A few weeks ago, ACE talked with Odile Decq about the Covid-19 impact, the housing issue, our relationship to the city, quality in the built environment and the challenges for women in architecture. She also opened up the doors of the Confluence Institute, an experimental school now based in Paris for Innovation and Creative Strategies in Architecture. During the lockdown, her students have worked hard to fight the pandemic with 3D prints of face masks and by sharing open source models.
ACE: The covid-19 crisis has multiplied questions on urban planning and climate issues. In your eyes, how will architects re-think cities and re-invent spaces? How do you envisage this new cycle?
Odile Decq: "I always think that things work in cycles. After you have lived for a certain length of time, you realise that things you've seen before come back, hence the idea of cycles. We are going through a cycle right now, and maybe the COVID-19 crisis will start a new cycle with inevitably different consequences to those we imagined previously, including climate change. During lockdown, and even today, many people and many architects have addressed the following questions: How will we live tomorrow? What will be the consequences for cities? I have read a lot of articles on the subject, some reflections that I retain especially as part of my teaching.
The first reaction from the big cities’ inhabitants was to notice that the city is not safe, because it generates a lot of different kinds of constraints. Firstly, the housing size revealed by the fact of being confined in small dwellings, especially in Paris. Then, the fact of having to do home-working (or not), taking care of the children, and at the same time facing pressure on the whole family, and on couples; this situation has created a lot of intimacy that we were no longer used to except during moments of relaxation or holidays, though these are other moments of life - not the same as day to day life.
This phenomenon of cramped housing leads to the first reaction: shouldn't we think of another version of housing? How should we live, tomorrow, even in the city? This housing issue is crucial and we must put it back on the table. Today, housing is thought of as a financial product. Obviously, if we have to continue thinking about its financing, other criteria must be added, such as the qualities necessary for life to flourish: in particular, everything that concerns the separation of spaces within housing. In France, there is the concept of a living room and a sleeping room, a day room and an evening room, which has not really made sense for a very long time. In today's families, children live in their bedrooms, it's their living room as long as there aren't too many of them. The living room, the room where we live should be a flexible room for relaxing, eating, playing sports or working. Housing must be redesigned with greater flexibility and fewer constraints as regards the separation of functions, while keeping and ensuring the minimum notions of acoustic insulation.
The way in which we are restricted regarding housing adaptability standards, is a legacy dating from the end of the 19th/20th century that is not adapted to the recent ways of living and even less so to today's post-Covid-19 environment. It is obvious that we will have other health crises and that we will always have to think differently. Furthermore, the forced home-working of a large part of the population will lead to a change in the way we live at home, as it is clear that most companies will now extend home-working. I am the first among them, because my employees no longer want to spend their time in the underground. However, I have asked them to spend one day a week at the office to recreate a minimum of social contact. There is a proportionate relationship to be found between meeting in the office and working at home, but the latter has consequences for housing, especially the adaptability of housing, the way standards and constraints and financing models have been developed because it is no longer at all suitable. It is a political subject, an urban planning subject, an environmental subject and, finally, a social subject. I am not talking about the city in general but I am talking about it in particular, because it is a fundamental subject today.
There is the question of the city dwellers’ departure to the countryside, regions and smaller towns. During the lockdown, some realised that they could live somewhere other than Paris. Some cities less than 1h30 away from the capital thanks to the TGV have seen property prices increase by 20% during the confinement. This means that a number of people no longer want to live in closed cities. They want to use the city for other things - for entertainment, for culture - even if today culture is completely blocked - to meet friends, to have relations with the head office of their company but they will live elsewhere. I always thought it was impossible to do architecture remotely, but I have realised that it is now possible with today's tools.
At first, I endured this confinement and then finally I found that the situation wasn't that unpleasant. Just like my team, which at first was disrupted and then finally got used to working from home and found it comfortable, minus the commuting stress. During the lockdown, I walked to the office from time to time, so my travel time was different and going to work relieved my stress. It's a great thing that made me change my way of thinking. In retrospect, it's not unpleasant, the proof is there: my employees don’t want to come back to the office every day - and it makes you think about the organisation of the back-to-school period in September and the possibility of alternating.
Two things have gained in value today: houses with gardens, large apartments and outdoor accessibility in medium-sized cities and finally apartments with terraces and balconies in Paris.
This is going to force us to rethink our relationship to the city, which will be different even if, for all that, I think that the city and concentration in cities are not going to disappear. The attractiveness of the city was initiated at the end of the 19th century in Great Britain with the industrialisation and then after the Second World War in France; it’s a movement that is somewhat inevitable. We will want to continue to live in the city. We are not all going to live in the countryside even if we now have the tools to do so; we lack a lot of things there; there are differences in the way of thinking, accessibility to services; there is no human agitation that gives me the feeling of being surrounded by humans, we are more isolated, it's different. For example, even though I love Brittany, I wouldn't like to live there every day of my life; one’s relationship with time is not the same, there is not the same rhythm, not the same relationship with density, even with the current tools.
So we have to think of a different way of living in the city with extensions towards the exterior. These can be private, semi-collective or collective."
ACE: How do you see cities in 30/40 years?
Odile Decq: "It is very difficult to answer this question. Six months ago, I would have answered with maximum concentration, more height. Today, we have to balance between big and small cities. Forecasing 30, 40 years ahead is really very far away. One thing is certain, we have to make different buildings, introduce vegetation and introduce outdoor spaces, allow what is called "living together" and the cities allow this."
ACE: A few years ago, you contributed to a publication with Building Futures, a collaborative group working alongside the RIBA to develop standards in the built environment. Building Happiness explores the ideas and debates concerning the built environment, physical well-being and how we live in cities. What is your view regarding the nature of happiness within our built environment?
Odile Decq: "I don't know what happiness is in general. It is so dependent on each individual. I don't have rules, I don't have norms in relation to happiness, I don't have a radical vision of how humans view happiness in cities or buildings. Rather, it's the question of well-being, what do we need as human beings to live comfortably and with others."
ACE: What is your definition of quality in the built environment?
Odile Decq: "It is important not to be forced to stay in spaces that are too small, that prevent you from moving, because life is not static, life is not about sitting in your chair all the time and all day long; it is important to move and move around. I need to take a few steps, to take some oxygen. Space must allow movement, it's fundamental, it's even essential for our health."
CAE: How do you see your buildings aging?
Odile Decq: "My buildings age well in general. The first large building, the BPO delivered in 1990, was sold some time ago, I fought to keep it when they wanted to demolish it. I went to see it afterwards, it was in good condition; it's true that it's built in metal and glass, so it's rather easy to maintain. All of my buildings that I had the opportunity to see again at several moments in their lives after me, had aged rather well.”
CAE: In 2016, you won the Jane Drew Award for your outstanding contribution to the status of women in architecture. Is there a transformation underway in the world of architecture in terms of equality? What are the greatest challenges for women in architecture?
Odile Decq: "Sadly, it doesn't change much. It moves very slowly. It isn’t normal. There is still the same distortion between the number of students in architecture schools a 60% majority around the world, and the number of practising architects, a 70% majority of men around the world. This is due to so many different reasons, from education in childhood, from differentiation between boys and girls, from differentiation at school. A differentiation that partly explains the lack of self-confidence of girls, in an almost cultural way, linked to education and the past, to the way men relate to us when we are at a level of equality. I say this more and more, because often it is not us women who have a problem, it is the men who have a problem in vis-à-vis us.
When you are a woman architect convinced of a project, you talk to them as equals. Sometimes, I find myself in front of people who are not capable of thinking of me as their equal and unfortunately often without knowing it because they can hold a very "pro-women" discourse, they play strange games of seduction or authority games. It goes on and on and it is really a problem related to education. We must not “genderise” education.
As a result, boys and girls don’t live their lives in the same way, nor do they have the same future and capacities. When a female student arrives in her first year, she very often betrays a lack of self-confidence by speaking in public with gestures that are different from a boy's attitude. This still happens today, it hasn't changed.
"Me too" has made a number of things happen, it has created new reflexes. During the drama of Notre-Dame in Paris, we immediately heard male architects on the radio and TV. After 3 days, I received a call from a France Inter journalist (a French radio station) who wanted to interview me because she realised that the point of view of a female architect had not been heard. In France, during the lockdown, what I gradually realised, little by little, was that in all the news programmes, on the 24/7 TV news channels, the guests were almost always male politicians, male doctors, male researchers,… there were very few women doctors or women researchers that we listened to and, above all, that we heard. In a recent article, I read that companies run by women were better managed, which was already seen during the financial crisis of 2008, but apparently this is still the case today. We still have not learned the lessons."
ACE: In your opinion, what is the relevance of architectural policies? What are your expectations at European level in terms of supporting professional practice and ensuring the quality of the built environment?
Odile Decq: "I am not totally convinced that the status of architects should be protected. I think that we need to protect architecture and the idea of architecture much more than the professional vision of the architect; what is important is architecture; the quality of architecture, the quality of education in architecture and architecture, more than the professional vision of the architect.
Being an architect or being interested in the quality of the built environment, building it and promoting it, does not always mean being a professional architect. It's going to sound strange but I think that other professions and other occupations have the opportunity to participate in the quality of architecture, sometimes architects are not the best ones to promote the quality of architecture.
Since I started teaching in the early 90s, I never pushed my students to become architects, I push them to be autonomous and independent. They don't necessarily want to work in an architectural office, whereas that seems to be the obligatory way out of architectural schools today. They have various projects such as setting up their own business, among them there are researchers in bio-materials, they are ready for anything and this is what will spread architectural quality everywhere, because I am not sure that we can only rely on architects to ensure architectural quality. That is where my concern lies, I know that by making this speech I am going to make enemies in my profession, but I cannot say otherwise.
It also depends on politicians who have no notion of what architecture is. It depends on how business leaders deal with this issue. It also depends on a much larger and broader cultural environment that is not limited to architecture. Once people have a notion and an education in something that makes cultural sense, they are much more inclined to support, ask for, or have an architectural project done.
As such, I think that architecture should be an education that begins in childhood, but without conservative and nostalgic visions of the past. It is important to observe the way in which contemporary art has opened itself more generally to the public, through fairs, festivals and galleries that spread notions that can be assimilated by some, opening them up to a world that was not theirs to begin with. For architecture, there is nothing in this area, people and children are not introduced to the quality of architecture, to contemporary architecture, or to looking at what is happening around them. All the time, I find myself with people who are not from the world of architecture who say to me: "Look at this city, it's beautiful because it's well preserved", whereas they don't like cities with more contemporary buildings. Why are we still here? That's why I say we can't wait for the defense of architecture to be done by architects because it's immediately seen as the defense of a profession when it's something else entirely.”
ACE: "Dreaming the Future". Building tomorrow". Let's talk about your experimental private school, Confluence Institut, for innovation and creative strategies in architecture. This school based in Paris is designed to break conventions, create a space for experimentation and openness. Could you tell us more about it?
Odile Decq: "It's a long process, I've been teaching since the 90s. I managed a school where I taught, and for 5 years I made it evolve because I have the advantage of travelling a lot, and participating in conferences all over the world, and discovering different ways of teaching, acting and making things happen in the teaching of architecture. I introduced the first manufacturing laboratory, an exhibition space that acould be opened up to the city, I developed a computer laboratory differently, I opened the library with longer opening times and introduced bilingual teaching by introducing foreign teachers.
In general, and especially in schools where the teachers have been there for a very long time, they think that the school is for them and belongs to them, whereas I consider that a school is for the students and belongs to the students. The role of teachers is to pass on information, to help students grow and learn. The idea of this school was born out of a joke: "Odile, why don't you start a school?" And I answered "why not!". Then I started to think about what kind of school we should have. For 2 years I continued to travel and ask questions and I realised that there were a lot of people today, at the beginning of the 21st century, who were wondering how to renew the teaching of architecture and how to make it move.
I started thinking about what kind of school to create. I looked at what was being done in teaching, but not only in architecture, but also in other fields and other countries. In Finland, for example, a certain number of theoretical courses have been removed from middle and high schools, because it is considered that students can be autonomous in their traineeships, they are taught to learn and to question intelligently what they read, to develop a critical mind, to find their own information and to feed themselves with it. Looking at other experiments in the U.S., I wondered why we wouldn't take it all apart and change it completely. And that's what I did, so the first principle is that there are no more courses.
The new generation (the millenial generation and the previous one) don't pay much attention during classes, they're busy reading on their screens what you're telling them, or they're doing totally different things. The French philosopher Michel Serres, author of Petite Poucette, shared this reflection on digital humanities, and reported the fact that it is useless to lecture in front of the backs of other screens and that it has become unbearable. When I give a reference when discussing their projects, my students search directly on their smartphones. The phone becomes an extension of their heads and their knowledge. So, the first thing is that there's no point in lecturing anymore.
A second thing is that students are very passionate when you make them touch the material or build something. A personal observation from the 90s: when I asked at the end of a studio session, that students build a piece of their projects, they proved to be passionate and above all they had become more collaborative. So, the question of thinking and at the same time making, this relationship has to be direct or as fast as possible, through design. And for that, you need tools - setting up manufacturing labs to make manufacturing possible and accessible. Many of the labs in schools are rarely accessible because there are few machines, materials or too many students. Laboratories need to be accessible, with a minimum of control and responsibility, which is the case in schools. Students have a key to access the labs and machines until 10pm, after which it is locked. Otherwise, they use the school as they wish and are responsible for it. They also have the key to enter the school before 10 am, during the day, on weekends, but if they stay there after 10 pm, they are locked in. So, the school is theirs, it's their second home. In France, the schools are so small compared to the number of students, that they don't have a table of their own on the spot, I made sure that they each have a table, because by working on the spot they collaborate and help each other better. I had a brilliant student who, during the lockdown, was not performing as well, because he was so used to being with others all the time, talking, collaborating and motivating each other.”
CAE: Your students have worked hard and worked to fight the pandemic with 3D prints of face masks and by sharing open source models so that others can do the same. You also delivered masks yourself to hospitals in Paris. The Covid-19 pandemic showed once again the solidarity of architects and the creativity of designers. How did your students deal with containment?
Odile Decq: "Most of my students are foreigners, the four students who worked with me found this project fantastic, because their existence had a meaning in relation to this lockdown. They were the ones who came to start the machines, who monitored them, who printed and so on. They brought their computers to school, they weren't all together all the time, they worked on their projects at the same time and then took turns. Once a week the five of us would get together to prepare the masks and the orders. We mainly delivered to hospitals and old people's homes. We made 2,000 of them, which is no small feat.
A student was in charge of the blog and all the communication on social networks. It was a real dynamic. I spent almost half a day a week with them, so we talked a lot, we were very close, like a small family in a new kind of start-up, it was great."
ACE: What is your advice for young architects?
Odile Decq: "Be curious about the world and want to discover the world without restrictions and accept all the differences. It is to be as curious as possible to be able to assimilate as much as possible about how others live and understand who the others around us are. It is to have no barriers, it is to be brave enough to take risks. Finally, it means dreaming to change the world and invent the 21st century. As I often say, I am jealous of today's students. I was born in the middle of the 20th century, I was lucky to see a world that was changing, they have to invent in a world that is being turned upside down. And in order to invent, first you have to dream, then think and then act. It's a tremendous challenge."
Odile Decq is a French architect and urban planner for whom international recognition came in 1990 with her first major commission: Banque Populaire de l’Ouest (BPO) in Rennes, France. In 2016, she has been awarded with the Jane Drew prize for promoting the role of women in architecture. She has been teaching architecture for the past 25 years. In France, she was Head of l’École Spéciale d’Architecture (ESA) in Paris from 2007 to 2012, after teaching there for 15 years. Following this experience, she created her own school in 2014 now located in Paris, the Confluence Institute for Innovation and Creative Strategies in Architecture