Paul Chemetov, my friend – Regards.fr

Paul Chemetov, my friend – Regards.fr
Paul Chemetov, my friend – Regards.fr

Paul Shemetov is dead. He was 95 years old. He was one of the greatest French architects. He was my friend. Until the last few days, we talked about projects, political and architectural. Because Chem, as I called him, was inseparably an architect, an intellectual, a committed man.

The general public knows of him the iconic Ministry of Finance, the moving gallery of the Natural History Museum, which hosts the great parade of the living. Millions of suburbanites frequent Les Halles, around the Place Carrée, this buried cathedral of Gothic-inspired rationalism. They live by the thousands in its accommodation, frequent its swimming pools, ice rinks and media libraries. Paul Chemetov, through his achievements and his influence, has shaped our urban landscape and our daily lives.

He had never stopped being this child of a Russian exile, who became an architect because this profession can always be useful, whatever the skies in which we live. From his father, a graphic designer and typographer, he had inherited this taste for mixing technique and art. Like Philippe Soupault, the surrealist poet who was his father-in-law, he allowed himself to be surprised and seduced by the oddities of everyday life. He loved these farms, these workers’ houses, the brick towns where the ingenuity, taste and culture of its builders were expressed with limited means. Like Charlot, whose admiration we shared, he knew that fantasy and freedom never disappear in the worker, even an enslaved one. I remember this sentence which still bothers me: “It is in sexuality that genius and human freedom are expressed”.

His work expressed the work: the techniques, the assemblages were legible. He wanted to be faithful to Berthold Brech and assumed the dual function of representation and the revelation of the means of representation. I also remember what he said about the Department of Finance. Located on the grounds of the Farmers General enclosure, this building expresses the power of the State, the power of money. Chemetov was not trying to disguise it, to tell a story other than what is. But he tried, in his place as architect, to design a complex building, as complex as the idea he had of the State in France, democratic and held since the French Revolution by a promise of equality.

Like few others, he worked for the suburbs, for social housing, for this post-war promise: to make comfortable and dignified housing accessible to all. He would have had the possibility, he, the architect so recognized, celebrated, decorated, to abandon this daily production. He did nothing and until the end he linked this work for the institutions of the Republic and for the daily lives of citizens.

He never sank into businessism or into productivist and consumerist fascination. From the 1960s, when mass housing was designed according to Taylorist efficiency, he worked hard to invent beautiful social housing with double levels, loggias, fluid spaces, where everyone has a place, where the kitchen is feasible and where the laundry can hang. The geranium pots have a shelf; the glass canopies of the pavilions mark the entrances. From the north of France like the Parisian gardens, he retained these somewhat tinkered, added excrescences: his architecture was not pure, smooth and formal. It was made of well-understood use, of assembled materials, of techniques, of money allocated to the project, of negotiations.

Paul Chemetov was a communist, of this culture which values ​​the popular world by embedding it in the Republic and modernity. A modernity which must make room precisely for this diverse, restless, inventive people. Orthodox, then dissident alongside the re-founders, his communist convictions have never ceased. Paul Chemetov was deeply attached to the Republic and the left. I remember his emotion when François Hollande saw fit to propose the stripping of nationality for dual nationals. He never stopped writing with precision to convey his own way of being an architect, a democrat and a communist, free and impure. From this mixture of culture, humor, commitment and humanism, he made some of the most interesting buildings and parts of cities, because they are the most complex and the most solid.

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