"Radical goth" Odile Decq is challenging architectural education in France

| 16 comments

Profile: Odile Decq has been awarded with the Jane Drew prize for promoting the role of women in architecture, but with the launch of her own architecture school, her impact on French architecture could be much wider (+ slideshow).

Odile Decq

The Jane Drew Prize, named after the English Modernist architect who was the first woman to be elected to the Royal Institute of British Architects' council, was awarded to Decq earlier this month.

Speaking at the ceremony, which took place at Claridges hotel in London's Mayfair, Odile Decq said it was "a great honour to walk in her path".

Cargo by Studio Odile Decq in Paris, 2016. Photograph by Roland Halbe
Cargo in Paris by Studio Odile Decq, 2016. Photograph by Roland Halbe

The citation praised Decq for being "a creative powerhouse, spirited breaker of rules and advocate of equality", which is all the more remarkable for an architect from a country that did not admit women into the prestigious École Polytechnique university until 1973, and where 80 per cent of French women in the workplace say they experience sexism on a regular basis.



And this is not the first time Decq, 60, has picked up an award for being a strong role model for women in architecture. Three years ago she was named French Female Architect of the Year.

Fangshan Tangshan National Geopark Museum by Studio Odile Decq in Nanjing, 2015. Photograph courtesy of Studio Odile Decq
Fangshan Tangshan National Geopark Museum in Nanjing by Studio Odile Decq, 2015. Photograph courtesy of Studio Odile Decq

Born in the small French town of Laval in Brittany in 1955, she studied architecture first in Rennes and then in Paris. Her partner and husband, Benoît Cornette, had switched from medicine to architecture and was still studying when she opened the practice in 1979.

The couple made an immediate impact on the rather dull architecture scene in France in the early 1990s. Cathy Slessor, the former editor of the Architectural Review, remembers them coming into the magazine's office around that time. "They were very radical, young French goths and it was like a breath of fresh air," Slessor told Dezeen.

Saint Angelo residencyby Studio Odile Decq in Seyssins, 2015. Photograph by Roland Halbe
Saint Angelo residency in Seyssins by Studio Odile Decq, 2015. Photograph by Roland Halbe

The studio's first big project was the Banque Populaire de l'Ouest in Rennes, won in 1988, that netted them eight awards. Christophe Egret, founder of Studio Egret West, credits the couple with bringing the high-tech language of Foster and Rogers to France, "and giving it a twist by adding the vibrancy of colour" – the lashings of deep, shocking red that Decq has used repeatedly in her buildings.

After that, more public buildings followed until Cornette was tragically killed in a car accident in 1998, when Decq was also badly injured.

GL Events Headquarters by Studio Odile Decq in Lyon, 2014. Photograph by Roland Halbe
GL Events Headquarters in Lyon by Studio Odile Decq, 2014. Photograph by Roland Halbe

People who knew them as a couple say that his death "knocked her for six". She has described working with Cornette as "enriching... one had to convince the other that something was a good idea".

Decq continued to practice but said that in the years after his death, buildings designed by her were still being credited to them jointly. She didn't change her firm's name to Studio Odile Decq until 2013, spurred she said by her portrayal in the media. "They were still referring to my work from the time I was with Benoît, and I was fed up. It was a sort of sexist attitude that didn't recognise the work solely as mine."

Banque Popularie de l'Ouest by Studio Odile Decq in Rennes, 1990. Photography courtesy of Studio Odile Decq
Banque Popularie de l'Ouest in Rennes by Studio Odile Decq, 1990. Photography courtesy of Studio Odile Decq

Despite all this, Decq said: "I enjoy so much being an architect. This is my life". She still continues to dress all in black, like a goth – a style she adopted in the 1980s after spending time in London.



For some, this has come to define the architect more than her buildings, despite Decq having delivered a series of impressive projects, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome, a restaurant for Paris' Opera Garnier and FRAC Bretagne.

Museo d’Arte Contemporanei di Roma by Studio Odile Decq, 2010. Photograph by Luigi Filetici
Museo d'Arte Contemporanei di Roma by Studio Odile Decq, 2010. Photograph by Luigi Filetici

A recent story about Decq on Dezeen prompted a lengthy debate about her appearance in the comments, with one reader writing: "If she were a man, we would simply discuss her work".

Another reader, who had undertaken a summer internship at Decq's studio in 2007, said her work was often overlooked and described his time at her office as "the best experience I have had in architecture".

Phantom Restaurant Opera Garnier by Studio Odile Decq in Paris, 2011. Photograph by Roland Halbe
Phantom Restaurant Opera Garnier in Paris by Studio Odile Decq , 2011. Photograph by Roland Halbe

But increasingly, Decq has been drawn to teaching, first at the Bartlett in London and then in Paris at the École Spéciale d'Architecture (ESA), becoming its director in 2007.

The privately run school had a reputation for being "old fashioned and insular" according to former students, and Decq shook it up, pulling in outsiders from Harvard and London and encouraging students to present in English.

"She has this incredibly positive attitude," recalled one of her former students, Rebecca Levy, now working as an architect in London, "but you either liked her or hated her and I liked her. She would do anything for her students".

Yet her reforming zeal also brought her enemies, and with fees rising it sharpened the split between those who supported her moves to make the school more international and the old guard, who wanted her out.

FRAC Bretagne Contemporary Art Museum by Studio Odile Decq in Rennes, 2012. Photograph by Roland Halbe
FRAC Bretagne Contemporary Art Museum in Rennes by Studio Odile Decq, 2012. Photograph by Roland Halbe

Passions ran high with demonstrations in the school's walled garden. "Students were insulting her and she was trying to defend herself," recalled Levy, who said it reminded her of the guillotining of Marie Antoinette.

If Decq's architecture has remained faithful to its high-tech roots, her decision to launch her own school mixing architectural teaching with other disciplines such as neuroscience, physics and sociology is the start of something very new.

Based in an old railway building that she has converted, the Confluence is in Lyon's former dock area, Les Confluences – the meeting place of the Rhone and the Saone rivers – where the city is spending millions of Euros regenerating with eye-popping buildings.

Renovation of the Antti Lovag Bubble house by Odile Decq in Cannes, France
Renovation of the Antti Lovag Bubble House in Cannes by Odile Decq, 2016. Photograph by Yves Gellie pour le fonds de dotation Maison Bernard

Decq has ploughed her own money into the school, giving it five years to succeed, according to her close friend and one of its visiting professors, Peter Cook, who founded radical 1960s architecture group Archigram.

So far, her school only has 20 students including some who have de-camped from ESA, disillusioned with the conservative regime that took over when she left.

Soleil Noir by Studio Odile Decq, 2015. Photograph courtesy of Studio Odile Decq
Soleil Noir by Studio Odile Decq, 2015. Photograph courtesy of Studio Odile Decq

Reaction in France has been mixed, but the school boasts an illustrious advisory board including architects Beatriz Colomina, Peter Eisenman and Sou Fujimoto, as well as Cook.

"If anyone can do it, she can," said Cook. "She's very professional and very tough but she's exhausting herself."

Confluence School by Studio Odile Decq in Lyon, 2014. Photograph by Roland Halbe
Confluence School in Lyon by Studio Odile Decq, 2014. Photograph by Roland Halbe

"It's a brave idea," agreed Nigel Coates, the British architect and designer who is chair of the new London School of Architecture's Academic Court. "And it's a quite a rarity in France, which has big lumbering institutions for the most part."

Few people have a kind word to say about architectural education in France: offering a viable alternative could well be her biggest challenge yet. But Decq's maxim – "with a little bit of talent and maximum of determination you can get a lot done" – will stand her in good stead.

  • Concerned Citizen

    Dang, enough of that mask, already.

    • janine

      Here we go again, let’s comment on her appearance rather than her work.

      • Concerned Citizen

        If you want comments on her work, show her work, not her mask.

    • AmmaarahF

      Please just stop.

  • SteveLeo

    Generic comment about her appearance rather than her work…

  • Archemil

    She may shake architectural education but you have to make clear that you have to pay €10,500/12,500 a year to integrate the school, in a country where architecture schools are a public thing, with an approximative cost of €600/800 a year and entrance examinations with a 1/15 acceptance ratio.

    Moreover, she chose to establish her school in an area where three other schools are putting at least 150 new architects a year on the work market, which are already struggling to find a job.

    I don’t care about her sex or her style, but I’m way more concerned by the inequity she’s generating.

  • I admire the fact that her work seems distant from her personal appearance. She’s not projecting her self-image on her designs, which is rare in our profession. Yet the interiors look poetic and intricate in an amicable way.

  • Roden

    At some point in life you have to realise that some people are going to have no choice but to look at you on a daily basis. It’s almost as if Dezeen posts these images just to get hits and couldn’t care less about her or her architectural achievements.

  • Jan Limon

    Excellent article, coverage of her terrific work, and choice of press photo .

    Great job, Dezeen!

  • blau

    Not really that enamoured with her work, grandstanding sexist slanging matches aside. Only know it from photos mind, but will I get a lot more from it if I experience it in the flesh?

  • Roberto Sideris

    Her work is fantastic; extremely unique in a bland sea of smooth metallic surfaces and bio-mimetic design.

  • H-J

    One of my favourite French architects.

  • Murray Kerr

    Great piece and delighted to see Odile recognised over here. I was taught by here at the Bartlett a long time ago now and I’m still influenced by her thinking.

  • Urban Commentary

    What beautiful work. I actually judge myself for not knowing about her before. Will be following her work a lot more closely now.

  • Martijn van Voorden

    I especially like her work on the Wally Esence: http://www.wally.com/esense/

  • Fransoa Tchoupi Che

    Good interview and really good effort by Odile Decq, however, at the end of the courses at her school, you cannot be licensed in France. Too bad it’s not written here.