Odile Decq is a French architect and urban planner. International renown came in 1990 with her first major commission: ‘La Banque Populaire de l’Ouest’ in Rennes. Since then, she has been faithful to her fighting attitude while diversifying and radicalizing her research. Being awarded ‘The Golden Lion of Architecture’ during the Venice Biennale in 1996 acknowledged her early and unusual career. Other than just a style, an attitude or a process, Odile Decq’s work materializes a complete universe that embraces urban planning, architecture, design and art. Her multidisciplinary approach was recently recognized with the ‘Prix Femme Architecte’ in 2013 and the ‘Jane Drew Prize’ in 2016. In May 2017, she was honored with ‘Architizer’s Lifetime Achievement Award’ during the A+Awards in New York City for her pioneering career in the field of architecture.
Her most recent projects include: ‘Le Cargo’ (Paris, 2016), ‘La Résidence Saint-Ange’ (Seyssins, 2015), ‘Fangshan Museum’ (Nanjing, 2015), ‘GL Events Headquarters’ (Lyon, 2014), ‘FRAC Bretagne’ (Rennes, 2012), ‘Phantom: Opéra Garnier’s restaurant’ (Paris, 2011) and ‘MACRO’ (Rome, 2010).
Odile Decq has been teaching architecture for the past 25 years, a commitment ratified by the opening in 2014 of her own school in Lyon, France: The Confluence Institute for Innovation and Creative Strategies in Architecture.
Furniture for UNESCO, Paris, 2001
Photography Georges Fessy
Odile, the topic we’re gravitating around is “Hunger”. Let’s start with your roots. We would like to know more about your youth, how you grew up, where your parents are from and so on.
My parents are Britannian from Brittany. That means the western part of France. I grew up close to there. When I was a child I spent more time in Brittany than anywhere else.
How did you decide to become an architect anyway?
I wanted to do something in the art-field and when I was at the end of my high school years I went to Paris to study decorative art because I believed architecture wasn’t a profession for women at that time. I didn’t do that because my parents didn’t want me to go to Paris - it was a place where I could be lost. So they sent me to the capital of Brittany, Rennes and I started studying art history. At university I met some young architecture students, so I came to the school of architecture and I discovered it was what I wanted to do. At first I was hesitant but then registered to the exam and I told my parents that now I was studying architecture. My father said “You can’t do that, because it’s not for women.”
Maison Bernard, South of France, 2015
Photography Yves Gellie
That sounds very bigoted. If we look at the current situation, you are probably the biggest role model for women in architecture. Do you think that most of the architecture landscape is misogynist?
It’s not misogynist. It’s just a male field. It’s male dominated by numbers, you know? Even if nearly 60% of architecture students all over the world are female, only 30% become registered as architects. At the head of studios there are only less than 10%. That means we lose 50% of the students on the way. As I said to someone yesterday - this is nice for men because they can become architects with not so much competition as women are disappearing.
You don’t think it’s going to change for the better?
No, not at the moment. Because it’s still difficult for young women to start, to get commissions that are not schools, housing or small projects. We don’t know any women who did a big stadium, a big parliament - we don’t know any women who did big, big, big, projects. Women can get some little projects - no problem - but going up up up to the big commission, that’s not possible. Still today. This is a question of a male dominated environment because the clients are mostly men. Sometimes we meet women for example as the head of a company but rarely. It’s mostly men. Engineers around us are men. The people who are working with us are men. The heads of the contractor companies are men. Workers on site are men. So we are only surrounded by men. It’s very difficult for women at the beginning to be self confident and to fight for it. Also women have a choice in their life. More than men. Because they can decide to build a family, have children. So some of them, by their own choice or by pressure, become mothers and start a family. As soon as they build a family it’s more and more difficult. To work as an architect, to be the head of an office, to fight for projects, to fight on site, to fight for everything. It’s a war for jobs so you have to be absolutely concentrated on that. Even if it’s difficult it’s fantastic. I don’t have any regrets about that.
So this is a motivation? The fact that it is male dominated made you fight more and more?
No, this is not why I fight. I’ve fought since I was a child. It’s my nature. This is in my DNA. I was born in the middle of a big family, so I had to fight. But to get back to it it’s really a question of surroundings. Every year they do inquiries about the situation of women in architecture and last year they asked a question to female architects which was “If you have a daughter, would you recommend she do architecture?” Most of them said no. Because it’s too difficult. Even if you work in a company you get less money. it’s very complicated. There are so many disadvantages. It’s very sad.
Has it become easier for you?
Even now for me, I know many situations when I’m in meetings with clients and other architects that I’m not considered equal.
It’s still a war. Do you think that architecture education is too academic?
Oh yes. It’s not a question of being academic. In a time where everything is evolving and changing, it’s not. Maybe in the 70s or 60s it was more open, more experimental. It was the time of experimentation. But after that step by step it became too academic - strictly organised and strictly framed. So this is why I’m doing my school.
FRAC Bretagne, Rennes, 2012
Photography Benoit Gendron
The confluence school Lyon where you’re teaching architecture along with neuroscience, physics and sociology. Everything has to be part of the same thing?
Yes because architecture includes everything. When you start a project you are facing very complex questions that enclose all the disciplines of the world because we have to know something about sociology, anthropology, art, etc. You have to make sense of all these questions to be able to decide which diagnosis you do. And for that you have to make a proposal. This proposal has to work from the very small scale to the biggest scale. Because of that it’s very unique. Our mind and our way of thinking in architecture is very particular. This is why I think that instead of doing studies in architecture, which are just limited to designing and building buildings, we have to reopen the studies to allow students to decide how they want to apply that in the world. We can help society. At the beginning of the 20th century it was much more open, because if you think about the Bauhaus people were studying there became dancer, choreographer, painter, whatever. Mixing their possibilities. Today you become an architect just to design buildings, you have no other possibilities. This is why we have to reopen study, to help students know what they want to do and how to want to apply that. This is why I created this school. I want to challenge the way students can help the world in the future.
Read the full interview in our latest print issue.
Macro Contemporary Art Museum, Rome, 2001 - 2010
Photography Georges Fessy
BPO, Rennes, 1990
Photography Stephane Couturier
Interview & Words Anas Koubaiti & Stefan Dotter
Portrait Stefan Dotter