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“What I Really Like Is Speed”: In conversation with Odile Decq

Odile Decq was born in 1955 in Laval, France and studied at École Régionale d'Architecture in Rennes, Brittany. She graduated from the École Nationale Supérieure D'architecture in Paris-La Villette in 1978 and received her diploma from the Paris Institute of Political Studies in 1979. Decq set up her practice in Paris the same year and soon met Benoît Cornette who was studying medicine at the time but switched to architecture. By 1985 he received his architecture degree and the couple renamed their firm into ODBC. In 1996, ODBC won the Golden Lion in Venice for their drawings, selected out of a pool of invited emerging voices that included Zaha Hadid, Enric Miralles, and Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio. That was the beginning of the computer drawings, expressing movement, ambiguities, layering, and overall new dynamics that characterize Decq’s liberated forms and spaces.

In 1998, Cornette was killed in a car crush. Decq kept practicing under the old name until 2013 when the office was renamed into Studio Odile Decq. The architect served as the head of the Department of Architecture at the École Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris from 2007 to 2012. She describes her work as joyful, sensual, and intuitive. Among her most prominent projects are buildings for Banque Populaire de l’Ouest in Rennes (1990), the extension of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome (MACRO, 2010), Phantom restaurant at Opera Garnier in Paris (2011), and FRAC Bretagne Museum in Rennes (2012).

I met Odile Decq in Venice on the last day of last year’s Venice Art Biennale where she was in relation to her two upcoming exhibitions – Phantom’s Phantom at Giardini Central Pavilion and Diagonal Zero at Palazzo Bembo during the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale this year. We set down for the following interview at her hotel, overlooking Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore across the Venetian Lagoon. Accompanied by the sounds of seagulls and church bell ringing, Decq discussed her work, why she calls it soft-tech, and the architecture school that she started in 2014 in Lyon and recently moved to Paris to be closer to her busy and increasingly multi-disciplinary office there.

Vladimir Belogolovsky: You have been investigating such concepts as perception of space, dynamically opening spaces, instability, movement, and what you call "hyper-tension." What would you say your architecture is about?

Odile Decq: First of all, I can’t say what my architecture is about. It is too difficult for me. But when I start working on a project, I always try to explain to people in my office one thing – what would a person feel like moving inside. I am not fond of static places. So, I always think about how my body will experience the space. That’s why I am interested in total design and I am particularly inspired by Maison de Verre in Paris by Pierre Chareau, where everything is designed. That’s what I try to do. In one of my recent projects, Antares, the 28-story residential tower in Barcelona, my client wanted to bring an interior designer, and I thought, “My God, it will be a total disaster!” So, in the end, I designed the whole project, including a restaurant, spa, swimming pool, and landscaping.

VB: You just talked about how you try to express in your architecture the way people would experience the space and move through it. Where do these ideas come from originally?

OD: I think it is in my nature, my energy! [Laughs.] When I first started studying architecture at the École Régionale d'Architecture de Rennes in Brittany, we did not work on architectural projects. Instead, we did all kinds of performances, dance choreography. So maybe this desire to express movement is coming from the idea of liberating our body.

VB: This is what your architecture is about – to liberate our body.

OD: To liberate people from the everyday hardship of their lives. When people visit my buildings, I want them to be free and experience their moment inside.

Moving through beautiful spaces, hopefully, will make people forget their worries of the everyday lives. In my tower in Barcelona, the idea was to maximize the living space and push all the utilitarian rooms in the back. It was the free internal circulation that defined the plans, which translated into the final form of the building – from inside out.

VB: Would you agree that your architecture is high-tech in its roots?

OD: It used to be, but not anymore. I used to go to London a lot and I loved early buildings by Foster and Rogers. You can see the exposed steel frame and modular industrial components in such of my early works as the headquarters of the Banque Populaire De L'ouest in Rennes. But after that I shifted my focus. I prefer to call my architecture soft-tech. I like it when architecture has a certain magic – you see it and you don’t know how it is built. For example, my GL Events Headquarters in Lyon has a huge 25-meter-long cantilever over the ground floor. The reflective glass façade does not allow to see how the structure works, but if you go inside, the structure is revealed.

VB: When did you transition from high-tech to what you call soft-tech?

OD: In Rome, when I did my Macro Contemporary Art Museum. That project took almost a decade to complete. It opened in 2010. It was while working on that project that I decided not to spend any more time on expressing all the details. I said, “No more.” I shifted my focus toward the experience of the space. The museum is a continuous fluid path leading to the rooftop turned into a landscape. The exhibition space is also conceived as a landscape of sort. All the spaces are neutral, providing an appropriate setting for the art. In any case, I move on. I don’t like doing the same thing for too long. At the same time, I like elements of high-tech. I continue to work with glass and steel, but the details are suppressed. I am searching for something else, always.

VB: Speaking of your desire to design spaces that give visitors a possibility to move freely, you said, “I like the diagonal and I like to look at the other side.” Could you elaborate on that?

OD: What I like to address is non-direct. I look for other ways. I like watching how people cross public squares. Everybody likes shortcuts, without even thinking about that. It is the most natural thing in the world. I take shortcuts all the time because I like possibilities to go faster and to experiment with alternatives. I always try to show people the most unexpected ways of perceiving spaces. I love ambiguities that spaces may present. I love when spaces unfold gradually, and you don’t understand everything right away. I love when perception has multiple meanings and layers.

VB: You also said that you are inspired not just by architecture, but technology, and more specifically, cars, boats, and planes.

OD: All of these things help us to move and travel faster. That’s the reason I love them. Watching documentaries on cars was always fascinating to me. But not anymore. It is a bit boring for me now because speed is no longer the subject. What I really like is speed. I am also fascinated by fighter jets. And, as you may know, I designed a boat.

VB: You said, “Only designing buildings is not enough. It is important to question everything. Being rebellious is to question everything. If you want to go further, you have to question.” Where did this idea of questioning everything start?

OD: This is how I’ve always been. This is really me; I was born this way! I was always rebellious, always questioning things. I was always a black sheep. This did not come from my teachers or anything like that. Anyway, I was studying in the 1970s in Rennes and Paris, not that long after the protests of 1968, so there was no real focus on serious studies. It was more about questioning the status quo, which for me was very natural.

VB: You said that every time you want to add more or risk more. Could you elaborate on that? What do you mean by taking a risk?

OD: Only one thing – going further every time. Pushing the questioning, bringing clients to the realization that much more is possible, something totally unexpected. I want my clients to discover new potentials. Hopefully, this is going to be beneficial, but in the end, we don’t really know. That’s what I mean by taking a risk. This is my way of discovering architecture – I listen to my clients, but I propose something else. All my clients know that they will always be surprised. That’s what brings them to me. What I enjoy most is to work on a kind of project that I have never done before, in a place that I have never been before. I don’t like when clients hand me a very prescribed program. I prefer to play with possibilities, to find contradictions in the program, and use them as a starting point. If there are no gaps in the brief, it is hard to do something interesting.

VB: In 2014, you opened your own private experimental school in Lyon called Confluence Institute for Innovation and Creative Strategies in Architecture. It is meant to disrupt conventions, right? Could you talk about this initiative and what is its ultimate goal?

OD: First, I just moved the school from Lyon to Paris, closer to my office, which is much more convenient for me. We offer five-year Master program and now have 32 students altogether. Our diplomas are recognized and accredited by RIBA. The school is private, so the students have to pay the tuition, but it is very competitive with other European schools, and it is very hard to get into. We accept people based on three-minute video presentations, in which they describe who they are. It is a very creative way of expressing your thoughts and ideas. I am the first person to receive the applications, so the communication is very direct, and the applicants are always surprised for being able to talk to me one on one. I know all of my students and they all know me. Three quarters of the students are foreigners and they are coming from all over the world. We don’t look at their previous performance or projects; we are much more interested in real people, their personalities, and intentions behind their projects. We try to help people who want to become whoever they want to be. And our school is not about discipline, it is about creativity and free thinking. We don’t offer typical lecture courses, which put young people to sleep nowadays. Instead, we organize interactive workshops with teachers who come from around the world not just for one talk but to spend several days with them. That’s very effective because the discussions are very intense and meaningful. There is nothing like this in France; I don’t think anything like this exists anywhere in the world. It is very special. Students are very happy, and they are very independent in their thinking and about their futures. Anything is possible; that’s the most important lesson.

VB: This is very important what you are doing because clearly, something has to be done about the way students are currently educated. Based on my experience of interacting with both students and architects it is no longer the schools that offer new ways for the profession. It is the practices that lead all kinds of research. They are better equipped, and their ideas are triggered and pushed by real projects, which are more imaginative and daring than what the students are doing. The students are increasingly inspired by buildings, more to the point – by their images. They are not intrigued by ideas and possibilities. Schools are in real crisis now and are much behind the real world, which is quite advanced and imaginative.

OD: I agree. The problem is that they decide early on that they want to be architects. But the schools should not be just training camps. Students should be able to discover many possibilities and maybe that would lead to other choices in life. There is not enough experimentation and openness. That’s why I started my school, which is totally crazy. But I am doing it! Twelve students already graduated and only a few of them work in professional offices. Others are very independent, and their work is very entrepreneurial and very international.

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