rchitect and educator Odile Decq taught for 20 years at the École Spéciale d’Architecture (ESA) in Paris. Decq was dean of the university from 2007 until she resigned in 2012, when she found it impossible to implement the institutional reforms she felt necessary for teaching architecture students in today’s world. This autumn sees the opening of her new private university in Lyon, the Confluence Institute for Innovation and Creative Strategies in Architecture‚ where she hopes her reforms will be realised. In attempting to break the mould, Decq’s “Confluence” has already drawn as much criticism as it has praise. uncube asked her to elucidate her plans and explain where she thinks architecture education needs to go.
Madame Decq, the very first sentence of the mission statement for your new architecture school is: “We believe that today it is fundamental to totally rethink architecture education.” Why? What is wrong with existing models?
It′s not so much a question of what is wrong or not. It is rather that the world has changed dramatically and so too has the profession of architecture – and ultimately architecture itself. The only things that have not changed are the models for architecture education, which have not only proved very rigid and un-reformable but in Europe, due to the Bologna Process, they have been made even more inflexible in favour of a general bureaucratic compatibility and homogeneity. This is a serious problem for the variety of existing models. That’s why I think that we really have to fundamentally rethink architecture education – and that′s why it is so exciting to start a new architecture school now.
»When we are in a state of crisis like we are today, we have to rethink the world.«
How would you describe the predominant model of architecture education today?
I have taught at a lot of institutions over the last 20 years including SCI-Arc, Bartlett, Columbia, the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and Düsseldorf or the IUE in Madrid. I was sort of “analysing” the existing models from within and I found that these very different institutions are all trapped within the existing system. They either teach about designing architecture, with all these pointless discussions about forms and objects and very formal approaches, or they try to educate the students to become efficient, well-functioning professionals. It seems that around the beginning of the 1980s architecture schools started to focus more and more on building and designing objects instead of teaching architecture.
This, together with the rise of the starchitect, has worsened to the point that today many people think of architecture only as a discipline that produces shiny, spectacular objects. Yet architecture is a discipline that requires a deep cultural, sociological, economical, political and ethical understanding of the world. This is what students need to learn because, when we are in a state of crisis like we are today, we have to rethink the world. We have to act differently, which means that we have to look beyond building too; to help people and improve living conditions for mankind and this sometimes requires something different from a building. At our new school, we don’t subtract anything from the usual architecture education. Students will still learn how to build. But we add other topics in order to broaden the picture.
This harks back to the 1970s when many institutions started to add subjects like sociology and economics to their curriculums. Are you suggesting reconnecting architecture education to these models?
To me it is crucial to bring all the disciplines related to architecture together. Instead of separating them into specialised disciplines we need to create one space where students all come and study with one another and only at the end decide what they want to be as professionals. Indeed I believe that education in the late 1960s and early 1970s was much more open and reflective about its own models. But we have to develop these models further in order to meet the demands of our times. That’s why for the curriculum at the Confluence, we have defined five thematic fields including “Neurosciences”, “Visual Art” and “Social Action”. Sociology was indeed a new topic in the 1970s at a time when many people thought “why would an architect need to know about sociology?”
Today this is a common ground, of course architects need to know about the society within and for which they are building. But architecture should not only analyse society, it should act within society too. We have to take a critical position and we have to take risks! It really frightens me when I notice that younger people are afraid of taking risks or of having their own position.
How do you teach this?
I strongly believe that architecture is about the human being. Very fundamentally the duty of an architect is to provide human beings with a shelter and to continuously improve living conditions. This is why I am so much against the starchitecture system, and against the understanding of architecture as an object. If you take a look at the generation of architects under 40 today, many of them are already involved in this model of “social action”. They are acting in communities, developing projects directly with neighbours and activists. This is something our educational models need to react to.
If you create a new architecture school, then it raises the question of appropriate spaces. How did you design the Confluence?
The best space to teach architecture in is a simple box. When I look at some of the latest buildings for art or architecture schools, I must say that they are too designed. When architects design a school for architecture, they tend to turn it into a statement and the students are then trapped within this architecture. I think spaces like at SCI-Arc are perfect for education. Theirs is an industrial building from the twentieth century, basically a long rectangular box with a raw and robust interior continuously transformed by the students. We tried to create our new building in the structure of an old market building for the Confluence in a similar manner: it has three large surfaces stacked on top of each other offering very open spaces that can be re-arranged and re-organised in many different ways. The only specific spaces are in the basement where there are all the machines and workshops. We are also trying to create connections with the city and the people of Lyon as much as possible. The ground floor is very transparent and open. We’ll have our lectures and exhibitions there, inviting people and passers-by in from the outside.
SCI-Arc in Los Angeles was also founded as an alternative education model in its time yet has meanwhile become an established institution. Have you considered why schools become “institutionalised”? Is there a way to prevent that happening to Confluence in the future – getting stalled in its own fixed system?
I really don’t know. It is of course a very interesting process: how institutions are born and what becomes of them over time. Even the Ecole Spéciale in Paris was founded by Viollet-le-Duc in 1865 explicitly as an alternative model. Maybe it is just not so much about being against or outside the existing system. It’s about offering alternatives. I believe its better to have niches alongside the mainstream in order to create options to choose from.
What about finances? You have been accused of being mercantile and elitist with fees projected to be 12,000 Euro a year…
We don’t mean to be elitist or exclusive in any way. Yet the Confluence is a private institution and we want to stay a little school, so I cannot reduce the costs by having more students. And in order to finance the quality that we want to achieve, we simply need money.
Basically in France everyone assumes that the state has to take care of education on all levels. That’s also why we have been under attack from some public schools and the French Syndicat de l’Architecture for founding a private institution. In France, everything that is “private” is always immediately seen as elitist. But to be honest I just don’t understand this question.
Odile Decq set up her own office just after graduating from La Villette in 1978 while studying at the Sciences Politiques Paris where she completed a post-graduate diploma in Urban Planning in 1979. International renown came quickly; as early as 1990 she won her first major commission: the Banque Populaire de l’Ouest in Rennes which was recognised with numerous prizes and publications. She was awarded a Golden Lion in Venice in 1996. Since then, Odile Decq has remained faithful to her fighting attitude while diversifying and radicalising her research.
Recently, she has completed the MACRO (Museum for Contemporary Art in Rome) in 2010, the Opera Garnier’s restaurant in Paris in 2011, the FRAC (Museum of Contemporary Art in Rennes) in 2012 and has just completed the GL Events headquarters in Lyon.
With this wide range of fields to study, what will the experience be like for the students?
By staying a very small school we can ensure that there is someone to look after each student individually and help him or her develop their own interests, specialisations and in the end an orientation for how to continue. One of the main problems with existing models is that individuality, which is so important to an open society, is getting lost in the bureaucracy that tries to homogenise the people as much as possible only in order to make them administrate-able.
Is this then a very personal model, with one main tutor/teacher that guides each student through their studies?
No. I don’t believe in the idea of a maestro, that you have one personal teacher and you follow him. I absolutely reject that. There should always be different people and different opinions, especially contradictory ones. Maybe this confrontation with many opinions doesn’t make learning easier. But it helps you to define your own position and opinion. Then you are not a follower anymore. You are independent and can in the end decide what you want to do and what you want to be. Maybe even an architect. p