Who’s afraid of black and red, and who’s afraid of Odile Decq?

Why Odile Decq in the Brakke Grond? Out of curiosity. No exhaustive argumentation is needed to invite an architect, according to host Maarten Kloos. But a minor anecdote reveals that his wife read an interview with Decq in the Alitalia magazine and suggested inviting her. And so it came to pass that Decq performed in ARCAM’s theatrical lecture series on February 6.

Born in Bretagne and still living by the sea with a view of an endless horizon, Odile Decq states that: ‘Architecture is about travelling. The horizon is a line you want to reach. You never succeed, but you’re always on the move. You want to go further, as far as possible.’

The project with which Decq started her lecture, is the deck and interior of a 44-metre-long yacht. Her most recent project was something of an imaginative adventure. The first meeting with the client – a tall young beautiful Italian – took place in Rome during a lunch with whiskey, chocolate and music. She was asked to design an interior where the Italian could be alone to compose music, where he could be together with his mother and sister, and where he could entertain friends. This resulted in a plan that can easily be rearranged thanks to sliding partitions. From small, practical huts to one flowing plan. Everything in the interior – from the bookshelves and the sofa fabrics to the shower, the floor of which can fold up to form a six-person bath – was designed by Decq. The most striking thing about the design is the enormous flushdeck. Usually, the entrance to the saloon takes the form of a structure that rises from the middle of the deck. Decq tried to emphasise the large scale by integrating the superstructure and rooflights as much as possible. As a result, the teak flows in curves along the benches and over the rooflights. In contrast to what is customary, the rooflights are positioned right along the edges, allowing daylight to wash the interior walls during the daytime, while at night artificial light mounted in the same openings illuminates the railing outside.

It was striking just how many competition entries Decq showed. A small examination of the ODBC-Paris website reveals that 27 of the 47 projects presented on the site were competition entries, 11 of them winners. If the ratio on the website is representative for the office’s projects, that means that roughly a quarter of the office commissions stem from competition victories.

Decq says she is self-educated because the school was always closed in the early 1980s. She was a student for six years, but she protested for four of them. This probably gave her the go-getter mentality that is essential for an architect who enters competitions all the time. Divulging your best ideas every time in the hope of being rewarded with a commission demands unlimited reserves of energy. She tells that after the office received recognition in 1991 with its project for the Banque Populaire de l’Ouest in Rennes, she was often asked: ‘What have you been doing all the time?’. She always answered by saying: ‘We were working’. When a competition submission doesn’t earn a prize, Decq isn’t ashamed to manipulate the design, in scale for example, and submit it for another competition.

She presents her projects with wonderfully sharp, Hadid-like visuals. Hadid’s appearance and accompanying attitude instil almost fear in her audience, Decq’s Gothic-Punk appearance is equally striking. But her charisma is totally different, more modest and reflective. Her bouffant black hairdo radiated in the spotlights, turning her into a black angel as she talked about her projects, mostly executed in black and red, which lent them a sharp devilish edge.

Decq didn’t anticipate the ARCAM concept of a theatrical lecture, even though her appearance and architecture perfectly suited the occasion. In two hours she merely showed her projects and even asked whether she needed to tell all the accompanying stories. Only after the lecture did she talk more about herself. Asked why she is always so relaxed, she said that she has become relaxed. She wasn’t like that 15 years ago but now she’s more confident in what she’s doing. ‘I don’t care if everybody likes it, or not. I don’t want to be loved by everybody. I would love to be loved, but it is impossible.’

According to Decq, it’s important to reflect and ask yourself what you’re doing. Her way of designing stems from her love of music. This could be the music of Stravinsky, heard at the start of the lecture, or AC/DC with the song Thunderstruck, which concluded the evening with a bang. She accuses architects that too often they design just space. Architects can also direct movement and give architecture a soul, just as Stravinsky and AC/DC give music soul by alternating rhythms, themes and transitions.