It was an alien landscape of ramps and sloping ceilings, a little bit Dr Caligari, a little bit sinking cruise-liner, a little bit spaceship. The interior of the French pavilion at the Venice art Biennale in 1970, with its neon grid ceiling, its sloping floors and disorientating surfaces gave a striking taste of the weird world of Claude Parent.
Parent, “the supermodernist”, was one of the most influential French architects of his generation, a figure who both inspired and infuriated, who was tireless in his questioning of orthodoxy, who went from designing radical concrete houses to nuclear power stations. He exploded on to the scene in the 1960s and fell profoundly out of fashion in the 1980s. Yet without him it is difficult to imagine the subsequent jagged lines of Daniel Libeskind, the fluid landscapes of Zaha Hadid or the buildings of his protégé Jean Nouvel. Now this most remarkable of designers is being reappraised as a new generation of architects looks to the utopian modernism of the postwar era as a golden era of invention.
And at this year’s biennale, Parent’s work will be on show in the main Italian pavilion under director Rem Koolhaas’s “Elements of Architecture” banner.
Parent’s big idea was the architecture of the “oblique”. He came to international prominence with his collaborator, urban planner and intellectual Paul Virilio; they formed Architecture Principe, a team determined to shake up architectural convention. There is some confusion about exactly where this notion of oblique architecture came from. One seductive story suggests that Virilio, who grew up in Brittany, had been impressed by the second world war German bunkers on the Atlantic coast, and one in particular which had subsided in the sand, its floor now sloping, its interiors dark and disorientating.
In a characteristically Parisian 1960s manner (an era when every statement became a manifesto), Virilio claimed that the agricultural era was the age of the horizontal. The industrial era with its chimneys and skyscrapers was the era of the vertical (which culminated in the launch of space rockets, the ultimate vertical gesture) but the newly forged contemporary world would be defined by the oblique.
I visit Parent in his Paris studio, set over three floors of a slim apartment building in bourgeois Neuilly-sur-Seine, and ask him why he has been so fixated by the sloping floor. He takes a book and opens it up, placing it spine upwards to form a kind of roof. “Look,” he says, “there are no walls, no barriers.” He walks his fingers up the slope of the hardback covers. “With a wall you need to smash openings, to break them, with a ramp” – here he switches to a sketch – “you have the incline and, on the other side, it is open.”
He shows me a sketchbook with a drawing of a fractured hypermarket: “I liked the slippage, I never liked closed forms. If a building is closed, you lose half the information. The fracture allows you to see.” The ideas are startlingly close to the style of deconstruction two decades later.
Dapper in black shirt, black pleated silk waistcoat and black-and-white tie, Parent is charming company. What was once a luxurious handlebar moustache linking up with radical sideburns has shrunk in stages to a small, avuncular brush. Parent is eager to show me his work and explain it, occasionally pronouncing his age. “Ninety-one,” he says – or rather “quatre-vingt-onze”.
“It takes so long to say. It’s so old. I can’t quite believe it.” Certainly there’s something strangely unsettling about this gentle fellow showing me these radical, angular, almost angry pencil drawings of jagged concrete utopias, space-age structures, unfamiliar, extraterrestrial landscapes.
Most of these remained fantasies, but some were realised. “This house,” he tells me, pointing to the 1963 Maison Drusch, a structure which looks like it has been dropped from a spaceship, “this was the first oblique house. The owner, a rationalist engineer, didn’t like the plans. It took him a year to accept them. Then the planners refused it permission – they said it couldn’t be done. I don’t think they even understood the drawings. Actually, every house I’ve ever designed has been refused planning permission. But they get built. Eventually.”
“I always assumed people would come round to my way of thinking.”
Parent’s architecture was strange but it was also irresistibly theatrical. He must have learnt something from working with Le Corbusier, I suggest. “Oh yes,” he says, “but actually, I didn’t do much there. We didn’t get any instructions at all. We’d ask about the dimensions of a piece of concrete and Corbu would say: ‘It needs to be big enough for a pigeon to land on.’ It was difficult.”
How, I wonder, did he split with Virilio when the two of them seemed so close in their ideas? “It was May 1968,” he says. “Virilio was on the barricades, but for me, it wasn’t my fight. The young architects in the office would leave here in the afternoon and take the dustbin lids with them and fight the police. They’d return late and sleep through the day. I stayed here, working. I wanted to build. Virilio went on to become Mr Catastrophe.” By which he means the philosopher of disaster, a prescient critic of the interdependence of the media, terrorism and the military machine.
Their most famous work together was, oddly, a church. Sainte Bernadette du Banlay in Nevers (1963-66) is a bunker, a forbiddingly brilliant massive concrete structure split down the middle to bring in a band of light, its floors, naturally, sloping towards the altar. After the pair parted, Parent went on to design bigger and bigger buildings, culminating in a series of nuclear power stations, megastructures which seemed to embody the dynamic mass he had always been searching for – although the end results seem less impressive than the gorgeous drawings. He fell out of favour and fashion. “I was never liked,” he says of his reputation. “But I was not hated. Being headstrong gave me an identity. As soon as I was told I shouldn’t do something I had to do it.”
The reams of new drawings and models in his office include one of his installation at Tate Liverpool, part of this year’s Biennial. “They said they ‘might’ let me put some ramps in,” he tells me, grinning broadly. I ask whether he had himself lived in an oblique house. “Oh yes,” he says, “for seven years. But I wasn’t at home much, I was always working. My daughter was the true guinea pig. She was the one who really lived with it.” I ask if she liked it. “She became a graphic designer,” he says, avoiding the question. “I had a heart attack and we had to move. The only one who really didn’t like it was the cleaning lady. She said there were too many gaps between the ramps where dirt could gather.”
‘Liverpool Biennial: Claude Parent’, Tate Liverpool, July 5-October 26 tate.org.uk/Liverpool