‘[This stone] is for me a wolf, noble and courageous, with hollowed flanks, nicked with wounds and blows. And it always will be, even tidied into horizontal layers or domesticated into vaults. As I bring proportion and harmony to the abbey, it alone will keep its independent spirit; even brought into order, it will remain as beautiful as a wild beast bristling.’
Fernand Pouillon, Les Pierres Sauvages, 1964
Fernand Pouillon was throughout his life an outsider to mainstream 20th century architectural culture. Snubbing CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne), and Le Corbusier’s and Walter Gropius’ talk of zones and automobiles, he would instead take his students to draw and measure the buildings of Aix-en-Provence or the twelfth century abbey of Le Thoronet. He was no revolutionary but he was committed to the life of the city. And unlike others around him, he took a more synthetic view of its qualities. The city was for him both a historical artefact and a material thing. Not simply an equation to be solved by science and technology.
Last summer, I tried very hard to get inside one of his buildings. In Paris I loitered in obscure banlieues to the suspicion of elderly residents hanging out laundry. In Marseille I grabbed at handrails around the Vieux Port for an entire afternoon, steadying myself against the pushy Mistral. In Avignon I walked around and around the deserted Cité Administrative to the peal of church bells, as if performing some peripatetic rite.
And alas, I was never once successful. In Paris I gave up with the increased attention of a pair of gendarmes and their formidable matraques. In Marseille, bent horizontal by the cruel weather (and with one sketchbook already claimed by the Mediterranean), I retreated into a cafe on the Place de la Préfecture. In Avignon, rushing over to an official getting into his car, I was reminded stonily that in France a weekend is a weekend.
I sought solace in pressions or cafés créme. It was not the sort of architectural pilgrimage I had imagined. I was hoping to see the fir parquet of a top-floor apartment, to look out from the well-hung window of a room, to take a balustrade in my hand. That, somehow, would have been to see Pouillon’s architecture properly: to learn its truth, to feel what might be called – that slippery word – its craft.
Perhaps, following in the footsteps of Peter Zumthor, the word ‘craft’ has returned to architectural discussion in recent years. It has come to connote a general attention to architectural detail: both the careful placement and jointing of a building’s construction as well as a preoccupation with fine-tuning a building’s atmosphere for the kind of life it hosts.
There is a tendency, though, to think of craft as something that happens exclusively inside. That the ‘crafted’ part of architecture is concealed and precious like the marmoreal foyers of a Loos house. On the pages of glossy magazines and websites the mention of craft tends to be accompanied by photographs of plushly jointed, top-lit living rooms and close-ups of their ironmongery sets. This is where we think craft happens, deep inside, away from weather and noise and mess.
What we do not tend to think is that craft has very much to do with the city, with the outside: the humdrum, rainy world of the street. The craft, we think, like honeycomb – or like the mother of pearl of an oyster – is reserved until you get to the centre. I realised at the end of another fizzy demi-blonde in Paris that I had fallen into this trap. It struck me that if Pouillon’s buildings demonstrated anything, it would be that craft – that sensitivity for materials, their joints and their moods – is not necessarily so hidden away.
For outside his apartment buildings at Pantin the previous morning, there had been a great deal of architectural craftsmanship that I would have been quicker to appreciate had I observed it in a kitchen or a living room. The scraggy, wolfish energy of the pierre de Fontvieille limestone, with edges crisply bound with recessed pilasters of blushing pink marble, was just the right mixture for a dignified but unintimidating surround to a cobbled fountain court.
At La Tourette in Marseille, the same precisely coursed stone was a reassuringly hefty backdrop to city life. Its mass had been disclosed by shadowy window reveals of well-considered proportions, and then relieved by delicate tower-like timber structures that hung beckoning on corners. Walking under the cast ceramic soffit of an arcade, I had not properly attended to the pleasant cool, nor to its special acoustic.
In my rush to see his buildings, I had missed the evident truth that their urban surface was as finely crafted as any interior I could hope to see.
One of Pouillon’s chief lessons about the craft of architecture is a paradoxical one: if you want to achieve one thing, you might have to pay closer attention to something quite different. If you want to make good urban spaces you might need to care inordinately about the smallest bits and pieces that form their edge. To craft the best kind of city, it might be necessary to spend days and days – as he did – preoccupied in a Provençal quarry with the more material origins of craft. As he said in his Memoirs, ‘[the] shape and appearance of the buildings should dictate the layout of the town.’
When we talk about urban space, we should not forget about urban material: those overlooked surfaces that compose urban life’s enclosing skin. We should talk about the way in which these contribute to character: ways in which the same wall, differently built, can be inviting or rude. How the stuff of a street strengthens or weakens it, in concert with its spaces or program. Urban craft, I believe, is closer to a material craft than we are generally encouraged to think.
And so I think of Pouillon leading the wolf of pierre de Fontvieille out of the Abbey at Le Thoronet and setting him loose on the streets of Marseille, Paris and Avignon. I admire the courage of his eye. The wolf still bristles at its mortar joints and crackles across the trabeated order with memorable fire. Out here, as it begins to rain, I realise I am also grateful that such craft has been uncloistered too. There will be nicks and blows out here for sure, many more than in the Abbey. But out here the whole city can benefit from the wolf’s spirit, and not just those Provençal monks.