“First of all, I am wearing black and only black,” Odile Decq asserts, “In my cupboards there is only black, nothing else. This is the first position. The second one, I like the structure of wearing clothes from Yohji Yamamoto: something which is constructed and deconstructed at the same time; I like when it is not symmetrical, as in my architecture; I like when it is constructed in a way that it has also something which is ‘escaping,’ something which is going somewhere.”
Decq has been going somewhere for a long time. Having practiced since the early ‘80s, she received major acclaim by winning the highest honor at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 1996. Her distinctive personal style does not waver with the vagaries of ‘fashion’, the architect’s exclusively black garments are punctuated only with a slash of bold red lipstick, (in a similar tone of scarlet that winds through many of her interiors), and her look crowned by the expansive wild hair of a goth rocker. Decq’s work denies easy classification as either ‘masculine’ or feminine,’ and is characterized by a graphic geometricity which also integrates amorphic forms, clashing fluidity and curves with strong lines, using tough materials to create structures without nostalgia that look to be functional far into the future.
Her interactions with extant historic structures, such the restaurant Phantom, in Paris (2011) show this: “At the beginning it was a bit frightening to think that I would do a contemporary restaurant inside the Opera Garnier. Because it is so well protected, so absolutely preserved, that I had a lot of constraints – even from the Minister of Culture – to not touch the walls, to not touch anything. Finally, I had to do something. So at the end, I tried to find my own way, my freedom, to do something in it, and now they say that it’s ‘exemplar.’ I did not touch the building itself, I made an intervention in it. If they want they can take it away, and the building will remain as it was. In the meantime, it will have it’s own contemporary life.”
In Rome, a city loaded with ancient precedent like few others, her revitalized industrial structure for the MACRO Museum (2010) was similarly a triumph of past with present. Whereas her museum in China, the Fangshan Tangshan National Geopark (Nanjing, 2015) was a completely new form, molded into the earth of a fresh green hill-flank. Decq doesn’t play favorites with her structures, “I also like a very little house that I built in the Alps [the Saint-Ange residence in Grenoble, in 2015].” Decq tells me, “I’m always working on new projects, I’m always going further, looking in front of me. There is a particular path you must take through my work, to understand what it is I am doing.”
Decq’s accolades have come to her in an industry noted for its gender biases, “When I won the Venice Biennale Golden Lion, I was in a couple,” Decq reflects, “I was still with [husband and noted architect] Benoît Cornette, who died two years later. And at this time I was not thinking that there were differences between men and women: because I was in a couple, and for me it was normal to be there. I discovered the differences when I became alone.” Decq refused to change her way of working, even if now her personal capabilities were doubted. “I discovered that suddenly, I had to fight more, again, to be able to prove that I am doing something.”
In a recent book, Where are the Women Architects? (2016), author Despina Stratigakos discusses the lack of women in the profession. The author posits that while intake into education is more or less equal, women making it into the upper echelons of architecture are unusual. Typical of Decq, she has addressed this problem head-on, and in 2015, Decq built her own school from the ground up – the Confluence Institute for Innovation and Creative Strategies in Architecture in Lyon. Here inter-disciplinary knowledge is paramount: “It is unique, after being educated in architecture, you are able to be a problem solver.” Decq tells me thoughtfully, “Because of that, you can act, and you can propose your skill to the world, to solve problems in the world. Not just only to design buildings, but to think about how to make society and the world better.”
Decq recently earned kudos for her extensive renovation of Antti Lovag’s podular “Bubble House,” that sits perched on the cliffs of Théoule-sur-Mer in the South of France. “Le Maison Bulles” as it is known in France, is more like a sculpture than a building, resembling bubbles of volcanic magma frozen in formation. It was hand-made with lightweight mesh and steel rods covered in poured concrete by architect Antti Lovag 1971 for his patron, industrialist Pierre Bernard, and is sister to the former residence of fashion designer Pierre Cardin – Le Palais Bulles. Decq was commissioned to refigure and recolor the structure, taking it from a faded burnt orange to a bright tangerine, and adding citrusy sixties pop tones in the furniture and fittings, such as striking hot-pink bathrooms. Intervention into such an iconic and highly unusual form might seem difficult, but Decq was fearless, taking her time to absorb the spirit of the house by living there as well. “It was very nice, because when I was there, I was staying there, I was sleeping in the bubbles, it was absolutely fantastic. It gives you some calm, to spend time in the bubbles.” Now home to an artist residency, its function as an immersive artwork is secure into the future.
After a lifetime leading the avant-garde, Lovag was comfortable passing the torch to fellow maverick Decq “I met Antti Lovag, at the beginning of the renovation,” Decq tells me reflectively, “I knew him from before, but it was a long time that I had not seen him. It was three of four years before he died. I asked him, ‘Why did you make the bubbles for the house?’ And he said, ‘Because the bodies of women have no angles,’ And I said to myself, ‘Ok, ok, ok this is sensuality.’ And it’s fantastic.”
Written by Hannah Bhuiya