Interview conducted by François de Mazières, chief curator of the BAP, mayor of Versailles and former president of the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine.
Today there are many architecture biennales. What differentiates the BAP?
As the name indicates, the dual themes of this Architecture and Landscape Biennale are closely associated, whereas far too often they are considered separately. Indeed, the challenges facing 21st-century urbanists is precisely to offer a comprehensive, holistic vision taking into account the main issues agreed on by the COP 21, i.e., global warming, pollution, unbridled urbanization, shrinking arable land, among others. Therefore, the primary ambition of the BAP is to demonstrate that architects and landscape architects, as well as academics, artistes, entrepreneurs, elected officials and of course citizens, must all act in concert to succeed. The intention of this biennale is to offer a forum for a dialog, to create a dynamic movement to protect arable land and to promote cites with a human face. It is no accident the BAP is taking place in Versailles. When Louis XIV created almost ex-nihilo his “new town,” the sovereign was undoubtedly seeking to meet a challenge which increasingly a crucial one: to invent a harmonious blending of nature and architecture. Today, it is the task of 21st-century creators to rethink our urban development models, only this time ramped up to the scale of the entire region of Île-de-France rather than just one city.
How do you plan to set up this dialog?
The BAP has been imagined as a metaphor of a tree. The trunk represents the shared desire of all actors I mentioned previously – beginning with the curators of the biennale, of course – to outline a vision for the future and to materialize it through a united, functional, aesthetic and sustainable city project; a city that should promote integration rather than exclusion. The branches of the tree represent the various thematic manifestations taking place during the two-month event at Versailles and set up in several key and complementary locations. The first of these is in the palace, through an exhibition on the projects proposed over the last three centuries to transform this emblematic monument, but which were never implemented. It offers an opportunity to discover the palace as it might have been, and to serve as the link between past and present. It will also outline the parallels concerning the complex relationship between client and builders. The renowned Chinese architect Wang Shu explains that one never builds on a blank slate. He is right. Tomorrow, we cannot be satisfied with merely imagining an ultra-connected and ultra-modern city without working to humanize it, by choosing for example materials that embody the continuity between past and present.
What are the Biennale’s other key sites?
Two essential places of transmission, because the city we are building is also one we will bequeath to future generations. In the Petite Écurie (little palace stables), home to the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture, the Île-de-France teams and delegations from several countries will exchange about new architectural practices with the members of the public and students. Through an exhibit and numerous projects, this laboratory of ideas, will show how the profession of architecture is adapting to the challenges of the contemporary world. The exhibition itinerary in this superb building designed by Mansart illustrates this rich dialog between past and present. Here, for the first time, the public will enjoy access to the Louvre’s incredible reserves at Versailles, among which are monumental copies of masterpieces of antiquity and the classical period. The third equally emblematic location chosen is the Potager du Roi (King’s Vegetable Garden), which houses the École nationale supérieure de paysage (the national school of landscape architecture) where we shall pose the crucial question: How can the city be nourished by blending with rather than working against its natural environment? Proposals will be very concrete, positive and festive, like the many other events that will be taking place throughout the town.
Echappées Belles, will propose a promenade through Versailles, where three photography exhibits covering resilient cities of Île-de-France and around the world will highlight already existing solutions. At the Richaud Chapel, another exhibition will explain how Versailles – a pioneer of the zero pesticides policy – is at its own scale dealing with these architectural, ecological and landscape challenges. The BAP must appeal to everyone because the city of tomorrow cannot be invented without its inhabitants. Desire, dreams, enthusiasm, beauty and sharing are required for success and they will be all be present. With Esprit Jardin, the landscaping of the Avenue de Paris and open air exhibits, the streets of Versailles will be transformed into an extraordinary garden appealing to all our senses. At the Potager du Roi, visitors will be able to taste fruits and other produce of the garden. A broad range of encounters, debates, workshops and inaugurations will be held all around Versailles and the Île-de-France. So, the BAP will also be a vast festival.
You have been driving this effort for fifteen years. Why?
I began my career in the 1980s, as the sub-prefect of Moulins, in the Allier department.
At the time, the desertification of rural France and poorly planned, unsightly urban development were shocking to me. Later, when serving as the director of the Fondation du Patrimoine (heritage foundation), I realized that although my generation had the good fortune to inherit an immensely rich heritage, in comparison, the architecture and landscapes we will bequeath to our children risk appearing to them as being of a rather shabby sameness. Facing the unprecedented speed of urbanization, the ideal city as envisaged by Corbusier in the 20th century, with the street grid virtually disappearing, has been a failure. Thus, our entire approach must undergo a complete rethink.
Is that why, in the 2000s, at the head of the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, you programmed three exhibitions on the theme of sustainable and ecological cities?
Yes. It was before the Cop 21 took place and the goal was to raise public awareness of the crucial challenges that are still insufficiently grasped by the people of France, but also by a portion of the professionals in the field of urbanism. Thus, the Cité hosted an international competition of architects on the subject of the “Grand Paris” (Greater Paris), which was in gestation, followed by two exhibitions: “Habiter écologique” (inhabiting ecologically), in 2009, and “La Ville Fertile” (the fertile city), in 2011. Almost ten years later, this awareness really exists, but now the challenge is to organize and execute concrete solutions. That is the role assigned to the Biennale. In its own way, it is part of the continuity of Baron Haussmann’s work, who, in the mid-19th century, was tasked with resolving issues quite similar to ours. Like today, he had to deal with the pressure of property development in one of the most densely populated capitals of the world while at the same time achieving a functional, hygienic, balanced and pleasant city in which to live. At the time, Paris was a fabulous laboratory for experimentation whose influence extended around the globe. Today, the playing field has expanded to include the Île-de-France Region, which, almost two centuries later, is once again becoming one of the major laboratories of invention in the field of urbanism. As the plan for Grand Paris is implemented, the opportunities are enormous, with new train stations, the upcoming Olympic Games, the relatively broad consensus (at least in France) to meet the challenges set by the Cop 21. We no longer have the right to fail. At the initiative of Île-de-France Region, along with the Palace of Versailles, the Louvre, the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture, the École nationale supérieure de paysage and the city of Versailles, The BAP is making its contribution to construction of this shared built environment.