Christian de Portzamparc

In 1994, Christian de Portzamparc (born 1944) became the first French architect to receive the prestigious Pritzker Prize, architecture's equivalent to the Nobel Prize. This honor placed Portzamparc's name among the ranks of some of the world's most renowned practitioners in his field.

Though he belongs to a younger, postwar generation of design philosophers, he has won acclaim for a style that melds centuries-old classical forms, modernist radicalism, and postmodern quirkiness. "My point of view can be summed up by Lao-Tzu, " Portzamparc explained to Artforum's Lauren Sedofsky. "My house is not the wall, or the floor, or the roof, but the emptiness between."

Christian de Portzamparc was born in Casablanca, Morocco in 1944, into a family of French Breton heritage. He attended the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris from 1962 to 1969, a traditionalist school where he studied architecture, and spent a year at Columbia University in 1966. He opened his architectural firm in Paris in 1970. Over the next few years, France and French culture underwent major social upheavals, much of which either had given cause to or was the result of the student riots and national strikes in 1968.

Trod New Ground

As a result, most architects of Portzamparc's generation veered to a more radical, leftist philosophy, and among them some had even began to believe that architecture could not be an mechanism for social revolution at all, that it was an inherently bourgeois art. Portzamparc's philosophy is a realistic merging of pragmatism and politics. "Architects participate in the positive construction of the world, " Portzamparc told Artforum's Sedofsky. "Once you have a program to realize, you participate in a society that implicitly recognizes the power that organizes it, the power that governs it. You have to take responsibility for this 'constructive' aspect, to dirty your hands in making the world and impacting on the quantity of order or disorder."

Grounded by just such ideas, within a short span of years Portzamparc was winning acclaim for his designs. In 1975 he was commissioned by the French New Architectural Program, and received accolades for his ballet school in Nanterre, France, which opened in 1987. It featured rehearsal studios, a performance hall, video library, dance club, and residence hall for students. He also designed the Cafe Beaubourg, opposite the famed Centre National d'Art et de Culture Georges-Pompidou, which houses the country's stellar collection of modern art and also goes by the name the Palais Beaubourg. His patron for the project was Gilbert Costes, who was embroiled in a rivalry with his brother. The sibling had hired another famed French architect, Philippe Starck, to design to Cafe Costes not far away from the Beaubourg, and both became 1980s-era hangouts for an arty, intellectual crowd. In the end, however, Cafe Beaubourg's design-in part done with Portzamparc's wife, Elizabeth Jardim Neves-emerged the victor when Cafe Costes became a clothing boutique.

Acclaimed Public Housing

Another work that vaulted Portzamparc to the attention of the international design community was his 1979 Rue des Hautes-Formes housing project, near the Rue Nationale in the southeast section of Paris. Its phases included a redesign for what had been typical block-style government-subsidized housing, a depressing, fortress-like space. One of the changes Portzamparc made was to add balconies and awnings to each apartment, "I shall never forget the happy faces of the first people to move into the rue des Hautes-Formes, " Portzamparc told Marie Christine Loriers in the Dutch architectural magazine Archis.

Later Portzamparc won a commission to add to the complex, and constructed new low-rise residences on the Rue Nationale, adjacent to a new school and community center which he also designed. He united the space with an arch for its entrance-way, and revamped the roofs that oversee the central courtyard to redirect sunlight on the space onto which the apartments overlook. All of the new elements, wrote Herbert Muschamp in the New York Times, "give the place the serenity of an enclave without disconnecting it from the city outside."

Cite de la Musique

In 1983 Portzamparc took first prize in the French government's "Grand Projets" competition for a cultural complex to be located in northeast Paris. The Grand Projets, or Grand Travaux, were a planned series of massive architectural public works, similar to imperial building projects in past centuries. The concept became the cultural beacon of the Socialist presidency of Francois Mitterand, elected in 1981, who with state funding launched and shepherded them to creation before leaving office in 1995. Among the other Grand Travaux were a new opera house at the Bastille and a controversial national library. Portzamparc's design was chosen for the Cite de la Musique, a complex situated in Paris's Parc de la Villette in what was once a meatpacking district. For this, Portzamparc designed two concert halls, administrative offices, a museum for France's collection of 4000-plus instruments, and dormitories for students at the National Conservatory of Music and Dance.

The $120 million Cite project was started in 1984 and opened in successive phases though 1995, and unlike some of the Grand Travaux, was hailed as a success. Portzamparc's National Conservatory, for instance, featured an elliptical concert hall, spiral lobby, and other unusual design elements that reflect the architect's fascination with blending historical and futurist forms. Elsewhere, a smaller organ recital "hall's design fuses intimacy with grandeur, " wrote Muschamp of the New York Times. "The ceiling, a soaring yellow cone paneled with wooden acoustical baffles, holds players and listeners within one radiant embrace, conferring a sense of ritual at once familiar and urbane." Muschamp was in the hall during an informal rehearsal that day, and wrote it was not just the string quartet's arrangement he sensed-"it was the sound of a city that has sheltered civilization for centuries, rehearsing to pass it on."

In Tune With Asian Aesthetics

Portzamparc's particular reliance on space and light as integral design elements has won him prized commissions in Asia. These have included the National Museum of Korea in Seoul, and a 1991 apartment complex in Fukuoka, Japan. This latter project is remarkable for the way in which Portzamparc linked the buildings together with bridges and canals. He has also designed the bank offices of Credit Lyonnais in Lille, France-a skyscraper built above a railroad station-and was the architect of New York City's LVMH Tower. For this skyscraper-which serves as offices for the luxury-goods cartel Louis Vuitton-Moet Chandon-Hennessy-Portzamparc explained to Sedofsky in Artforum that "what was requested was a building that differed as much as possible from the Chanel building next door."

For such works Portzamparc has won several honors in his field, including being made a Commandeur de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1989. In 1990 he and two other prominent French architects, Philippe Stack and Jean Nouvel, were selected for the French pavilion at the Venice Biennale, a space customarily given to esteemed visual artists who work within more accessible mediums of paint or clay. That same year he also won the Grand Prix d'Architecture de la Ville de Paris, and in 1993 he was honored with a medal from the French Academy of Architecture.

The Pritzker

Such awards and prestigious commissions are dwarfed, however, by Portzamparc's achievement in being selected as the Pritzker Laureate for 1994. The esteemed Pritzker Prize for Architecture, with its $100, 000 purse, is bestowed by the foundation started by Chicago's Pritzker family of the Hyatt Hotels chain. It was created in part because of the absence of architecture as a "field of endeavor" category in the Nobel Prizes. Past Pritzker recipients include Phillip Johnson, I. M. Pei, Frank Gehry, Aldo Rossi, and Robert Venturi. Portzamparc won out over an entry list of 500 similarly acclaimed nominees to become the first architect of the postwar generation to win the honor. He learned the news on his fiftieth birthday, for which his wife had planned a surprise party at the Cafe Beaubourg. Instead of an intimate gathering of friends and family, France's Minister of Culture showed up and the attendees sang "the first French Pritzker" to the tune of "Happy Birthday."

The Pritzker jury called him "a powerful poet of forms … who is aware of the past, but true to himself and his time, " according to Architecture. Another design magazine, Graphis, quoted Pritzker panelist Ada Louise Huxtable's assessment-she termed Portzamparc's style "a joyful architecture which leaves the rigidity of modernism and the cartoonish decoration of post-modernism far behind." Portzamparc has also won the Equerre d'Argent award twice, and in 1996 France's Centre Pompidou hosted a retrospective of Portzamparc's work.

Reality to Form, Forethought to Future

Portzamparc continued to win prestigious, historically significant commissions. One of these was a new French Embassy to Germany, constructed in the newly reunited country's redesignated capital of Berlin. Situated at the formerly unremarkable Pariser Platz, Portzamparc's diplomatic headquarters stands opposite both the American and British embassies, a symbolic nod to the post-World War II nations who occupied a divided West Germany and three-quarters of a divided Berlin before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The Embassy, also near the celebrated Hotel Adlon, is slated to open in 2000 along with several other noteworthy structures in the revitalized city.

Portzamparc is the author of two books, 1983's La Spatialite n'est plus interdite ("Spatiality Is No Longer Prohibited") and Genealogies des Formes/Genealogy of Forms, a bilingual work published in 1997. He lives in Paris with his wife and two sons, keeps his office in the Montparnasse neighborhood, and continues to use his own unique language of forms to conceptualize his designs. "I'm moving toward the moment when we'll be able to quit Cartesian coordinates, " Portzamparc told Artforum's Sedofsky, referring to the centuries-old mathematical system of using x and y axes to represent spatial relationships. "The ellipse is an extremely subtle form, with two axes, the perception of which changes your position. We haven't lived much in ellipses."

Further Reading on Christian de Portzamparc

Amsoneit, Wolfgang, Contemporary European Architects, Benedikt Taschen, 1991.

Archis, May 1996.

Architectural Record, March 1995, p. 13.

Architecture, June 1994, p. 23.

Art International, summer 1990, p. 87.

Artforum, May 1996.

Graphis, November/December 1994.

Japan Architect, autumn 1991.

New York Review of Books, April 6, 1995, pp. 18-21.

New York Times, June 16, 1994, p. C1.

Opera News, May 1996, p. 23.

Progressive Architecture, July 1987, p. 88.