Claude Parent: remembering the life of the provocative architect

Claude Parent: remembering the life of the provocative architect

Architect Claude Parent, who died in February aged 93, had a famously exposed bathroom. I visited his apartment in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine in 2007. When nature called, he showed me to a room that had glass walls and no proper door. It was a speedy, and memorable, trip.

Parent and his buildings were anything but boring. He was born in Neuilly in 1923 and studied architecture at L’École des Beaux-Arts in Paris but left before graduating. It was 1942, and a time he recalled as ‘not being remembered for its enthusiasm for architecture’.

In 1952, he embarked on a brief stint at Le Corbusier’s office, but found it ‘suffocating. When he was there, you saw his genius, but his buildings took too long to make and were so expensive.’ Instead, Parent set up with architect Ionel Schein, but it was a decade later, when Parent collaborated with his friend, the urban planner Paul Virilio, that his career took off. Together they developed la fonction oblique, a theory that dictates that buildings should feature slopes, ramps and angles, be wall-free where possible and have a predominance of space over surface.

It gained Parent many failed planning applications (although he did create around a dozen houses in France) and many admirers on the fringes, among them rebel collaborators such as Yves Klein, Jean Genet and British architect Peter Cook, with whom he held a conference on a cliff top in Folkestone in 1966. Cook writes in a 2006 monograph: ‘We were amazed that everybody came from all over Europe. But we were really impressed by Claude and his Rolls-Royce, his intellectual friend Mr Virilio and his beautiful blonde lady. English architects simply haven’t got that style. Not only did he talk about the diagonal, but a few years later I visited him in Neuilly and, my God, he really did live on the diagonal!’ 

Mischievous and witty, Parent gave me a tour of one of his most iconic houses, 1963’s Villa Drusch in Versailles. Featuring a glass and concrete cube tilted on its side, it stands out among the area’s 19th-century villas. ‘This house was an exercise in space,’ said Parent, pointing out slanting bookcases and an outdoor pool into which Monsieur Drusch would jump from his bedroom window. ‘Everyone said it was going to fall over,’ he chuckled.

The building of which he was most proud is the GEM shopping centre, built in Sens in 1970. Its sloping design is now listed, as is another of his favourites, the 1966 church of Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay in Nevers. A concrete behemoth with a near empty interior, it features a few wooden pews bathed in contemplative light by randomly placed stained glass windows and ‘fractures’ in its shell. Parent’s passion for bunker architecture led to commissions in the 1970s from Électricité de France to build nuclear power stations. But in the 1980s and 90s, his brutalist style fell out of fashion and in 2000 he closed his office. 

When we met, he had a forthcoming show at Paris’ Palais de Chaillot, after which he was ‘going to call it a day’. It was not to be. In 2010, Cité de l’Architecture invited him to hold a retrospective that featured 92 projects from 1960 to 2009. It was designed by Parent’s protégé Jean Nouvel, who worked at his office for five years. In 2014, he participated in the Venice Biennale, as he had in 1970 when he designed a sloping French Pavilion. 

Also in 2014, for the Liverpool Biennial, Parent transformed Tate Liverpool’s Wolfson gallery into a ‘ramp room’. Says Biennial curator Mai Abu El Dahab: ‘Architecture was his tool, but in spirit, he was an artist.’ She too had visited the provocateur at his home in Neuilly. ‘Oh my God! His house!’ she squealed. ‘Did you visit the bathroom?’ 

Parent is survived by his second wife Naad and his children, François, Florence and Chloé.

As originally featured in the May 2016 issue of Wallpaper* (W*206)

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