An Ode to Claude Parent, Father of Oblique Architecture

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Portrait of Claude Parent in Front of One of His Utopian Town Projects© Fonds Parent. SIAF/Cité de l'architecture et du patrimoine/Archives d'architecture du XXe siècle

On the sad news of the radical French architect's passing this weekend, aged 93, we celebrate his immeasurable influence on the medium

Claude Parent was a non-conformist. His work was always unconventional, and often controversial, but he was not despised (he told the FT’s Edwin Heathcote that planning permission for every house he ever designed was initially rejected); he was commercially successful but underappreciated, unorthodox but brilliant. He was a lover of luxury cars (with a collection of over 20 at one point) and had a predilection for flamboyant dressing, indefinable from his passion for gauche dressing to his handlebar moustache. For seven years, he lived with his family in an unfurnished house he designed with sloping floors. Among those he influenced are Zaha Hadid, and Jean Nouvel – Parent’s student. Nouvel referred to Parent as “utopic… he worships the future, and movement.” He is described as the last Parisian Supermodernist – and with his passing his theories on architecture, and the avant-garde ideas he built into reality, will live on. 

Parent had studied mathematics, then spent a decade working under the architect Noël Le Maresquier in Toulouse, eventually returning to Paris in 1946, where he would work at studios, (including Le Corbusier’s). He established a successful commercial career, yet it was only in the 1960s, when Parent was already in his late 30s, that he began to carve out the niche that would define him.

His friend, and partner, philosopher, writer and urban planner Paul Virilio, introduced the architect to a discovery that would leave an indelible impression, and would permanently change Parent’s approach to architecture. Virlio had come across World War II bunkers, built as an extensive defense system by Nazi Germany, along the coast of continental Europe and Scandinavia. Due to severe winter weather, many of the concrete structures had shifted, and slipped down into the sand dunes.

Parent was struck by the vertiginous feeling created by these architectural relics, where the walls and floor had been tipped. The metaphor they evoked also struck a chord with Parent, their original purpose as military defensive structures – shelters designed to protect – physically dismantled.

Parent was fascinated by the idea that the continuity of space could be radically disrupted by tilting the axis – and by the social possibilities that could result from doing so. This obsession became the manifesto of Parent and Virilio’s Architecture Principe group, and Parent would begin to implement their utopian vision of “la fonction oblique” (the oblique function) in the vocabulary of all of his architectural work, in the form of sloping floors, ramps and inclines – he imagined the dynamism and movement of the body in such a space, and the new kind of interactions people could have, sliding, slipping, gliding, slumping. It wasn’t practical, but it was playful. Parent would never build a flat floor again.

Cast in concrete with aluminum interior casings and dramatic angles, Villa Drush, Versailles – a private home, designed for Gaston Drush – was a direct realisation of Parent’s theories on oblique architecture, its exterior looks like a house tipped on its side. Among the iconic “fonction oblique” public projects the pair completed was the Catholic church of Sainte-Bernadette in Nevers, 1963–1966. The monolithic concrete building is imposing and futuristic, its spartan interior, with floors sloping towards the altar, and its low, oppressive ceiling, the reference by the military bunkers of the Atlantic Wall – a highly polemical reference for a religious building, given that those protective bunkers were an architectural paradox. At the time, the church scandalized France; in 2005, it was declared a historic monument.

In 1968, Parent split from Virilio, and two years later he was awarded the prestigious Grand Prix National de l’Architecture. Meanwhile, at the peak of political and environmental activism in France and in Europe at the end of the 1960s and through the 70s, Parent worked on nuclear power plants at Chooz and Cattenom, Moselle, publishing one of several books he would author in his lifetime the same year: L'Architecture et le nucléaire. Parent was never predictable. And of course, his work with the nuclear industry received harsh criticism from his intellectual peers. Once again, it would take decades for others to catch up with Parent and his concepts for architecture that looked further than what we already know about the built environment.

In the 80s, Parent’s work fell out of fashion but recently it has seen a renewed interest, with a retrospective at the Cité de l'Architecture taking place in 2010. In 2014, he participated at the Venice Biennial (in 1970 he had designed the French Pavilion, a landscape of slanted floors) and at Tate Liverpool, 2014, as part of the 8th Liverpool Biennial. For the Tate commission, he remodeled the Wolfson gallery, with his now-famous ramps. 

Francesco Manacorda, Artistic Director at Tate Liverpool wrote in an email on Parent’s death: "I am very sad to learn that Claude Parent has passed away. He was not just an innovator in the field of architecture but a radical thinker who brought all sorts of practitioners to reconsider received ideas and to unlearn procedural habits. Meeting him and discussing his project at Tate Liverpool for the Liverpool Biennial 2014 gave privileged access to his way of looking at the world and his ambition to transform it. Those conversations with him have been a huge inspiration for me on my artistic research and helped me understand better how museums can and must relate to audiences differently in the future."