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“The artist, the architect and the panache! Interview with Xavier Veilhan

By 10 March 2023June 12th, 2023No Comments

Meeting with Xavier Veilhan in his studio, 2023 © Mélina Vernant

Xavier Veilhan, Claude Parent, 2009 © Guillaume Ziccarelli

Visual artist Xavier Veilhan is known and recognised internationally for his cross-disciplinary approach, guided by his adherence to the modernist concept of the “synthesis of the arts”: architecture, graphic arts, object design, music, fashion… all feature in his creations since the 1990s.At a time when he has just completed a series of collaborations with Chanel, we visited him in his Paris studio to talk about his relationship with Claude Parent, his admiration for the architect and the close ties he forged with him over the course of several projects.

  • Aurélien Vernant : Can you tell us about your first meeting with Claude Parent?

Xavier Veilhan: I was preparing my exhibition at the Château de Versailles in 2009. I was working on an installation project for the palace gardens: a monumental walkway conceived as a gallery of three-dimensional portraits of architects. For me, it was a way of paying tribute to the great builders (including Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, Renzo Piano, Tadao Ando and Lacaton & Vassal). So I contacted him to include him in the project and create his portrait. It was Naad, his wife, who intercepted my message and persuaded him to accept.We had a lot of discussions about how to portray him, and I talked to him about the figure of the Academician. I thought it was interesting to portray him as a wise man, given his career and his personality. I saw him a bit like Manet: a revolutionary figure; a bourgeois, yes, but the bearer of a radical message.

Xavier Veilhan, Le Carrosse, Versailles, 2009 © Florian Kleinefenn

Xavier Veilhan, Tadao Ando, Versailles, 2009 © Florian Kleinefenn

Xavier Veilhan, Claude Parent, Versailles, 2009 © Guillaume Ziccarelli

AV : At that time, you formed a kind of partnership ?.

XV: I met him quite late, he was 86. There’s no doubt that I immediately took a liking to his charismatic personality and his slightly dandy elegance. He had that ” alone against all ” side and then a unique destiny, completely original in the landscape of 20the century architecture.

He had many facets. As an architect, he had great respect and consideration for his colleagues, despite his sometimes marginal positions within the professional sphere.

And then there’s a certain ambiguity, between utopia and dystopia  I’m thinking of his plans for nuclear power stations, or some of his drawings that show a rather dark vision.

He was very funny and inexhaustible, always full of anecdotes. One day, he told me about his youth and the afternoons he spent drawing in Le Corbusier’s studio – Le Corbusier had spotted Claude because of the quality of his drawings. He would explain to him how to represent this or that thing… It’s amusing and impressive to imagine Le Corbusier explaining drawing to Claude Parent!

Meeting with Xavier Veilhan in his studio, 2023 © Mélina Vernant

  • AV: After Versailles, you embarked on the Architectones project (2012-2014), which can be defined as a vast research project linked to emblematic figures and places in modern architecture. It involved you working on remarkable sites in Europe and the United States. Here too, you decided to pay tribute to Claude Parent, by choosing one of his major works: the Eglise Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay in Nevers. Why this particular site?

XV: I’d long been fascinated and intrigued by this ” bunker ” church, designed in the mid-1960s by Parent and his partner at the time, Paul Virilio.
As part of Architectones, I’d done several interventions in Los Angeles, in iconic houses by Richard Neutra and John Lautner. I was looking to intervene in France. I was preparing a project for the roof terrace of the Cité Radieuse in Marseille, and Claude Parent said to me one day when we were discussing my research: “You should take an interest in Sainte-Bernadette. That’s how I ended up in Nevers. With the studio, we developed a series of interventions on the scale of the site: objects and installations scattered around the outside and inside the church; we even placed a small statue by Claude Parent in the nave. It was very moving.

I was also lucky enough, with this project, to be able to talk to Paul Virilio. I had studied his book Bunker Archéologie and I decided to reconstitute blockhouses from small blocks of wood, which I set up and photographed on the beaches of Finistère. These photomontages of abstract compositions were then processed into lithophanies (prints on translucent porcelain) that I incorporated into the church’s loopholes for the duration of the exhibition.

Xavier Veilhan, Lithophane n°17 (Blockhaus), Nevers, 2013 © Diane Arques

The Yellow Lines (Tracing of the Parochial Center), Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay, Nevers, 2013 © Diane Arques

Xavier Veilhan, Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay, Nevers, 2013 © Diane Arques

  • AV: Do other Claude Parent projects inspire you or play an important role in your imagination?

XV: I would have loved to have been able to talk about the Maison Drusch in Versailles (1963-1966)  I visited it with Marie-Ange Brayer, who was running the FRAC Centre at the time. We had a wonderful time there with the patrons, Mr and Mrs Drusch, who were very old at the time. But the opportunity never arose.

I admire the Maison Bordeaux-Le Pecq (1963-1965), recently sold by Architecture de Collection, and the Villa Bloc (1959-1962) at Cap d’Antibes, which I have never visited. I have visited the Iran Pavilion at the Cité Universitaire, and I have a particular fondness for the project for the French Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1970. Claude Parent, who curated the pavilion that year, literally poured himself into the structure of the building, which he reinterpreted with a gigantic Praticable, open to multiple appropriations. This fascinating gesture inspired me greatly for the Studio Venezia project in 2017. This idea of a synthesis of the arts, of symphony, and then this desire to irrigate the building differently, to make it unrecognisable from the inside…

Xavier Veilhan, Studio Venezia – French Pavilion, Biennale di Venezia, 2017
Photo © Diane Arques © Veilhan ADAGP, Paris, 2017

  • AV: Claude Parent’s presence is palpable in your studio. Here, on the walls of your office, we are surrounded by numerous drawings made by the architect at different times. How did they get there?

XV : I collected them over time and through our exchanges with Claude.
He was a very great draughtsman. I admire this “strong dynamism”, this “hard positivity” that runs through his drawings; he doesn’t try to design spaces that are comfortable, but rather that spur people into action; spaces that are shaped by the constant movement of body and mind.

Initially, during the Versailles exhibition, he would send me humorous sketches by post, in which he would depict himself at the top or bottom of his statue, with salty comments.

Later, he told me that he would like to have an edition for his collection; I offered to make him a small version of his statue of the Academician, seated with the sword at an angle. He offered me some drawings in exchange.

Then, one day when I was visiting him, he gave me this series of sketches, which he had taken out of a large drawer full of original plans of his work…

This one reminds me of my childhood  I was quite bored at school and I used to draw boats to kill time. In my case, they were often sailing boats, but this one looks more like the superstructure of a motor yacht…

Meeting with Xavier Veilhan in his studio, 2023 © Mélina Vernant

  • AV : Est-ce qu’il y a une idée forte ou un trait de sa personnalité que tu retiens ?

XV : It may sound a bit anecdotal, but I’d say his humour. Although of course he had a very serious side, a kind of seriousness in his questioning and his biases. He cultivated a kind of distance from reality, a particular way of looking at the world.He was someone whose empathy and kindness I also felt. He was curious and very generous; he spent a lot of time trying to understand some of my projects, which weren’t necessarily in his vocabulary.But perhaps the thing that defined him best was his panache! I remember Odile Decq telling me how he drove her back to the metro, 100 metres from his house, in a Rolls Royce! Politically incorrect, but at the same time representative of his love of beautiful objects and a certain aestheticism.

© Mélina Vernant

Interview by Aurélien Vernant,
director of Architecture de Collection

© Veilhan ADAGP, Paris, 2023