A Career of
Windows and Spaces
Chilpéric de Boiscuillé, Claude Eveno
Claude Eveno (C. E.): I’ve often asked myself why – since you’re an architect who taught architecture and even headed a school of architecture – you decided to start a school of landscape design? What prompted you to do it?
Chilpéric de Boiscuillé : First of all, the school of higher studies in nature and landscape architecture in Blois (École Nationale Supérieure de la Nature et du Paysage de Blois) was not my idea, I was asked to do it. It was never a childhood dream, nor a professional conviction that landscape designers were working like idiots and that something had to be done about it. I never thought that. In fact, my past simply caught up with me – it’s all about engineering. My father was an industrial engineer, very artistic and industrious, whilst my grandfather was an agronomist, so I come from an engineering background.
I believe you also trained as a engineer, having studied in Switzerland.
That right. After finishing my secondary education by obtaining the Swiss federal Maturité diploma – equivalent to a year or two of post-Baccalaureat study in France – I enrolled in the civil engineering department of the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, Switzerland. There were remarkable teachers, top-notch people, who immediately interested me. One engineer – I still remember his name, Jean-Pierre Daxelhofer – specialized in metallic structures and ran the metal construction lab. There was another who specialized in reinforced concrete, Jean-Pierre Stucky, the son and successor of Alfred Stucky, one of the inventors of large arch dams – he took his students to every dam that had given way and showed them why it failed. And when I was a first- and second-year engineering student, we also had lots of practical lab courses, sometimes in conjunction with students from the architecture department. So although I was very interested in what my professors taught me, on seeing the architecture students in our lab sessions I realized I was bored because there was so little at stake.
So little at stake? You mean no creativity?
That’s right. On comparing my practical exercises to theirs, I could see they were already being given little problems in construction and development, such as setting a central town square on a steep slope. They were already being asked to invent, to come up with intelligent solutions that local residents would find attractive, and then figure out how to implement them, etc. The architecture students didn’t sleep at night, they worked in groups day and night, they were completely wrapped up in what they were doing – whereas we, we were simply conscientious about doing things right, getting the calculations right, doing a good drawing, always individually. One day I said to myself that I really wanted an educational experience like theirs, so I went straight to the administrative office and switched to the architecture department. All at once I found myself in workshops where the professor would set us a problem to solve, what’s also called a ‘project’ (as is also done at the landscape school and elsewhere). Once you got into a project, you never went to bed.
So it wasn’t the way architecture used to be taught in schools of fine arts?
It was an autonomous school of architecture in a polytechnic institute, with little mingling between departments except during certain practical exercises. But the difference between engineers and architects is greater in France than in Switzerland, where both professions are members of the Société des Ingénieurs et Architectes (SIA). The architecture teachers at Lausanne had been steeped in modern architecture for a long time. Hannes Meyer had headed the Dessau Bauhaus, whilst Max Bill, who also studied at the Bauhaus, was one of the key professors in charge of teaching methods at the Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG, School of Design) in Ulm. His mission was to keep the Bauhaus spirit and tradition alive after the Second World War. They all had a good rapport with the architects and engineers at Etic – the agency founded by engineer Jean-Marie Yokoyama, specializing in small-unit prefabrication, where we did internships and would go when we had free time during holidays – as well as the people at HfG in Ulm. We students also travelled between Lausanne and Ulm fairly regularly, spending two or three days there, meeting with students and teachers. When the Ulm school closed in 1967–68 it was ‘exported’ to France; and it was Claude Schnaidt, one of the architects I met at Etic or Ulm – who specialized in industrialized construction and housing typopologies, and who taught project methodology – who was put in charge of the move.
Did Schnaidt study at the Bauhaus?
No, he was too young for that, but he studied under Max Bill at Ulm and later became director of studies and vice-rector alongside the ‘great’ [Tomas] Maldonado, who was the rector at Ulm school. André Malraux 1 offered Schnaidt a location in Paris – on rue d’Ulm, believe it or not. At that time, I was one of the young architects admitted to a post-graduate diploma programme at this new institute. The Ulm HfG became the Institut de l’Environnement with an entrance on rue Érasme, probably to avoid overdoing the rue d’Ulm thing.
But was the issue of landscape architecture already being raised there?
A little, yes. The Institut de l’Environnement was modelled on the Bauhaus: your work would be seen by teachers who were architects, engineers, graphic designers, sociologists, photographers and film-makers, but there were no landscape designers. I think I recall that Jacques Simon was a post-grad. I discovered the landscape issue a little later, when working on my first or second building project at La Chesnaie, with the whole saga of my train carriages. All at once, when building with salvaged material – namely, those train carriages – I started asking myself questions. When applying for the building permit, in fact, people said, ‘What’s all this? You’re polluting the environment by dumping those empty carriages in the French countryside,’ and so on.
Getting back to your education: After your architecture studies, you became very involved in two things, first the movies and then La Chesnaie – which represented, if not exactly an anti-psychiatry movement, then a very unusual kind of psychiatry in the 1960s and ’70s. Let’s take them one after another. What role did the cinema play in your education?
In Lausanne we had had the terrific luck to have a cinematheque whose founder and director, Freddy Buache, was an extraordinary person. Not only did he prepare a programme of one or two films per week for us, often in the presence of the film-maker, but he also organised an annual week-long festival where we could see four films per day.
He was a disciple of Henri Langlois, the founder of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris.
That’s right, a young disciple of Langlois. Buache helped us to understand the dynamics between narrative and staging. He explained that a good film was first and foremost a well-structured, well-built story. I realized that the narrative was primordial. If you know how to develop a narrative, you can elaborate a plan and structure a space. He introduced us to film-makers such as Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet (through their film Not Reconciled), Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Eustache – people hard to follow. Godard was uncompromising when it came to the coherence of the screenplay, yet could adapt the staging to the film’s budget: ‘If you don’t have any money, you get an 8mm camera and you draw your set on a wall. What matters is the clarity and relevance of your argument.’ So I understood what economic organisation of a project meant, and I always chose materials – and hence architectural composition – suited to my small budgets. Later, when I had students, after having presented the subject to be addressed, I’d say to them, ‘Above all, don’t rush to your paper and pencils. Hunker down beneath your duvet and don’t come out until you’ve got a coherent story, a concept to recount to me. Only then can you begin to draw.’
Buache screened films by Sergei Eisenstein for us, explaining how his training as an engineer heavily influenced the development of his film work. My relationship to engineering was ambivalent. What I liked about engineers was their ability to rigorously design a Citroen automobile or an urban train station. I tried to impose this on myself when drawing, thinking for example of Mondrian and his way of viewing the world, and also thinking quite simply of composition. But I parted paths with the teaching of engineering when I realised we were mainly being asked to do calculations, even though I still recall a quote by Alfred Stucky that was constantly repeatedly in our class on reinforced concrete structures: ‘A poorly conceived dam remains a poorly conceived dam even if the calculations are right; a well conceived dam remains a well conceived dam even if the calculations are wrong.’ I liked that Mao Tse Tung-style aphorism, but despite everything I felt boxed in. There was a vast market for engineers from the Lausanne school, and it’s the market that influences training. We were made to understand right away that you had to be profitable, to draw and calculate quickly, whereas the other people were asking us to conceive slowly before designing.
Are you referring to the past or the present? Were things already heading that way?
I’m referring to the past, but the trend has grown. Cultural standards are dropping, in favour of profitability. I’m concerned by the cultural level of some young civil and construction engineers. Without a basic culture, what can they draw upon when designing? They have a catalogue and check-lists in their heads, and they draw right away, very fast. They don’t even know how to compose a text, even though they’re being asked to do more and more writing.
Moving on, you found yourself at La Chesnaie, where you were on good terms with its founder, Claude Jeangirard, and a certain number of other people. I remember that one of the founders of the Situationist International was at La Chesnaie, which lent an exotic touch to the place. It was an amazingly formative experience to have to deal with mental illness and madness. What did you get out of it?
I first went to La Chesnaie in 1969 or 1970, and I’m still un touch with Dr. Jeangirard. What I discovered there was almost indescribable for a young man of twenty-eight – in one fell swoop I came across all the utopias people were seeking in the 1960s and ’70s, I saw them being implemented, and they were no longer utopias.
So it was an attempt to concretize things?
Yes, I had the impression I was learning how certain things worked, but above all I came across mental illness for the first time. I also discovered that there were strategies for curing it, and that those strategies entailed turning the clinic into a different kind of institution, and that this psychiatrie institutionnelle 2 had a history. That history involved the experience of internment camps and the resistance efforts of a Spanish republican, Francesc Tosquelles, who became the head doctor at the Saint-Alban hospital. In short, those camps were organised around working groups – the clean-up group, the kitchen group, the mail group. These groups generated a sense of ‘us’ even whilst giving each individual a responsibility, hence a sense of ‘I/me. It was the ‘I/me’ and the ‘us’, those two different primal scenes, that were incorporated into the institutional community. At La Chesnaie there was the architects’ group, the kitchen group, the vegetable garden group, the mechanics’ group, the housekeeping group and the laundry group. So everyone was involved individually and as part of a group. People also talked about the ideas of Dr. Hermann Simon, a German psychiatrist from the Wartein hospital, who stressed the importance of involving the patients in improving their own life-style. So you see that I and my young students constituted a third component to be added to the patient/staff situation, our mission being to build a facility designed to improve the lives of people living at La Chesnaie, with the help of the residents and staff. As you said, we incarnated – if unconsciously – the attempt to concretize or illustrate the communitarian preaching of Simon and Tosquelles.
I can see what it taught you, and I can imagine its profound existential, even political, value in terms of understanding the world, but in terms of your approach to space – from the standpoint of an architect – in what way was this experience enriching, at the very moment you were discovering issues of landscape?
One of the first things that became obvious when I went there, flanked by my students in order to assess the job, was the importance placed on details, on little everyday things, whereas I had been expecting broad project guidelines for turning a barn into a club-café-theatre.
So you were already a teacher at the École Spéciale d’Architecture (ESA, Special Architecture School)?
I’d started shortly before. So I had students, and I wasn’t sure how to involve them in this early adventure, especially since they were above all activists who wanted to go to demonstrations and fight capitalism, whereas I came along with my narratives of architecture, which only mildly interested them – until we found ourselves at La Chesnaie, where we had to organise ourselves and structure our own group. Things immediately got interesting. I lost my illusions about functionalist architecture. Up till then I thought that, before putting up a building, you had to define the functions it had to fulfil: a hallway for the blind is not designed like a hallway in a sports complex. But when it comes to mental illness, what’s the function? Dr. Jeangirard said to me, ‘I don’t know if you realize that this building will obviously be used by the mental patients, but they don’t give a damn about your architecture, and anyway they’ll only be here for a few years and then leave. It’s the staff who will remain, and you’re building it for them, because they’ll spend their entire professional lives here.’ And I kept that in mind, afterward, in everything I did. In the end, of course, a hospital has to be very functional, but at the same time the patients spend less and less time there, and the medical staff more and more. We were beginning to see things a little differently.
I’ll come back to your question about landscape via a digression, to make myself clear. It was quite a shock to the students to realize that they knew absolutely nothing, not even how to design the facility they were going to have to build themselves. How do you draw a window or door that you’ll have to make when you have no idea how one is made? No one at school had ever shown them a window. So I suggested a method that involved doing the opposite of what was usually done. I put a small lorry at their disposal, and they did the rounds of public dumps every day, coming back with doors, windows and other salvaged items. After dinner we would draw the plans from things we’d chosen. We’d put bricks around the window frame, which enabled the masonry group to understand exactly what they had to do the next day. This systematic recourse to ‘ready-mades’ wasn’t all that different from the approach of landscape designers who, when carrying out an inventory of the terrain, make a list of everything they’ll keep in their new plan – not only plants and rocks but also the quality of the soil, and so on. As to myself, I thought I’d had a good education but in fact I was unable to draw the plans for making a window, whereas the young doctors who arrived at La Chesnaie for an internship had already dissected corpses in their second or third year of study.
But was the École Spéciale d’Architecture an entirely new situation? Was the teaching at ESA fairly similar to the usual teaching in France?
Yes, it was fairly similar except that the school was managed jointly, with as many students as teachers and administrators on the board of directors. I also had the good luck to arrive at the school and to come into contact with the Situationist International at the same time. Someone had said to me, ‘Watch out, there’s a very particular resident over there at La Chesnaie.’ And I’d read the texts on ‘unitary urbanism’ by that resident, Ivan Chtcheglov. So I had that vital lead, and when I saw I could get a group of students together, that I could house and feed them without it costing them anything, then I could go to my boss at the time, Paul Virilio, assisted by his friend Anatole Kopp, the person who turned us onto the Russian constructivists. And they said to me, ‘Go for it, don’t worry, we’ll send you teachers when you need them.’ I promised to report back every week. And so that’s how things went for ten years. I now think, after the fact, that it was a great stroke of luck to come across a guy like Dr. Jeangirard and then pitch my narrative to the only architecture-school director who would have said yes at the time.
It was an educational experience that was meaningful for the times, since the 1970s were a period when new lifestyles were being tried out everywhere in society. But it was totally new for the ESA. What was the upshot of attempting an approach like that? Did you teach differently afterwards? Was the ESA influenced by that experiment?
The ESA? A little, yes. Another teacher moved to Bourges with her students in order to design some very handsome buildings and, like us, she set up a non-profit association. So ESA had a branch in Bourges and a branch in Chailles, where the La Chesnaie clinic was located. We were eligible to receive some apprenticeship subsidies in the form of materials – one day we’d receive a lorry load of tiles, another day a batch of bricks, and so on. These branches were closely observed by the national architectural commission, which viewed them as a potentially interesting educational approach – it called them ‘operational studies’. For me it was a life-changing experience, it made me realize all the benefit my students were getting from real commissions by real clients, forcing them to deal with real administrative hurdles – like building permits – real plots of land, local officials, etc. Not to mention the motivation for students. I also learned how to dose group work and individual work within the overall educational program.
So in the end you’ve lived in the area for forty years?
That’s right, even a little longer. It was the first time there was an institution in the Loir-et-Cher area for students doing university- level courses. Just about then François Rabelais University was founded in Tours. There was nothing in Blois. In fact, you might even say that the Chailles branch was the harbinger of a university-level institution in Blois.
When you became head of ESA, were you then able to institute what might be called a kind of educational ideal at the school?
In fact, I achieved an educational ideal without realizing it during my ten years at La Chesnaie: a group of highly motivated students every year; real commissions, a budget, room and board for students; a carpentry workshop and a mechanical workshop; teachers who came from Paris to give courses at La Chesnaie; and a main contractor who supported our do-it-yourself efforts using salvaged materials. So when I assumed management responsibilities at ESA, I used my authority to raise money and build a new school on boulevard Raspail, trying to involve the students and certain teachers in organising a shared educational space with the nearby Camondo school of design and communication, alongside architecture at ESA. I spent my two terms doing that.
You said that starting a school of landscape design was never a dream of yours, but on the other hand you must have begun to dream of starting a school when you were at ESA and in the Blois area, thanks to your experience at Chailles, which was a novel educational experiment.
No, I didn’t feel a need to start a school because ESA recognized and validated the teaching at Chailles, where I was perfectly happy. Strangely, it was the mayor of Tours, Jean Royer, who wanted to transfer the Chailles branch to Tours, but ESA’s board of directors rejected the proposal.
But was the very idea of starting a school, when you did think about it, originally about a school of architecture or a school with a broader brief?
>Let me just say again that I never thought about starting a school. I just always tried to teach by following what I thought was the ideal model of Ulm, of which I had good memories, or by improving on the model of my own education at Lausanne, which left me a little frustrated. And when I was invited to sit on diploma juries at various architecture schools, I was a little disturbed – I often felt the level was too light-weight, that diplomas were sometimes awarded to students who hadn’t produced a tenth of what my own students were doing. It wasn’t enough. So, yes, it made me ruminate about what was lacking.
That comes straight from the Bauhaus. Ulm was directly modelled on the Bauhaus.
That’s right. It was a kind of industrial design school, with the special feature of combining all fields – painting, art history, cultural history, architecture, design, photography, textiles, metalwork, woodwork and plastics – in executing real commissions for furniture, buildings and posters. The goal was to provide the beneficiaries of this training with a substantial background in both technology and culture. Another special thing about Ulm was that it had a kind of campus where students and faculty lived, and could meet in the evenings at film screenings, concerts, exhibitions, and even cooking classes that ended up in large dinners and discussions lasting late into the night. And that’s what we experienced at La Chesnaie, because we were living in a big farmhouse where we prepared our meals and spent the evenings. I couldn’t transform ESA to quite that extent, but I did introduce ‘operational studies’. However, my attempt to put Camondo’s interior decorators and ESA’s architects under the same roof didn’t work, and will never work, because the histories of the two institutions are too different. The best they can do is to co-manage their joint property as amicably as possible.
So in the end it wasn’t subject matter or professional experience that spurred you to reflect pedagogically, but rather actual learning situations, notably the realism required when doing projects with outside partners, and also the realism demanded by practice. Rubbish dumps provided an opportunity to learn how wood or metal is handled. At that point, did you already have a pedagogical background or philosophy based on a knowledge of the principles behind the Bauhaus and Ulm?
My admissions interview at the Institut de l’Environnement lasted an hour instead of the usual fifteen minutes required to convince the panel. I sat facing Claude Schnaidt and the others, and simply recounted the beginning of the La Chesnaie project with my students. They listened, wide-eyed, then began asking countless questions. For the next two years Schnaidt was constantly behind me, suggesting that I take the Chailles branch as the subject of my degree thesis, and offering to be my supervisor. He literally fed me with the Bauhaus, non-stop, for two years. He devoted a lot of time to me because what I had to say reminded him of situations he had known at Ulm, and he was fascinated by the idea of spontaneous architecture composed of salvaged rubbish – it was light years away from what he was teaching, and he never dared come have a look because the psychiatric world disturbed him. I would also report back to Paul Virilio – who also never came to La Chesnaie – and continued to work with him until he left ESA.
So you acquired not only a background in the profession, but at the same time a background in educational methods?
A background in the profession, perhaps, but not the profession itself. I would say I acquired the ability to grasp a project, and to convert it first into a concept and then a rigorous, full-fledged plan. In addition, I did an internship of nearly a year with the Swiss railways, namely the Section Technique de la Voie (STV, Technical Rail Division). So I worked with Swiss railway engineers, who were very interesting and highly demanding people. Background in educational methods! That’s acquired in courses on general culture, through reading, during internships, and visits to other schools. One thing’s sure: I never thought of becoming a teacher, and never prepared myself for it.
So one day you found yourself, without ever having thought of starting a school of landscape architecture, with a commission based on the idea that one had to be created. That was when Jack Lang was mayor of Blois. 3 You were a complete philistine when it came to landscape, from a professional standpoint, because the profession of landscape designer was completely new in France. Who are the famous landscape architects? There are very few well-known names. There was the pioneer, Jacques Simon, followed by Michel Corajoud and his students such as Alexandre Chemetoff. And the École Nationale Supérieure de Paysage in Versailles wasn’t founded until the mid-1970s. So there was a youthfulness, almost an innocence about the field that was still very widespread when you began to think about the school nearly twenty years ago. How did you go about it? How do you go about conceiving a school of landscape design heavily inspired by the European educational theory we just discussed, without any professional experience as a landscape architect?
True enough, I knew very little about landscape designers. I knew the work of Gilles Clément. And Jacques Simon. Paul Virilio introduced me to Michel Corajoud. They were the only two. In fact, I would never have put myself forward as the founder of a school of landscape design. It was Jean-Paul Pigeat and Patrick Bouchain who convinced Jack Lang to create a landscaping school. Chaumont-sur-Loire had been founded the year before, 4 and immediately afterward they said to Lang, ‘It was a good idea to revitalize the art of gardening, but now the teaching of landscape design should probably also be revitalized.’ They took Lang to La Chesnaie, to lunch in the restaurant carriage of the Green Train, and told him how those buildings had come about. Lang wanted to meet me. I was handed a report that I found highly inadequate, but I replied that I was greatly interested in the project.
So there were lots of gaps in the proposed curriculum?
The report basically said that knowledge of plants and gardening history wasn’t enough, that ecology and some other stuff I can’t recall had to be included. But what I wanted was a foundation course, two years of study, that gave students the basic scientific knowledge – botany, ecology, soil science, geography and geometry, not to mention computer graphics. Another segment would be devoted to general culture and creativity; the third segment would involve an annual internship like the ones young medical students do in university hospitals. I also wanted the students’ time to be divided between individual work – ‘me’ – and group work – ‘us’. A second three-year course would include professional apprenticeships in fields such as lighting, acoustics, hydraulics, and so on. And yet more general culture, plus a period devoted to a project involving a real commission, and an internship in a research consultancy. All that called for five years of study, not three or four as the reports proposed. I drew up a model based on five years, as advocated by Michel Rocard’s report on universities.
So it was you who said five years were needed?
That’s right, I said it to Lang, and was backed by Patrick Bouchain, a close advisor to Lang. And I also said it had to be an engineering school, with an engineering spirit in the best sense of the term, but completely steeped in the history and culture of landscaping, which had to be introduced without sacrificing the rigour of an engineering degree. To me, an engineering education meant what I had experienced, but better. Above all, not a school that turned out Drei Groschen (‘threepenny’) engineers, as third-rate institutions sometimes do. Lang replied, ‘Do you want to produce architects who are engineers, or who are ingenious?’ I said, ‘I think they have to be real engineers, because a real engineer is also sensitive to artistic and social issues, and must be able to design projects in a spirit of sustainable development.’ I told Lang about Jean Claude Nicolas Forestier as an example of a design engineer, showing him reproductions of watercolours done by Forestier to convey his plans for parks he landscaped in Argentina, Spain and Paris, and mentioned that Forestier had studied at Polytechnique 5 and then at the forestry school in Nancy. So Lang – who at the time was minister of culture, education, higher education and research – had proof that the world of architects and engineers had not always been as compartmentalized as it seemed then.
You headed the school for fifteen years. And I guess you spent two or three years planning it, recruiting people, before it opened. What conclusions do you draw – what has worked, what hasn’t worked? Why are there many more requirements at Blois than at ENSCI, a design school founded a little earlier? 6 At ENSCI the courses are offered à la carte, you enrol in a workshop and take the courses you want, it’s called a personalized pathway, offering a level of flexibility that’s hard to beat. Here at Blois there’s still a ‘Jules Ferry’ 7 side to the school, there are required courses. Why are these two schools, which were founded at the same time, in the same cultural atmosphere, so different, even though they share the idea of project workshops, of learning to think via concrete projects?
I think ENSCI is a little like HfG in Ulm or some very good art schools. There’s a student, an individual with a project or idea in mind, which he or she submits to teachers, who say yes or no and then monitor the student. So it’s a world of ‘I/me’, there’s no group dynamic. If everyone pursues their own project – I’m studying a coffee cup, you’re doing an electric car, and he’s designing a golf club – then there’s no real face-to-face among students. True, there’s a face-to-face with teachers, which is probably necessary for training ‘artists’, but for training designers who have to work in a group, you have to learn to work as a group.
You mean education passes not only from teachers to students, but also among the students themselves.
I think that’s obvious. But you also have to avoid group work only, because it’s really hard to work in a group, which can stifle more withdrawn individuals. That’s why the workshops at Blois must always be organised around a real commission from a client, shared by all. All the students venture out to the site, analysing it scientifically and perceptually, marking it all out. That’s the ‘us’ part of the work: thirty or forty students crawling over the site. Then each student reacts individually, sketching a solution: that’s the ‘I/me’. And then all these different views are presented to the client – the owner or contracting authority – who is asked, ‘It could be this, it could be that, do you want to include this, did you see that?’ and so on. The client, presented with so many potential facets, usually begins to realise that the original scheme was screwed up. So he reformulates the commission and sends it back to us. At that point the client has made choices, established priorities, and eliminated certain things. And so the group returns again – as ‘us’ – tackling these various elements and coming up with a solution.
That’s a very good explanation of how a project workshop operates. But you still haven’t answered the question I asked, about why there are all these rules. I wouldn’t call it authoritarian, but there are these rules about student behaviour at school that include mandatory presence in all classes. There’s none of the freedom derived from the 1970s, which you could have opted for.
Let me tell you, I don’t believing in either giving or imposing freedom. Freedom has to be acquired. I never believed in that free Summerhill School or the Abbey of Thelema, I never believed all that stuff.
Nor Freinet’s educational methods?
Yes, I believe in that. Augustin Freinet would take his students to a place, say, a forest, where they gathered what they found there, then took it back to school, where they began to describe, categorize, write, make prints. He invented an ‘educational and productive’ form of skipping classes, followed by alternating periods of ‘I/me’ and ‘us’. In order to make future design engineers work together as well as individually, they need a shared language, references, and culture – that’s mandatory. In order for there to be uniqueness, or opposition, you have to be able to argue, to be heard and understood when you say, ‘not me’. That’s the case at Blois. But I don’t see what subject could be withdrawn from the overall curriculum to allow students to choose electives. When it comes to the discipline that teachers impose on students, I see it above all as a mutual obligation. Teachers can’t expect students to arrive on time for classes if they themselves are late. So the school’s rules apply to everyone, and are a guarantee of mutual respect and trust. The dialogue between teacher and student is an old story, we all know it by heart.
A different story concerns the dialogue, however imperfect, between teachers themselves. At Blois such dialogue is encouraged by the fact that some of the subjects are taught via real project management. It’s also encouraged by the limited number of students in each year. Every teacher – in science, technology, or workshop – knows all the students in that year. The assessment jury at the end of the semester thus involves all the teachers, and it’s a very intense moment, people really listen to each other. It’s also the moment when the next year’s curriculum is discussed, including the real projects and operational studies for the upper years. It’s stimulating – a site has to be reconnoitred, maybe some people have to change their schedules or course content to fit in with other subjects. During these discussions it’s more than just a joint curriculum that emerges, it’s a whole strategy. The teachers really devise strategies, which became very apparent to me when I taught third year students. The foundation course curriculum also incorporates new things, which can cause a little angst among the teachers, hence dialogue and strategy. I think that’s the greatest quality of the Blois school, and it certainly wasn’t me who invented it, it was all of us – because we needed it to keep in step.
That principle already existed at the Bauhaus, where there was a faculty body that met regularly and even organized general assemblies to discuss content – not just the running of the school but the content of architecture and design courses – attended by all teachers and all students.
At both the Bauhaus and Ulm, teachers and students lived on campus. They all stewed in the same juices – probably to excess. In fact, the requirements you mention have enabled us to create a shared spirit that is a subtle part of the identity of every engineer from Blois.
It’s the only school where I’ve seen so much dialogue between teachers. That was something you discovered as you went along, to the extent that this communication among professors has become a key, enriching feature of the school, which at times constitutes a kind of collective philosophy. But what have you noticed that hasn’t worked? No school is perfect.
With hindsight, I think the school remains very fragile precisely because it depends on the charisma of each teacher much more than would a school that has a thousand students. But teachers are fragile – they get worn out, sometimes go stale. A school shouldn’t be as old as its teachers feel. I didn’t have the time to set up an educational excellence or review board, which could deal with these issues as well as those concerning students. Since the school doesn’t have such a board, it adopted a certain code that notably sets out the conditions students must meet in order to proceed to the next year, and ultimately to get a degree. It’s not unusual for the school to refuse to award a degree. Everyone knows and accepts this.
You mean there’s a certain severity at the school?
Yes, that’s probably the case. But I don’t see it as a defect.
For the moment things are very regulated. Earning a degree requires tests and a strictly defined type of work, which everyone accepts. I’m one of the enforcers, just as you were, in my role as chair of a jury. If the school wanted to accept people with highly unconventional backgrounds, couldn’t it do it through fifth-year programmes only, of the kind devoted solely to research or creativity? I’m exaggerating a little, in order to make the issue clear.
You’ve put your finger on part of the school’s past, when highly varied people from extremely diverse backgrounds were recruited, as is done in art schools and certain schools of architecture. By deciding to recruit almost exclusively from students who have specialized in science in secondary school, and by obtaining the right to confer degrees in engineering, we opted to create a crucible in which everyone acquires a solid, shared culture – a kind of fertile soil that enables students to blossom after leaving school. They do very well in postgraduate programmes at ESSEC, Ponts-et-Chaussées, Sciences Po, 8 and other schools abroad. They have a certain style, intellectual approach and creative ability. I think that’s the pay-off for the ‘severity’.
As you know, the ministry of education regularly urges us, via the commission that accredits engineering degrees, to expand research activities at the school. In your opinion, what does ‘research’ mean when it comes to landscape design? What direction could it take? Things are already pretty codified in the realm of ‘research’: you can do research in the history of ideas, of gardens, or of landscape, but it’s all historical research. Research into landscape design would involve professional landscape architects, but how would we define research, and what path might it take?
It’s true that universities define what might be called the criteria of research, and when engineers started poking around that area – there weren’t many at the start and there still aren’t very many – they adopted academic criteria. A landscape engineer is someone who works in the field, who designs and executes. A geographer is an academic who deals with theoretical concepts. So if a landscape architect wants a Ph.D., he or she has to register in the geography department. Just take a look at the work of Gilles Clément, the landscape designer – who studied horticulture, for that matter: if you look at his experiments and his accomplishments one after another, they constitute what I would call components of applied research. Jean Nouvel was saying to me the other day that he would be incapable of doing a Ph.D. – and can you imagine Philippe Starck doing one? 9 And since you need a doctorate in order to get job as a research professor, those people aren’t eligible, which is a great shame for the students at schools of engineering, architecture, and design – and, in the end, for French products. The Commission d’Attribution des Titres d’Ingénieur (CTI, Engineering Degree Attribution Commission) should stop insisting on forcing working engineers into academic research. It’s through different approaches to conception and design that things change, that we come up with something new.
I think of friends who were at engineering school at the same time as me and who went on to invent an adjustable formwork system for prefabricating staircases whatever the difference in floor levels – highly ingenious! And another guy who invented a system for attaching slate tiles, now used by everybody. And if you said to this guy, ‘now you’ve got to do some research in order to get a Ph.D.,’ he wouldn’t be able to manage it, he’d run the other way. And yet he carried out real research. Can you see Portzamparc or Corajoud spending three or four years to get a Ph.D.? Impossible. So if we could make changes in the definition of what constitutes research, using your own output as a subject of research, France would be a lot better off.
I imagine you’re very proud of having started this school, and having headed it for fifteen years. What do you have to say about it today, now that you’ve left?
After having left the school, I returned to professional practice in the engineering firm I co-manage with Raphaëlle Chéré, a landscape designer who graduated from Blois. The company provides me with a wonderful vantage point for seeing how the school’s graduates are coping in the professional world. I come across former students, either as competitors on bids for project management, or else as consultants on project management for juries charged with choosing one. And they’re amazing! So yes, I’m very proud of these engineers who ‘stand out’. I constantly hear the same sort of praise: ‘They have a global vision of the project, they’re thoroughly committed to it, and they express it very well visually,’ or ‘You can trust them, they know what they’re doing.’
So that’s your proof of success!
It’s certainly proof that the teachers at ENSNP have succeeded, yes. But the thing we’re most proud of is the professional respect and esteem displayed toward our engineers by the people in the major engineering firms such as Setec, Arep, and Safege. Moreover, I notice that the technical agencies we deal with greatly respect the work done by Raphaëlle – she knows how to communicate with them, they recognize her not just as a fellow engineer, but as a good one. That’s the finest proof of our success, in my opinion. One day I said to a president of the CTI, a man I particularly liked, ‘You’re still wondering whether Blois graduates are regular engineers or some sort of fringe. Let me tell you, we may be on the fringe, but we’re real design engineers, and there are lots of engineering schools, which I won’t name, that probably don’t deserve the label.’ He replied, with a smile, ‘Fringe or not, you’re regular.’
Originally published in 2012 in issue #10 of Les Cahiers.
Translation: Deke Dusinberre.
Cover picture: C. de Boiscuillé.
- The famous writer was also the influential French minister of culture during the presidency of Charles De Gaulle. [Translator’s note.]
- The movement known as psychiatrie institutionnelle roughly corres- ponded to the ‘therapeutic community’ approach to mental illness in Britain and America. [Trans.]
- At the time, in addition to being mayor of Blois, Jack Lang was the influential minister of education and culture during the presidency of François Mitterrand. [Trans.]
- The Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire is an international garden and art centre. [Trans.]
- The École Polytechnique is France’s most venerable and prestigious school of engineering. [Trans.]
- École Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle, a Paris-based school of industrial design. [Trans.]
- Nineteenth-century politician Jules Ferry is considered the father of France’s national educational system. [Trans.]
- These highly exclusive French universities specialize, respectively, in business studies (École Supérieure des Sciences Économiques et Sociales), civil engineering (École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées), and political science (Institut des Études Politiques, or ‘Sciences Po’). [Trans.]
- Jean Nouvel is a leading French architect, Philippe Starck is a famous French industrial and decorative designer. [Trans.]