Construction is an age-old activity but the interest that architecture evokes -like the interest that other arts generate- is cyclic. Why? Today some reasons appear to be quite obvious: the growth of cities means increased construction, technological advances open up new possibilities, and the need for sustainable development calls for a drastic change in habits. All the ingredients are in place for an architectural creation. And this should be enough. But some countries, cities, and organizations still feel the need to express wealth, power, progress, or ambition through buildings. This desire does not ignore, at least in general, the functional aspect of construction. But it is no longer able to completely justify itself through this feature alone. Architecture becomes "a means of communication" and architects become "stars" like the great communicators. This article, a contemplation of forty years of private practice, does not judge this evolution. But it can help in understanding and eventually guiding it.

There is nothing like moving to take stock of your ideas. At least for those who, like me, save documents without sorting them or putting them in order.

Texts, pictures crop up, most of them familiar, some completely forgotten or others surprising. Oh boy! This stupid idea was mine! To think that I already thought of this ten years before actually doing it! What steadfastness! From this disorder emerges a sort of progression combining the randomness of a Brownian movement with an overlapping of trajectories that, if we tightly close our eyes or if we look at them with tired and uncontrollable eyes, make sense.

For the second time in ten years, I just changed my office and underwent the painful process of sorting, destroying, boxing up, and rediscovering ideas, drawings and faded faces.

This article is more a report of these passionate, weary, or disorderly reunions rather than a theoretical essay or a description of the “situation” of architecture or urban planning.

The first set of boxes contains either articles that I wrote and texts from my conferences or photos piled up in disorder.

The number of articles kept increasing, year after year. I described in great detail what lead me to the Beijing Opera, then its continuous development over a period of almost ten years, until its public opening in December 2007. I have numerous photographs of the site, mostly taken by me and saved electronically, and I often wonder what will become of them. They are merely follow-up documents, and there are also many others taken by different photographers. However, I only have a limited number of photos of the construction of Roissy airport’s first terminal—all on paper, a little crumpled, and often discolored. I have no drawings apart from my sketches and very few articles in which I expressed my ideas at the time. The articles about the second terminal explain the change in concept, my new ideas and some old ones. I talked mostly about the first of my artistic creations—inordinate for someone my age, 29 years old, when I undertook the project, and which would provide the foundation for my subsequent work.

You don’t make a show of your ideas and intentions when you have yet to use them in practice. I was convinced of it at that time and I still am. Besides, what ideas can you have when starting out in the profession? Only those that you have taken from here and there, pieced together, or slightly altered. What’s important is the result of these ideas when pitted against reality and the demands of work and research. In the end, the only thing that matters is the unexpected, which is often difficult and takes time to discern in the field of “culture.”

I have always believed that, from this point of view, there is no clear-cut boundary between artistic creation and scientific research. I remember a series of conferences organized in Paris by the magazine Nature for one of its anniversaries. A number of Nobel laureates and a few others—who would also have deserved the prize—described almost the same adventure. They started by trying to prove or confirm a theory or a model. Confronted with a disturbing, inexplicable phenomenon, because of which they abandoned their initial theories, they searched relentlessly until they found, at last, something new in a field far removed from the one they had started with.

I began designing Roissy in 1968. Of its beginnings, I kept next to nothing—one or two sketches, no texts, and no introductory drawings.

The obligation to draw everything by hand, “with instruments” as we called it (i.e., with a drawing pen, ruler, compass, and square) kept us from being extravagant in our drawings, particularly perspectives. Today, we are faced with the opposite excess. Documents, mainly pictures, can be multiplied thanks to computers, with no other goal than inundating the attention of those who are judging or approving. The proof, in numbers or weight, renders blind those who have not yet learned to see. The latest development is animation, films, and multimedia documents. Look at birds flying above insipid buildings! Cars whiz past, big deal! Trains and airplanes strike through pictures under the gaze of mostly homogenous, typically young characters. It’s better that way, people who look like what they are: bad extras. And all that with background music ranging from soft rock to ice-skating music. After all, you have to please everyone!

In 1968, we were far from all this. First of all, we were trying to look for solutions to functional problems: How to reduce the distances traveled by passengers and how to lessen their fatigue? How to improve traffic flow and make the trip through the terminal faster while reducing the time of each operation? We were convinced that magnetic passports would soon be a reality, which would reduce border control to the mere computer reading of a card. Baggage check-in would be done quickly, without having to carry any bags, as if passengers were “behind the wheel.” What remains of these dreams? Very little. Checks have multiplied and become longer. There are never-ending lines everywhere, turning passengers into a new kind of cattle resigned to their fate. As for distances, they are much greater than what we, in those days, considered unbearable. It isn’t rare today to find information indicating time required in the waiting lounges or corridors: “it will take you 20 minutes to reach boarding gates 320 to 330.” More than anything else, this is the result of the organization of air traffic into more economic “hubs,” where over 50% of passengers transfer from one plane to another. We tried to imagine how to reduce traffic congestion, spreading it out to increase overall terminal capacity. Today, the hubs in which the “waves” of transfers are organized are doing just the opposite: they have reached a saturation point or are empty.

Functionality is certainly a changing concept as far as terminals, and to a lesser extent all transport buildings, are concerned. The upside is the capacity to evolve, even change radically, which is the functional quality that defeats all others. But is it really possible to attain this? I find the roof designs of the Charles de Gaulle Terminal 2 more recent than the ones of the Nice Terminal. I remember the terms we used in order to persuade ourselves and convince others. The roof is a “sky”; it is the same for all airport traffic, and it holds everything that will ensure the comfort of this space—light, air treatment, acoustics, etc. Below, everything is precarious; anything can be constructed, destroyed, or changed. The construction is of two orders, a general holding space and furniture. The analogy we came up with a short while ago of a unicellular organism was obvious: while being protected by a membrane that monitors exchanges with the environment, the vital functions are freely organized, without restricting structures. Since then, numerous structures have been discovered inside the cells, forcing us to recognize that some structures are made up of many constructive and functional elements that are not easily modifiable. Beyond the terminals, all architecture of the time and, more generally, several intellectual constructions, contributed to various myths: the nomadic nature of equipment, and development by addition or multiplication of simple elements that are identical or similar in nature. It was a short-lived thought that made things look too simple, and underestimated the need—and worse, the usefulness—of complexity. But let’s leave aside the question of functionality. Architecture is far beyond that.

“The airport terminal No.1 project was above all a functional search for a interweaving and densification of flows that would reduce the distances covered by passengers […]; air traffic passing through the central space in which passengers would run into each other without getting to know each other […] was something symbolic that we had to understand and respect; and which perhaps, without our knowledge, was the soul of the project and no doubt its most profound justification.”

I wrote this in a “letter to a young architect” that I read out loud at the Congress of the International Union of Architects (IUA) in 1999 in Beijing and I re-read it before burying it again in files and boxes. I was only repeating what I had said earlier in another form in 1974. Today, I am ready to say it again in a different manner: a building that is inappropriate for its function is a stupidity; a building that is only functional is a shameful oversight. We need all that art, whatever its form might be, can contribute by going beyond what is useful, desired, or wished. For lack of a better word, I continue to call this beauty. I sometimes wonder if hope and beauty are not very closely linked.

While re-reading my articles—an activity that perhaps had no other purpose than to take a short break from breathing accumulated dust—I rediscovered several of the same topics of reflection. In particular, I kept going back to speed and the “tunnel effect,” a subject that does not seem to be a closed chapter.

Speed was the theme of a Cartier Foundation exhibition that I was invited to participate in. I often thought about it subsequently during conferences, while writing articles or books. We mix up everything: our passion for speed, which is linked to the joint perception of time and space, and the desire to reach someplace without getting delayed, which is only the disillusioned hope that time and space will reduce each other to nothing and become imperceptible. This is the problem with transportation: each time we give a zero or a negative value to the time of transport, we end up with an endless series of aberrations. We bury ourselves into the ground, we no longer look towards the sky, we torment landscapes, we plunge into an endless tunnel. But we never succeed in sufficiently reducing the transportation time. It should cancel itself; we should be able to jump from one state to another through a prohibited and instantaneous transition, a kind of “tunnel effect.” An impossible feat, this must be left to physicists and particles!

So what is to be done? Something that gives back value to time and space, as they go hand in hand. Coming out of the tunnel, passing through landscapes, watching, looking, and thinking.

Is it a lost battle? Maybe it is and it maybe it will remain so for a long time to come, without any doubt. But is that a reason to stop thinking about it?

Let’s get back to the idea of beauty and hope, desire and art.
Our hairy and badly washed ancestor painted on the walls of dark caves with a mixture of ochre and black charred bone mixed with some sort of resin. He blew through a reed. Perhaps he had no other thought than the desire to capture or to kill one of the beasts that he drew. Perhaps he was only thinking that, magically, this drawing—invisible without the illumination of a torch—would help him to do so. Perhaps only we find it beautiful, whereas he did not.

Will we ever have the answers to these questions? For me, they aren’t really important. Why is it that what is beautiful should emerge only from reason and conscience? Why not from the depths of the unconsciousness or even chance? The important thing could be to recognize beauty rather than to create it, and one must accept that there is no rule or recipe but only desire. For architecture, which is so profoundly linked to the economy and usefulness, it is even more difficult than for other arts, but equally necessary. Let’s change the question. Let’s put it in a bigger context. Aren’t there, in all fields, including the most scientific ones, coincidences that offer extraordinary shortcuts, coincidences that we cannot claim to have aroused, but when they appear, they must be detected, understood, and prolonged?

When I look at the notebooks in which I have drawn, day after day, for more than forty years, I find on certain pages, still intact, the memory of some of these coincidences. Did my hand act on its own? Was it guided by the unconscious? Did the exasperation of not being able to find anything deliberately look for a way out in an “impossible” or “stupid” drawing that, when I drew it or the day after, appeared to clearly show me a new path?

This experience, rare but repeated, shall always prevent me from leaving creation to the computer. Today, in order to draw plans or even more, to produce elements of construction, a computer is irreplaceable for its speed and its exactitude. It does not help much in designing, but only in verifying, and drafting communications documents. I find it slow, restrictive, devoid of the unconscious element and without any fertile errors. I think that prefabricated programs—no architect can pretend to contribute significantly to the development a software program, and even less to create one—lead to the systematic, involuntary reproduction of similar solutions. In the end, these programs produce a sort of academicism, derived from a liberty that is more proclaimed than active.

The boxes keep piling up. They contain articles, as I mentioned earlier, newspaper clippings, the drawings of all project stages, and more photos of construction sites and completed projects. In the beginning, you keep everything. Finally, infuriated, you are tempted to throw everything out. Where is the architecture? On this pencil-marked tablecloth, where plates and glasses have left their imprint, that you purchased so as not forget a sketch made in between two mouthfuls? In the confused drawings on this metro ticket or on this airplane “toiletry kit”? In this book, intended for a client, in which you put together blueprints, pictures, and photos? In this wood sample? In this broken piece of glass that was the inspiration for an idea? No, no, of course not. Then where is it? Where there is also literature, painting, cinema, and who knows what else, in the heart of artistic works, in their materiality and their most common features. No dissection will ever make them appear. They are not virtual realities but subtle ones, qualities, that trigger emotions and inspire further thought. However, it would be a great error to believe that architects, or any other artists, spend their time in a pure world far from thoughts and emotions, free from the needs and constraints of ordinary life.

Any architectural work is embedded in the earth, is subject to weather, and uses specific technical and human means, within a well-defined economic environment. It is from this infrastructure that it soars forth, exceptional, to be seen but mainly to be lived in, to touch people. For two centuries, we have not ceased to understand that the historical and geographical diversity of architectural works is a precious heritage whose ownership should not be claimed by an individual, a small group, or a country. Rather, it is a collective property that has to be passed on, like all other cultural properties.
This clearer, fairer perspective is evolving between two zones of confusion in ordinary thinking.

In the first zone, one thinks that one is “modern” and “progressive” by affirming that everything is linked and mixed up—a movement that leads to what is known as globalization. Hoax or stupidity, it doesn’t matter, globalization is only a simplification or even an impoverishment; it would be dramatic if it went beyond the stage of rendering commonplace certain technical objects and allowing the unlimited and uncontrolled circulation of some artistic works.

In the second, one believes that one is maintaining one’s personality and originality thanks to the reproduction of old forms in new works, whether material or intellectual. How many countries, believing that they are respecting their culture, have transformed themselves into theme parks, in which everything is fake, deserted by art and thought, and reduced to nothing?!

The two zones come together in an architectural production when, by cumulating collusions, some architects drape themselves around the buildings that they drag around here and there, always the same ones, vaguely practical and falsely modern, the rags of an offended history. Second-rate works that were previously associated with the name Xerox and today Photoshop, unjustly so in both cases. It is never the hammer’s fault if you hit your fingers.

There is very little in my boxes pertaining to urban planning in the greater sense, even less on sustainable development.
And then what? Aren’t they the two most important topics of the time, those that urgently require all our energy?
Of course, of course. But it is true that, being absorbed in the problems associated with big infrastructure projects, I have hardly worked in or for a city. The airports that have often been intended to resemble cities—as has also been the case for other peripheral elements, new or snatched from cities, such as commercial centers, universities, etc.—are not cities, only a simplification of cities or just substitutes. The speed of their development and the complexity of any kind of flows that pass through them, allow us to only measure how difficult it is—and will be—to understand the city as a global system in which phenomena have constants of time and very different scales. They also enable us to measure the futility of the estimates and the near total failure of all-specific and “closed” planning. How many times have traffic predictions, witnessed here and there, been mere extrapolations without any scientific value—value that is necessary to make or obtain a decision?! As for the planned extensions provided for in very specific plans, they have never or almost never been executed according to these plans! Today, far better principles of open planning are being adopted. But there still remains a lot of ground to cover.

There is a long way to go before we can see clearly understand the questions that link city and sustainable development. Here again, this is evidently due to systemic reasons. It is up to the younger generations to find the answers. And they will progress all the better if they rid themselves of fears and incantations to approach the subject with joy—convinced that a new period of research and discovery is opening up, that knowledge will progress, that new beauties will appear, and that nothing will ever be easy but that it is worth the pain.

One-third of my boxes are full of things related to the Great National Theater of China. It is true that, from the beginning of the competition to the completion of the project, it took up ten years of my life; ten years during which I shuttled every month between Paris and Beijing; ten years, almost a quarter of my life as an architect.
For the first time, I was working in the most central and symbolic part of a city and I was constructing the largest cultural building of its new history, close to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Press clippings fill up numerous files. They recount the often eventful life of the project: its rejection by some people who warned the international press and got together to criticize it in the same terms as those that had been used to try and stop the construction of the Louvre Pyramid in central Paris. But times had changed. The Net had slowly joined print media. As usual, it carried truths and lies together by often interweaving them so closely that they became inextricable. Then, after many years of persistent work, the garden, then the building itself was opened to the public, which quickly embraced it. Apart from spectators for the various events organized in the three halls, the Great National Theater of China has started attracting more and more visitors.

I did not dream of anything else during the course of my work. Right from the competition stage, I had it in my mind that this building must become a “neighborhood” of the city, attracting visitors or passers-by as well as audiences for the events organized. People would be drawn to it not because of some concessions made to the supposedly poor taste of the general public, but on the contrary, because of its vast spaces and stringent beauty.

I sincerely believe that what is beautiful is perceived, to varying degrees, by all. This variance translates differences between the inner need of each individual rather than a cultural disposition, which, incidentally, is difficult to define. I hate the expression “be within the public’s reach,” more so due to the misconception that it propagates than the feeling of superiority that it evokes. A building’s space must be made for the public, a public that is not just a group where the identity of each individual becomes vague and diminished, but on the contrary, where the bridging of these identities makes each one more specific and conscious of itself. It must be similar to that of a greenhouse in which each plant grows at its own pace and according to its own nature.

For all works of art, one should be able to say the same things. Since a work of art is a creation, it somewhat disturbs the world and the established order. It contributes to the continuous transformation that is necessary for its preservation, and as soon as it is assimilated, another work should appear. But also, without claiming to convey a message, without ever trying to do so, it is the occasion for each one of us to see more clearly within ourselves, in our sorrows and joys, in our desires and hopes, and thus, like an eternal child, to evolve continuously.

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  • From airport terminals to the Beijing opera: the musings of an architecton June 15th, 2010