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Architecture, Modernity, Modernization

Jean-Louis Cohen


Antoine Compagnon
Traduction de Liz Libbrecht

Texte intégral

1Dear Jean-Louis Cohen
Dear colleagues,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

2I will speak briefly before handing over the floor to Jean-Louis Cohen, our new Visiting Professor, for the Inaugural Lecture of a three-year cycle (or three one-year cycles) that he will be delivering as the Collège de France Chair of “Architecture and Urban Form”.

3Last week, when Serge Haroche introduced our colleague Alain Fisher at the Chair of Experimental Medicine, he could affirm that there had been sixty-eight physicians in this institution, which is a record. Architecture, however, is nowhere near this number. Throughout the Collège de France’s long history, it has been one of the least represented professions, until the recent creation of the Annual Chair of Artistic Creation. The first holder of this Chair was a distinguished architect, Christian de Portzamparc, who, on 2 February 2006, delivered the Inaugural Lecture of a Chair called Architecture: Figures of the World, Figures of Time. We have however seen no other architect in that Chair since then.

4Searching thoroughly through the past records, I did find one name, though. Albert Gabriel (1883-1972) was an architect and an archaeologist, a specialist on Anatolia who had written a thesis on the fortifications of Rhodes and conducted excavations in Egypt and Syria. He taught history of art in Caen, then in Strasbourg and later in Istanbul, and in 1930 founded the Institut français d’études anatoliennes, of which he was the first director, until 1941, and again from 1945 to 1956.

5In February 1938 he applied for the Chair of Aesthetics and History of Art, presented by Lucien Febvre and Louis Massignon, but Henri Focillon was chosen instead. With support from André Siegfried and Léon Robert, he reapplied, in January 1941, this time for a Chair of History of Muslim Eastern Art, also presented by Febvre and Massignon. This Chair was in competition with a Chair of Assyro-Babylonian Archaeology and Philology, presented by sinologist Paul Pelliot for Édouard Dhorme. The Vichy government was hostile to these proposals and the 22 February 1941 Decree suspended deliberations on vacant Chairs until after the War. Yet there must have been some friction in Vichy, for the 4 March 1941 Decree subsequently repealed the February one.

6Both applicants were impossible choices. Dhorme was a former Dominican who had left the order in 1931 and had married, and Gabriel was suspected of having communist leanings. According to a report dated 13 May 1941, by the SD, the SS’s intelligence service, “former Dominican priest Dhorme” was “now married to a Jew”, and “Director of the French Institute in Istanbul, Gabriel” was “an agent of a Franco-Russian communist organization”. The SD believed that the Collège was “infested” with Jews and communists, and the cooption system did nothing to help.

7One of the harshest sessions in the Collège’s faculty meetings in history took place on 25 May 1941. Paul Pelliot, elected Dean after Paul Langevin’s eviction, claimed that “there [was] nothing biblical about Albert Gabriel except for his archangel’s name; as far as he can trace his ancestors, they were, on both sides, peasants from Champagne. He belongs to a family that is rooted here on earth, in purely French soil.” Everything was said tactfully, and Gabriel was elected.

8Although the Collège de France hosted no other architects, there have been some precedents to this newly created Chair, such as the Chair of Monumental Art and that of the City of Paris, held by Paul Léon from 1933 up to 1940, when Vichy removed him from office. In his Inaugural Lecture, Léon, who had formerly headed the Beaux-Arts, paid homage to Charles Blanc (Louis Blanc’s brother), another former head of Beaux-Arts (from 1848 to 1852 and from 1870 to 1873) and Chair of Aesthetics and History of Art (1878 to 1882). Camile Jullian, a professor of National History and Antiques (1905 to 1930), also had ties with the Beaux-Arts administration.

9You, dear Jean-Louis Cohen, belong to this tradition given that, from 1998 to 2003 you designed and directed the Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine project in Paris’s Palais de Chaillot.

  • 1 Jean-Louis Cohen, Architecture in Uniform. Designing and Building for the Second World War, Paris, (...)

10After World War I, Paul Léon, who was then head of the Architecture Department of the Ministry of Public Education and Fine Arts, studied reconstruction and published La Renaissance des ruines. Maisons, monuments. I have found some illustrations drawn from it, showing the protection of the stalls and gate of the Amiens cathedral, in your current exhibition “Architecture in uniform. Planning and building for the Second World War”.1 At the time, Paul Léon was working on a project for “the reconstruction of France’s historical buildings, new historical monuments, remains, and war memories”, all of which are also topics in your work.

11In brief, architecture, and especially historical buildings and architectural heritage, have sometimes been studied at the Collège de France. Therefore, when the idea of a temporary change from the tradition of the Chair of Aesthetics and History of Art came up, we immediately thought of an opening towards the history of architecture. And how could we not think of you, dear Jean-Louis Cohen, who are a distinguished ambassador of this discipline, and who have been a player in this field for so long?

12You are an architect and a historian, and you have written books on architecture and cities from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century. You studied at the École spéciale d’architecture and in the Unité pédagogique no. 6 in Paris, from which you graduated in 1973. In 1985, you obtained a PhD in History of Art from the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, which accredited you in 1992. You directed the Ministry of Infrastructure’s architectural research programme from 1979 to 1983, then held a Research Chair at the Paris-Villemin School of Architecture from 1983 to 1996, followed by the Chair of History of Cities at the Institut français d’urbanisme, Université Paris 8. In 1994, you were appointed Sheldon H. Solow Professor of History of Architecture at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts.

13Between 1997 and 2003, the Ministry of Culture entrusted you with the task of creating the Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine, which brings together a museum and a gallery within the Palais Chaillot. This museum was inaugurated in 2007. During those years, you headed the Institut français de l’architecture and the Musée des monuments français, which are the Cité’s two main components.

14You are a member of the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, of the Russian Academy of Architecture in Moscow, of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, and of the Académie d’architecture de Paris. Your work has been supported by the Graham Foundation as well as the John S. Guggenheim Foundation. You have been a visiting professor in many European universities as well as Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, UCLA, and the University of Montréal. You have also worked as a visiting researcher at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.

15In your research, you have explored twentieth-century architecture and town planning extensively. In particular, you have studied the architectural cultures of Russia and Germany, colonial town planning in Morocco and Algeria, and architecture during the Second World War. You have remained dedicated to Le Corbusier’s oeuvre and to the history of town planning in Paris. The question that runs through all of your work is that of transfers between national cultures and architecture as far as urban landscapes and visual culture are concerned. You have examined links between Italy, Germany, and France, as well as exchanges between Russia and the West.

16You have designed and curated many exhibitions. As early as 1979, you were in charge of architecture for “Paris-Moscow” at the Centre Georges Pompidou. Then, in 1987, you were the scientific adviser for “L’Aventure Le Corbusier”. Amongst your more recent work, there was “The Lost Vanguard” at the Museum of Modern Art of New York (2007), and “Scènes de la vie future” and “Architecture en uniforme” at the Center for Canadian Architecture of Montreal. More recently, you organized the “Le Corbusier” exhibition at the Pouchkine Museum in Moscow, in 2012, as well as “Interférences – architecture, Allemagne, France” at the Musée d’art moderne et contemporain de Strasbourg and at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum in Frankfurt, in 2013, and your exhibition “Le Corbusier, an Atlas of Modern Landscapes”, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 2013, then in Barcelona and Madrid, in 2014.

17You were twice awarded the Académie d’architecture’s Grand Prix for architecture books (in 1996 and 2012), as well as its medal for architectural analysis (2003). You furthermore received the Art Book Prize in London (2013), the American Society of Architectural Historians’ Alice Davis Hitchcock Book Award, and, in 2010, the Karlsruhe Schelling Foundation’s Schelling Architekturtheorie Preis, which is Europe’s foremost distinction in this field.

18Your research covers a vast field, including: architecture and twentieth-century cities in France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and the United States; the internationalization of architectural forms and their interplay with regional cultures; cultural transfers between the United States and Europe, between France and Germany, between France and Italy, between Europe and North Africa, and between Russia and the West; and town planning in colonial Morocco and Algeria.

19Your energy, activities and pace are seemingly boundless. You have published about thirty seminal books, monographs and catalogues, reflecting unfailing devotion to certain subjects such as Le Corbusier, the USSR and the United Stated, Paris, New York, and Moscow, the temptation of Americanism, and Algiers and Casablanca. At the moment, your exhibition “Architecture in a uniform. Planning and building for the Second World War” is running at the Palais de Chaillot, and you are organizing France’s space at the Architecture Biennial in Venice.

20You proposed a superb five-year teaching project, which we are inaugurating today and which I will now let you present better than I could. You will examine the history of architecture in the twentieth century, with a focus on its intellectual, social, political, technical and aesthetic context, for you consider architecture as being indissociable from the history of cities and territories. You use the methods of the history of art and the specific concepts of the field of architecture, to which you add your analyses of notions pertaining to the broader field of history, as well as theory. This allows you to study all dimensions of architectural and urban objects.

21In parallel to these historical questions, you have remained a critical observer of contemporary cities, as for instance with the Grand Paris project. Your teaching will therefore take into consideration these two dimensions: architecture and cities.

22You are planning on delivering three courses on the essential questions of architecture designed and built since the early twentieth century. First, “Architecture and politics in France in the 20th century”, taking into account the European context and colonial policies. Second, “Architecture and Americanism in Russia”, which is an extreme and paradoxical case of American technical and cultural hegemony in the twentieth century. Third, “Architecture put to the test of war”, and in particular the Second World War, which brought about major changes in urban forms and techniques, as well as in the forms of visual culture.

23Dear Jean-Louis, welcome among us with this fine programme.


1 Jean-Louis Cohen, Architecture in Uniform. Designing and Building for the Second World War, Paris, Hazan, 2011.


Professor of Modern and Contemporary French Literature: History, critique, theory at the Collège de France
Liz Libbrecht (Traducteur)

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