A UK show about Jacques Hondelatte and his mysterious columns may raise awareness of the French cult architect here
Eight white columns have been installed, somewhat puzzlingly, across the diminutive Betts Project gallery in London's Clerkenwell. This intervention only begins to make sense when you learn more about the subject of the gallery’s new exhibition, the radical French architect Jacques Hondelatte (1942-2002).
According to Betts Project director Marie Coulon, while Hondelatte is little known outside France, in his homeland he is something of a cult figure.
“He was a very strong character who was really free-spirited, radical, and uncompromising. He lost lots of competitions because he never followed the aesthetics of the time - he was thinking instead about finding simple and efficient architectural solutions,” she says.
A long time friend and associate of Jean Nouvel, Hondelatte was an influential teacher at the Ecole d’Architecture of Bordeaux, where his pupils included Anne Lacaton & Jean-Philippe Vassal, who went on to form Lacaton & Vassal.
An early adopter of digital design in architecture from the mid-1980s, Hondelatte realised relatively few built projects but was awarded the National Grand Prize for Architecture in 1998. The columns installed in the gallery are a reference to the mysterious clusters of columns that appear on the plans of half a dozen or so of his projects, yet were never included – or apparently ever meant to be included – in the builds.
This exhibition has been curated by Juan Perez-Amaya and Felix Beytout, Hondelatte’s grandson and himself an architect. Beytout was young when Hondelatte died but fondly remembers his strong voice and presence. Their research into his working methods paints a picture of a man who spent most of his time discussing and conceptualising, only committing his designs to paper at the very last minute when they were fully formed in his mind.
'They didn’t draw much in the office – they were talking and thinking, maybe seeing a film or going to the bar, but no-one was drawing. Then, once the idea was clear and they felt it was ready, they just did it,' says Perez-Amaya.
He describes how Hondelatte embraced the idea of architecture as a mental discipline – rather than an object-based pursuit – that can survive without being built. Often admired for its poetic qualities, his work is also characterised by a strong sense of narrative and fun. Here was an architect who, when asked to design a garden (Jardin du Foot de Noisiel, 1994) on a site with existing trees, mapped out football pitch markings so that the trees became players on the pitch – in order to avoid removing any of them.
'He’s having fun – that’s another thing we really like about him. He didn’t take himself too seriously,' says Perez-Amaya.
'There’s always a lot of humour in his projects – very few architects do that,' adds Beytout.
In another project (Artiguebieille House, 1973), Hondelatte’s care to preserve all the trees on the site resulted in a sliver of a house just 4m wide but 27m long. Three of the facades are painted with black tar, the other is a long glazed curtain wall, while inside, the interior spaces are defined not by function but by their atmospheres eg dark, sunny, shiny, loud.
According to the curators, he was one of the first architects to use narrative as a project of its own within architecture. Another built work, Les Dragons de Niort (1992,) is perhaps the clearest example of his use of mythology within a project.
His proposal for a landscape device to separate traffic from pedestrians referenced a local dragon legend with the incorporation of two bronze dragons with snake like bodies that undulate along the edge of the road. They were set in a pavement that incorporated chips of glass to give a shiny quality, so as to suggest that the dragons might be emerging from the river. Red and white striped Venetian-style poles were used as markers in the landscape in a reference to the area’s nickname ‘la Venise Verte’ (Green Venice). The poles sported pertinent text from Italo Calvino’s influential book Invisible Cities.
His concept for the Millau viaduct competition (won by Foster) proposed the vehicular traffic in a tunnel-like space beneath a linear park populated by stones from every country of the world. The images show how his approach to computerized imagery was not governed by creating as lifelike a view as possible, but by instead exploring the graphic, abstract qualities of the medium.
And what a shame that his design for the Bordeaux law courts competition wasn’t realised. Hondelatte proposed a facade of thinly-cut slats of stone that would glow translucently when the building was illuminated from within. In the plans, shown in the exhibition, two sets of Hondelatte’s mysterious hypostyle columns are visible at the major exits. Although Hondelatte initially won the competition for the project, a second was held later and the courts were eventually designed by Richard Rogers Partnership.
However it’s rather a relief that his project for Mont St Michel wasn’t realised. While Hondelatte certainly loved trees he also loved cars and came up with a solution to the traffic congestion problem caused by so many visitors – a giant carpark in the form of a bridge reaching from the mainland to the tidal island. He wanted this structure to look as beautiful full of cars as without, and thoughtfully proposed a mirror that captured the view of the Mont at the exit of the car park so that visitors could get one last look at what they were leaving behind them as they drive away.
'He tried to make what everyone found unsightly into something beautiful,' says Beytout.
Since his death, drawings of several of his key projects including Tribunal de Grande Instance de Bordeaux, the Viaduc de Millau, and Mont Saint-Michel have been acquired by the Center George Pompidou. This small but fascinating exhibition, the first solo show of his work for nearly 20 years, may well raise awareness of Hondelatte’s work further – and in doing so, endorse his cult status even more.