Interview with 1993 Richard Morris Hunt Fellow Jean-Christophe Simon
Ron Bogle, President & CEO of the American Architectural Foundation, went to Paris in early December and had the opportunity to catch up with former Richard Morris Hunt Fellow, Jean-Christophe Simon. Since 1990, the Richard Morris Hunt Prize, co-sponsored by the American Architectural Foundation and the French Heritage Society, offers mid-career American and French design professionals an intensive six-month exchange experience that showcases the latest scholarship and practice around historic preservation and architectural heritage.
Ron: Before we begin with the first question, please introduce yourself.
Jean-Christophe: My name is Jean-Christophe Simon. I am the 1993 Richard Morris Hunt Fellow—the second French and fourth Fellow, and that dates back 25 years, so a pretty ancient Fellow.
Ron: Jean-Christophe, you were the fourth Fellow, and so as you look back on your career how did the Richard Morris Hunt Prize experience change the trajectory of your professional life?
Jean-Christophe: I think it changed the way I considered heritage preservation. What I discovered in the United States is something that was not used or developed in France. That global approach where conservation was deeply or tightly linked with economic development and what I would call… perhaps pedagogical approach. To give two examples, I was impressed by the meeting and visit, and exchanges I had at the Williamsburg Foundation and Mainstreet programs, these two experiences changed my approach to preservation. When I returned to France, I tried to develop that approach here because it was not being implemented at the time. And, I’d say, three to four times in my career, my professional choices were dictated by that approach to preservation and experiences with those programs. So in a way, my experience as a Fellow changed the way I directed my career afterwards quite a lot.
Ron: In the 25 years since you were a Fellow, you’ve gone on to achieve great success in your career and are now one of the really influential voices in France in preservation, so tell us a little bit about your professional activities and what you do.
Jean-Christophe: My position is inspecteur général des monuments historiques at the French Ministry of Culture and Communication. This is a Paris-based occupation for the Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication and my role is to provide analysis, guidance, and terms of references to the directeur général des patrimoines (General Director of French Heritage) with French preservation policy. This is either on specific reports or on a series of French regions. I’ve been designated as the inspector of five regions of the 22 regions, so I have to review every major restoration project developed in these areas in order to make sure that these projects are coherent with French preservation policy.
Ron: Are these both public and private projects?
Jean-Christophe: They are both, public and private. Every major project, that is to say for instance, if you’re undertaking a major restoration, if it’s a UNESCO-listed monument, if you have specific restoration techniques that are used, or when you’re building new structures adjacent to the monument, every major approach of that type must be reviewed by people like me in order to help the Ministry of Culture determine whether or not it would accept the project.
Ron: And this is a new position for you…
Jean-Christophe: Yes, it is a new position, I have been appointed inspecteur général one and a half years ago.
Ron: And what was your previous position?
Jean-Christophe: Well, it’s actually quite fascinating because again it’s completely linked with what I learned or discovered through the Prize. In my previous position, I was in charge of defining the projects for major monuments belonging to the Ministry of Culture through the Centre des monuments nationaux (National Monuments Centre), and so this is a public institution that is responsible for nearly 100 monuments such as Panthéon, Mont Saint-Michel, or Carcassonne medieval city. And this structure is in charge of the restoration and maintenance of the monument, but also has to develop the level of accessibility of the monument to the public, develop the number of visitors, and generate profits…possibly. So, it’s a very broad type of assignment, and I was in charge in this sector of determining and defining the terms of reference of the projects, organizing the funding of the project, and seeing to it that the architect would provide me a coherent project, with the scope we originally defined.
Ron: You were directly involved in overseeing the restoration, and not only that, but also the operation and public outreach for these 100 projects. I know one of the projects you were directly involved with was the work to restore Sainte-Chapelle. Can we talk about that a little bit?
Jean-Christophe: We can talk about that, of course. Sainte-Chapelle is an interesting project because it’s a project that was the restoration of the stained glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle. What’s interesting is that this project was completely privately funded, so there was no public funding on this one. It was funded by Les Fondations VELUX, a European window maker, which funded the 6-million-euro restoration and it gave us the opportunity to complete restoration and also to develop a protection process.
We doubled the stained glass using a print of the original one that we duplicated and replicated in glass too, and included every deformation, to create a perfect copy of the stained glass, so the stained glass was protected from pollution and water, so it’s a perfect protection, but from the outside what you see is the same aspect and the new glass was slightly colored, so that you’d have also a little idea of the color of the stained glass…so, from the inside there’s absolutely no difference because the stained glass sits in the place and the new one is slightly in recess and from the outside, you keep the same perspective on the monument, so I think this was a very interesting project as far as this is concerned.
Ron: You had a second project you wanted to talk about…
Jean-Christophe: Yes, I have a second project I’d like to talk about because it’s a, but first of all, it’s a dream to be in charge of that type of project as Panthéon. What was fascinating to me apart from the fact that Panthéon is one of the major French and Paris monuments, is that what I had to do was to determine how to make this monument accessible to every person, even for handicapped people, and at the same time of course direct a restoration project, a conservation project, …so, keep the fabric as much as possible plus organize every functional element such as ticket booth or a shop or office space for the people working on the monument, and every facility needed to welcome the public. So, it was a very challenging project because you had to keep in mind the fact that this is some sort of a Republican shrine for the major French or illustrious people… and also you have to have everyone being able to walk and visit the monument. So this, it took a few years of preparation before we could start on the work. So now, I am no longer in this structure, but I can see that the scaffolding is going on, so now the project is on the way and is developing, which is…I’m quite proud of that.
Ron: Throughout your career you’ve studied and probably admired the work of many architects, do you have one architect in particular whose work you admire most?
Jean-Christophe: Rather than one architect I think by profession and during this career of mine, I’ve built some kind of, more of a pantheon of architects with a specific approach or a specific interest in 20th century architects. So, nowadays it’s quite fashionable I’d say, but back in 1995 or so, it was not that fashionable. I decided to not only work on the major 20th century monuments and so with my team I worked on a variety of monuments. What I wanted to do is work on lesser known or lesser published architects or unknown projects, and we were lucky enough to discover those types of projects in, for instance, the northern suburbs of Marseille. There you have a building by Jean Rozan, called Les Rosiers. In the late 50s, it was a huge rental building where people who lived in Marseille were relocated to after/during World War II. At that time, the Germans demolished part of ancient Marseille. This building by Rozan was built to house those residents. Another interesting challenge was to try to find a small 20th century building. When I arrived, in 1990, in the Provence region, I was told there was a Le Corbusier small building in Haute Provence, which is not very far from Marseille. For five or six years, I couldn’t find it and finally, I had the chance of discovering it through an artist, who was living in Paris and his brother who lived in a small house built not by Le Corbusier, but by Pierre Jeanneret, his cousin, and this small building (it was eight meters by eight meters of floor area) revealed a treasure because it was designed by Pierre Jeanneret, the furniture was designed by Charlotte Perriand, the structure was Jean Prouvé, so this small building was completely unknown and unpublished and it was even more interesting because since it was built in 1943. In that time, metal was strategic, so the Germans would not allow metallic structures to be built, so Prouvé realized his building in wood, but wood with the metallic design, so you had beams and posts that were exactly the shape and dimension of metal, but in wood…some sort of a modern wooden building. And so it was either, I mean, at the same time historically and technically fascinating because it’s the whole story of these architects and engineers that left the occupied France to go to the non-occupied France in the south and started to work together in small projects for local factories…and that was a little discovery that I was quite proud to make.
Ron: The last question, and maybe you’ve already answered this, I don’t know, so we’ll see, so the last question is, you’ve had an opportunity to visit probably thousands of interesting places, is there a particular place that’s been designed that you always like to go back to, that you always find that there’s an experience that’s new each time you go there…in other words, what’s your favorite building or site?
Jean-Christophe: What is my favorite building or site? Actually, I’d like to mention two, one is the E-1027 Villa by Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici. It’s a 30’s villa in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, French Riviera, and it’s a small house, modern house built on the coast, on the rocks of the Cap-Martin, so it’s shaped a little bit like a boat. You have this view on the sea, as if you were on the pathway of the boat, it’s quite a very small house, but its every detail has been designed and thought about by these two architects and designers. Every time I go there, I find something new. I mean, for instance, a construction detail, every element is perfectly designed, you can spend hours just sitting there and looking at the pavement and the colors and the features, and the volumes, and the light and all that, it’s one of my favorite places.
And the other one is more urban, it’s the old Samaritaine building, it’s a general store where you can buy fashion clothing, perfumes, or hardware, it has been designed by Henri Sauvage, a French architect. Its terrace overlooks the whole city of Paris, so at the same time for the quality of the building’s design plus this way to discover the ancient center of the city, Sauvage’s building is in front of Pont Neuf, so you’re at the center of Paris, you’re at the level of the roofs…heaven.
Ron: I think that’s a good conclusion…heaven.
Featured image is a view of La Samaritaine and Pont-Neuf in Paris. Image courtesy of Pete Reed.