better. This is what I think the role of an architect is. In the future this may change which is why I always tell my students that you can never become an architect in the same way that I am. I am not an architect in the way that my teachers were.


Rendered image of the project “Twist”. Image credit: © Studio Odile Decq

The profession is evolving so fast. I would love if students today practiced in a different way because we are not in the same era, we are in a more digital and more technical era. In some way, we are more innovative. However, education in schools of architecture today is done in the same way as it was two centuries ago. Young people don’t memorise or concentrate in the same way we did. Neither can they behave the same way. We have to readapt education to them and work with architecture in a new way. We don’t need architects to draw plans because the machines can do that better than us. What will remain will be to rethink the organisation of the world, our lives and our societies. I always tell my students that they have the opportunity to dream a century, to dream the time of their lives. I have no other advice but to tell them to dream and do.


«We don’t need architects to draw plans because the machines can do that better than us. What will remain will be to rethink the organisation of the world, our lives and our societies. I always tell my students that they have the opportunity to dream a century, to dream the time of their lives.»


GV: In spite of this rapid evolution of the profession, do you think there are some concepts that define the future of our practice?

OD: Every keyword or concept that you define today will disappear in the next ten years, so there is no reason to define one. These waves are coming extremely fast. If I go back ten years, everybody was talking about parametric architecture. Now, nobody wants to speak about it, and we are coming back to the ‘white cube’. The white cube is absolutely boring and the parametric was as well. I expect the new generation will reinvent something else, mixed between parametric and white cube. This is why I can’t tell you what the future will be. However, I always find that every project is an opportunity for research. Every project is searching for something new that we didn’t do before. If I am given a project where the programme is the same as an old one, I don’t want to do it. I am always trying to find something new.