By taking the discipline of architecture to its creative extremes, Odile Decq is renowned for her whimsical and cutting-edge projects that attempt to reimagine space and what is possible to create within this. As an architect, urban planner and academic, Odile Decq merges her bold creative language with the surrounding environment to create buildings that radically reconceptualise the relationships between human life and space.
Particularly in the male dominated field of architecture, she has broken boundaries both due to her creative intuition and her struggle as a woman in this environment, thus proving to the younger generation that daring to dream is, indeed, the only way to change reality for the better. In this interview, we have the pleasure of speaking to the founder of Studio Odile Decq.
How did your career as an architect begin and what inspired you most?
I started just after my diploma in the early 80s, I was an urban planner in France and I was used to receiving comments from clients, politicians and other people I met saying they were surprised to see a young woman, as they were not used to seeing them in architecture. They sometimes asked me why I didn't work for an architect, in other words: why I wasn’t working for a man, although I was an architect myself. I had to fight to express who I was and why I was myself. But I succeeded. It took a little time, but step by step I became recognised as an architect. I started to be truly appreciated by the end of the 80s, when I won a competition for a project I built very quickly. I received awards all over the world for this building, my international recognition started to grow and, at this time, the French recognised me too.
What are the greatest difficulties you have found in your experience as a woman architect in a male dominated industry?
I do what I feel, what I intuitively want, and maybe as I have never worked for an architect, I don't have the usual way of doing things. For people, it was quite strange to see my appearance was different but, at the same time, it was helping me be different, do differently, be recognised because I was singular and individual, and not copying others. But it was a fight. I think it is still a fight for young women today. It's not easy, even after nearly 40 years, as it is still problematic to be a young woman architect. I know that this is the case because it is still a very male dominated profession. Even if more than 60% of architecture students today are women, only 10% of provision of firms is managed by women. Nearly 30% of women architects are registered, but only 10% are managing their own firms. These are very low numbers: this clearly is still a male dominated industry.
Where does the intersection between the practical work of an architect and the creative work of an artist lie?
It is very difficult to understand where it is, because there is an artistic way of doing architecture. But this is not the same. This is why now I do more and more installation art to experiment in this field and bring more possibilities into architecture. In architecture you mostly work with a lot of constraints which you must manage in order to express what you want. It's not always possible to do everything or push further. But when you do an installation, you can express whatever you want. So for me it is a balance between these: it's helping me be more personal, do art and be more concerned with expressing art in architecture. I don't really see where the limit lies between them because this limit is fluid.
What is space, to you?
Space in architecture is somewhere relative to the human body. I love to make the body move, to provoke energy into a space. But sometimes you have to meditate on how you want to express the place of the body in space. This involves the limit, height, dimensionality, light, materiality, colour of a space: everything must be considered to make the human body express or move itself, but also feel comfortable. This is really important because the space of architecture is for providing people somewhere they feel comfortable and forget the hardness of their outer life. To me, this is not just theory: it's something that is really intuitive, organic, made for the body. I always feel myself into the space and try to make it so I can feel comfortable inside. When I have to describe our tasks to the people who work with me, I begin by explaining how we will proceed and what we must fulfil but, at the same time, how we can provide freedom and possibilities for people to come.
If we view architecture as narrative, what is traditional architecture telling us about human life?
If you think about the ancient Greek forum, it was invented as an urban space for people to meet. I think that you must have the same generosity for humans when you design an interior, exterior or urban space, although the constraints, the conditions, the techniques are different. Yet you have to have the same generosity towards the human. Afterwards, you have to think about the evolution of society, of ways its ways of living and inhabiting. The evolution of architecture has evolved because of the evolution of society and ways of living. So this is not a question of theory. This is a question of how people live, what their social needs are, how they behave together. If you think about the bourgeois or the aristocrats or the poor, they have different habits: they had different uses of spaces and their building were reflecting that. Today we are living differently from the past, and our buildings are reflecting this.
What is the recklessness of being an architect who is pushing boundaries?
I never speak about breaking the model, but I push my students to go further, go beyond and not limit their view with what they are used to learning from institutions. If you don't go beyond, you are not looking at what will happen next. Especially when you are an architect, you are not building or designing something for yesterday. You are not designing for today either, because it would take too long to do so. You are doing something for the future. For this reason, you have to understand where a society is heading. For example, AI, virtual reality, the economy and other social problems today are all affecting your way of thinking and one must be able to imagine for the future. You have to open your mind to be curious about the world and understand what you can offer that could be beneficial for tomorrow. At the same time, you need to have hope for the future. This is why I always say that I'm jealous of my students, because they have to dream, invent, create, design for the new century. My generation was starting to work at the beginning of the 80s, we were born after the Second World War in a society where things were changing very quickly and we were in a hurry to push for change. Today, something has been broken and we have to reinvent, rethink, dream the future. I think that dreaming is important. Nobody dares to dream today, but I think that you need to invent and put your brain in relation with the future. They have this duty today. It's giving them hope for their future.
What is womanhood, to you?
I don't know, because I have never lived as a man. I know how I behave and I act, but I don't know if it's different for others. I once said that the problem of being a woman in a field like this is not the problem of you, as a woman. It is the problem of the men that are in front of you, because they are not used to having women in the same positions or level as them. So it is the men that have a problem with us, not us with them, as we simply want to talk to them as equals. There is also another problem that I sense in the world today: the possibilities for women are shrinking again in many countries and places. This is a shame, because I come from a generation of people who were thinking that everything would change for the best and there would be more freedom, more openness for women. In many places these opportunities are now shrinking once more. And this is the problem. This is why we have to continue to fight and to show that we are women and we can do it.
All images courtesy of Studio Odile Decq