Paul Chemetov (1928–2024)

June 20, 2024

Odile Compagnon remembers architect and urbanist Paul Chemetov.


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Ministry of the Economy and Finance building, Paris. Designed by Paul Chemetov and Borja Huidobro and completed in 1989. CC BY-SA 4.0 Arthur Weidmann.

When I went back to Paris in 1982 after a year at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), marked by my encounters with Tom Forman as I worked for a bit at Chicago Associates Planners and Architects (CAPA), and with Stanley Tigerman, who was teaching a grad studio at UIC, the most natural place for me to seek employment was at Paul Chemetov’s office, AUA (Atelier d’Urbanisme et d’Architecture), located in Bagnolet, near Paris.

There, I found a good balance between social engagement and the postmodern discourse of the time. This balance was in tune with what I had discovered in Chicago: separation from the academic and formal tenets of modernism, and the importance for architects to involve themselves in urban design, landscape, and sociology.

In the early 1980s, it was very exciting to be a young architect and to choose one’s camp, either behind the AUA, a cooperative of architects and urban designers that included Chemetov, or behind Jean Nouvel, who emphasized the role of buildings as signs, following Robert Venturi’s footsteps.

Architects, designers, and planners would not be designing what they are designing today or the way they are designing it if these debates hadn’t happened. I am personally very grateful for the heated discussions with my peers and professors that led me to choose the Chemetov camp over the Nouvel camp. He taught many of us how to try to reconcile the personal urge to come up with forms and shapes that make us vibrate with the necessity for those to be socially conscious, just, and exciting to their users.

Chemetov’s architecture was serious and stern, sometimes brutal, yet it always had the subtlety and the delicacy that made the new building wink to its neighbors, to its urban environment. Chemetov liked people; he liked to please them, and also to yell at them. He liked to be theatrical. When he knew a phone call would end up in a loud argument, he made sure to take it in the room where we all worked instead of his private office. His buildings did the same: they spoke out publicly.

I mourn his loss. I can’t find the right words to best describe what I learned from working at his firm for two years and from working on projects he gave to my partners and I when I left and we started our own firm, DMC Architectes.

Instead, I want to share this text that concludes his book La Fabrique des Villes.1

“Il est difficile de soigner la ville par la seule architecture, dans le monde clos d’un dessin qui ne laisse rien en repos. Le presque parfait n’est pas qu’un temps verbal, c’est le temps d’une réconciliation possible des bâtisses, des jardins, des chemins, des terrains et des hommes, à la seule condition que succèdent aux architectes déconstructeurs, aux habitants paysagistes, aux sociologues inquisiteurs, aux ingénieurs normographes, aux urbanistes planificateurs, des généralistes qui, à l’épreuve des villes, deviendraient édifiants.”

“...It is difficult to cure the city with architecture alone, in the closed world of a drawing that gives nothing a rest. The almost perfect is not just a verb tense, it is the time of a reconciliation between buildings, gardens, paths, terrains and people, possible only if deconstructing architects, citizen landscapers, inquisitive sociologists, normograph engineers, urban planners are being replaced with generalists who, challenged by the city, become edifiers.”

Almost perfect. Was Chemetov this edifier?

1 Paul Chemetov, La Fabrique Des Villes (La Tour-d'Aigues: Editions de l’Aube, 1992).