Tuesday 12 January 2010

Guilbert Père et Fils

On the facade of the Chemistry and Natural Science facility at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, two names stand out; the architects A & J Guilbert. A father and son whose work spanned the first half of the twentieth century and the many upheavals that this period brought. Their story is one of kinship and collaboration, but also one with a sad ending.

I have previously written about the work of the father, Albert-Désiré Guilbert. Born in 1866, his first major commission came at the end of the century with the construction of the Notre Dame de la Consolation church in the Rue Jean Goujon. This very classical structure was built on the site of the Bazar de la Charité charity fire as a memorial to those killed in the tragedy. The building brought him a certain renown, and he was soon commissioned to build another church on a neighbouring plot, this time the neo-byzantine Eglise Arménienne.

At the same time as these constructions were taking place, another important event in his life occurred – the birth of a son. I have no information on whether Albert-Désiré had other children or not, only that it would be with this son, Jacques, born in 1900, that he would later form a partnership.

How significant was it that Jacques should be born at the dawn of a new century? This was to be the beginning of a new age in society, art and architecture, a thoroughly modern age where children rejected the weighty inheritance of their forefathers. Jacques followed his father into the architectural trade, but in a very different register. He was one of the founders of l'Atelier du Palais de Bois a group of students who rejected traditional architectural teaching at the Ecoles de Beaux Arts, and chose instead to study under the modernist Auguste Perret.

Immediately after graduating though, Jacques made a curious choice. He began working with his father. Albert-Désiré was the Architecte en chef des bâtiments civils et palais nationaux, and had continued to build neo-classical and neo-byzantine constructions such as the Sainte Jeanne d'Arc church in Versailles. What would the two produce together? The answer was the Chemistry and Natural Science facility at the Ecole Normale Supérieure.

This, along with a similar construction at the Collège de France, would be Albert-Désiré’s last work. Was he just passing on a lifetime of experience to a very promising talent rather than any of his personal ideas and influences? The building itself, in concrete and brick, certainly owes more to the style of Perret than to his previous constructions. It was a success though and is today a listed building, perhaps principally for the wonderful moulded concrete typography on the facade.

As the father’s career ended, war broke out. This was not a time for extravagance, but rather for the practical and functional. Jacques remained close to Auguste Perret, becoming a teacher at his Atelier in 1943 and helping with the reconstruction of Le Havre at the end of the war. It was a career that looked as if it would be dedicated towards post-war reconstruction and the teaching of the new generation, but fate decided otherwise.

Biographies can be harsh recorders of facts. The lifes of Albert-Désiré and Jacques Guilbert are sometimes reduced to just two dates; birth and death. What stories are hidden behind these dates though? It is easy to imagine the joy of the father at the birth of his son, happiness that blended seamlessly with the optimism of a new century and two large commissions. We can also sadly imagine his devastation in 1948 when his descendant and architectural heir died. Fathers are not meant to bury sons, particular after the most murderous conflict in the history of the planet had ended. Simple dates tell us that Albert-Désiré lived until his 83rd year. They also tell us that he died less than a year after his son. We draw our own conclusions.


Cergie said...

Comme d'habitude ta conclusion est empreinte de sagesse et d'humanité, Adam. Il n'est pas dans la logique des choses que les pères ni les mères d'ailleurs voient disparaitre leurs enfants. On dit aussi que les chiens ne font pas des chats. Ma nièce étudiante en architecture a son oncle qui est architecte dont le père était architecte. Il y a ainsi des dynasties. Un commerçant montrera la voie à son enfant. Un enfant de fonctionnaire ou de salarié aura du mal à s'installer comme profession libérale. ETC ETC.

Anita Madeleine said...

Thanks so much for this incredibly interesting article, as I’m an architect, is so great to know this little stories, and buildings I have to check next time I go to Paris.

Wonderful job!

PeterParis said...

A wonderful and touching story behind the photos of "just a building"! Very typically "Adam"! Love to read these stories!

Robert said...

Very surprised I haven't found your blog before... looking forward to reading lots more. I've written many similar things about Buenos Aires. But what surprises me more is the style of this last work of Albert-Désiré. So mid-century & so different from the Beaux-Arts work. You might be interested to see his tomb for the Leloir family in Recoleta Cemetery. Without question, it is one of the nicest structures in the entire cemetery (& that's saying something)! Saludos desde Argentina.

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