The Nantes School of Architecture and the Idea of Centrality

Recently, I toured the campus of the School of Architecture in Nantes with my friend, François, who is on the board of directors. The campus consists of a three story building in a newly restored section of the city on the Loire. The the flat roofs of the upper levels are surrounded by parapets, thus adding outdoor working space to the rather spare interior, which resembles a nearly empty warehouse. With the exception of the computer lab which was isolated in a glassed off section, the only object on each floor was a minimalist sculpture. These consisted of sticks or wooden bars in various arrays and stabilized with wire or cable. They had been produced by one of the professors at the school, (name), a friend of François.

It struck me that, at least for myself, these sculptures represented France in that they were comprised of individual sticks that were bound in an association around a point of centrality. “You know,” I said, “a major difference between the American and French revolutions is that the American Revolution was not centralized. It consisted of volunteers and conscripts from a loose association of states, whereas the French Revolution was centralized.” In fact, the Declaration of Independence never refers to America as a nation, whereas the French Revolution immediately formed a National Assembly. François replied that France has tended toward centralization for more than a thousand years. Since Charlemagne, I added. This centrality has long been the essence of being French.

During the First World War, Edith Wharton wrote a short book, French Ways and Their Meaning, which the U.S. Navy placed aboard all their vessels bound for Europe. The author pointed out that the French have been living on the same land for so long that they know in which cave to age the cheese and which field to plant which grapes to produce various varieties of wine and its distillations. This results in an innate conservatism. If it works so well, why change? Yet, as with many countries and cultures, there is also a countervailing trend, also pointed out in the book. A tradition of intellectualism has produced an unbroken succession of philosophers from Pascal to Sartre and beyond. For better or worse, Existentialism, Postmodernism, Deconstructionism, Post-structuralism are all French. Since the Revolution, secularism has replaced the Church in most public institutions. However, whether it be the Church, the Revolution, Napoleon, or the string philosophical orthodoxies, the French seem to maintain the positive aspects while forgetting or discarding the many excesses. If the churches and cathedrals have saints and angels whose faces or heads have been knocked off in a moment of zealotry, nobody notices anymore. That too has been assimilated.

The French, like everybody else, are challenged by globalization and it accompanying threats of assimilation and non-assimilation. The American onslaught of mass produced popular culture in the form of movies, music, and other products is perceived as an external threat to the integrity of the French character, and has led at various times to quotas. The Académie Française, official custodian of the French language, actively fights against the incursion of American slang into a language which has gradually been replaced by English for diplomatic intercourse. But, this protective stance has had mixed results, turning cultural imports into forbidden fruits.

The Oxford Dictionary defines integrity as “the state of being whole and undivided.” The internal challenge to the integrity of “Frenchness” has been the failure to assimilate millions of immigrants from the former colonies. Integrity entails integration, psychological, cultural, and legal. Part of the failure can be attributed to a disinclination on the part of the immigrants to adopt the French model, first promulgated in the Revolution and renewed under the Napoleonic Code. An important feature of this model is the separation of Church and State, which fosters not only liberty, but also equality and fraternity.

The French were fairly homogeneous, having dispatched first the Huguenots during the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre on August 24, 1572, and then the Jews during the Shoah. Today's French Jews, who are feeling threatened despite definite moves of the government to protect them from further terror attacks, are mostly the descendants of Sephardic Jews from North Africa who immigrated after WWII, not the Ashkenazi Jews who after centuries of living in France, the first European country to grant them citizenship, either fled or were rounded up by the gendarmes and handed over to the Nazis during the war. Like most countries, including America, France has a checkered past, and wants to see herself as a tolerant and pluralistic society.

At the Treaty of Versailles, France had a large role in redrawing the globe upon the collapse of all of the empires after WWI. Austrian, German, Russian, and Ottoman empires and their rulers claimed their legitimacy from God. Even Great Britain lost her empire not long afterwards. It was France that led the way to the post-imperial, post divinely constituted, secular Europe, something for which the Vatican took a long time to forgive her.

However, the question remains: can the sticks form a stable structure without a point of centrality. If not, what is the location of that point. This is the challenge of Post-Christian Europe which once marched all the way to Jerusalem behind only two perpendicular sticks joined together at the center. If, on the other hand, equilibrium can be maintained with a more complex arrangement with multiple stress points and more than one core, which is the Post-Modern view, then only time will test its stability.