Lucie Palombi (Doctorante), December 12 2023
architectural-writing, awards-of-excellence, ecriture-architecturale, mediations, prix-dexcellence, prix-du-livre-darchitecture

Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ), not the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), holds the archives of Quebec architect Jacques Folch-Ribas. And with good reason: Folch-Ribas was not only a collaborator of Le Corbusier, but also a protégé of Albert Camus and a prolific writer. Born in Barcelona in 1928, he spent part of his youth in France, arriving in Quebec for love in 1956. He is the author of thirteen novels, several of which have won literary prizes: Une aurore boréale won the Prix France-Québec in 1974, Le Valet de plume won the Molson Prize of the Académie canadienne-française in 1983, and Le silence ou Le parfait bonheur won the Governor General’s Award in 1989. Finally, he received the Prix Duvernay in 1990 for his body of work. Goncourt-nominated Jacques Folch-Ribas is also the author of La chair de pierre (published in 1989), a novel tinged by his own training as an architect, and a Quebec analog to Fernand Pouillon’s classic Les pierres sauvages (1964).

What can we learn about the architect’s relationship with literature from his archives? This scientific paper proposes a reflection on Folch-Ribas’ status as a writer and his recognition by various players in the publishing and literary worlds, inspired by the documents left by the architect in Quebec. It questions the criteria by which an author from the world of construction is transformed from a writer to a writer. The Jacques Folch-Ribas fonds, on view at BAnQ Vieux-Montréal, consists mainly of texts and radio recordings produced between 1963 and 2014 (1). Detailed plans and successive sketches for published and unpublished works, research and working notes, press clippings, extensive correspondence with leading figures from the literary world of Quebec and France (Hervé Bazin, Robert Laffont, Marguerite Yourcenar, Michèle Lalonde, Victor-Lévy Beaulieu, to name but a few): these are all handwritten traces left by the architect that can indicate the extent to which his writing is colored (or not) by his training as a designer.

In his Essais critiques, Roland Barthes draws a fundamental distinction between the figure of the “écrivain” and that of the “écrivant”. What first and foremost separates these two individuals is the place writing occupies in their lives. Where the “écrivain” performs a function, the “écrivant” performs an activity: “this is what grammar already teaches us, contrasting the noun of the one with the (transitive) verb of the other” (2). Where the écrivain’s word is neither an instrument nor a vehicle, for literature is its own end, the écrivant’s word is rather the support of a doing, an instrument for communicating thought. Where the écrivain’s written word involves both technical norms (of composition, genre, writing) and artisanal norms (of toil, patience, correction, perfection), the care the écrivant takes with his writing, and even his style, is secondary. Finally, where the écrivain’s word is the sole object of an institution made for it alone (literature), a commodity delivered according to circuits established centuries ago, the écrivant’s word can only be produced and consumed on the margins of institutions whose primary aim is not to enhance the value of language.

While most architects are “écrivants”, the documents in the Jacques Folch-Ribas archive confirm that he is a special case of a seasoned “écrivain”. A perusal of Folch-Ribas’ correspondence and press articles clearly shows that the architect’s written work is supported by a series of mediations. His novels are surrounded by “circles of recognition”, in the words of sociologist Nathalie Heinich, each of these circles being “more and more populated at the same time as becoming later and less competent” (3). The written work of Jacques Folch-Ribas is recognized by publishing professionals (well-established houses and organizers of prestigious literary prizes), by his peers (some of the most renowned writers of the twentieth century), by critics (authors of specialized literary columns and journalists writing articles for a wide audience), but also by politicians, academics and even some architects.

Although Folch-Ribas uses a letterhead in his correspondence that announces him as an “architect” and “urban planner”, the letters he exchanges with his Paris publishing house leave no room for doubt: he belongs to the literary world. His first circle of recognition was that of publishing professionals. On September 10, 1985, translator Hortense Chabrier wrote to him: “You belong to the small number of those who have a real writer’s fiber” (4). A few months later, Robert Laffont himself confirms, with the mischievous phrase “Dear Mr. Writer” (5), and in the rest of his letter: “I knew all your literary qualities, but I didn’t know that you also had the stature of a great adventure novelist à la Ludlum or Martin Cruz Smith” (5). He insists: “It’s a beautiful, strong and original story, and written and composed by the writer that you are”, “A real writer’s text!” (5). The same was true when he commented on the manuscript of La chair de pierre in 1989: “It’s a book as solid as its builder, dense and uncompromising. A very good book for you! The style is highly constructed, even elliptical at times” (6).

The second circle of recognition for Jacques Folch-Ribas’ written work is that of other writers. While Marguerite Yourcenar described the architect as a “novelist” (7), Jean Cayrol saw him as a writer in his own right: “You speak as you are, happy writer!” (8). As early as 1975, when he was President of the Académie Goncourt, Hervé Bazin held Folch-Ribas, nominee for one of France’s most prestigious literary prizes, in the highest esteem: “Friend, (…) You came very close [underlined in the letter] to winning the Prix Goncourt” (9). La chair de pierre, which romanticizes the story of Claude Baillif, the first architect of New France, born around 1635, is undoubtedly the most popular book among Folch-Ribas’ peers. A letter from poet and playwright Michèle Lalonde testifies to this: “You have written a beautiful book (…). It is, in itself, an architect’s work: the restructuring and restoration of a myth” (10). Gilles Toupin adds: “Of course, there’s the impeccable language, which captures and captivates me; there’s the figure of Claude, a little of us, a lot of you, and these chiseled sentences on architecture (…) by the great wordsmith you’ve become” (11).

Literary critics constitute the third circle of recognition for Jacques Folch-Ribas’ written work. A press clipping from the 1970s confirms his status: “By the third novel, you’re no longer a writer by chance: you’re a confirmed writer. It’s a difficult step to take. Folch not only passes that hurdle; he triumphs over it. (12). Journalists were full of praise: Gilles Marcotte said of Dehors les chiens that “This book has everything it takes to become a bestseller” (13), Guy Champagne asserted that “All the work of Jacques Folch-Ribas is part of the current of what is called ‘great literature'” (14), while François Nourissier described La chair de pierre as “a masterpiece of craftsmanship” and a “beautiful and serious novel” (15). Finally, Louis Caron praised Folch-Ribas when he announced in Le Devoir that the architect had won the Governor General’s Award for Literature for Le Silence ou le Parfait Bonheur: “This novel by Jacques Folch-Ribas bears witness to an exceptional mastery of writing (…). The jury was particularly struck by it (…), recognizing in it the mark of great authors” (16).

Finally, Jacques Folch-Ribas’ novels are recognized in other, later, less literary circles, including politics, university, and architecture. When Folch-Ribas was awarded the Prix Duvernay in 1990 for his body of work, member of the Quebec National Assembly Pauline Marois sent him a letter in which she acknowledged his contribution: “This honor clearly demonstrates your contribution to the field of literature in Quebec” (17). In 1998, Folch-Ribas presented an autobiographical text entitled “Lecture et littérature” (18) at a symposium. In it, he reflects on the role of the writer, but makes no mention of his profession as an architect. And yet, Folch-Ribas is also recognized by colleagues in his “first profession”. André Blouin, on the letterhead of Blouin & associés Architectes, expresses his enthusiasm following the publication of La chair de pierre and its television appearance: “Bravo!… a little belatedly, but sincerely for your book first of all, but also for your appearance on the Pivot show (…) I’m very proud to have a ‘goncourable’ as a friend” (19). He continues: “I would like to renew my admiration for the communicator and the writer” (19).

Although Jacques Folch-Ribas is a well-known writer (écrivain), does his training as an architect have any impact on his writing? In an interview with Éric Etter published in 1993 in Continuité magazine, the author clarifies his position. Folch-Ribas first published at the age of 43. Yet he would have liked literature to be his main occupation: “It’s very simple: I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but I always knew, even when I was very young, that you couldn’t make a living as a writer, except in very rare cases” (20). So it was out of resignation, if you will, and a love of drawing that Folch-Ribas became an architect: “So I looked for a second profession and, of course, like all second professions, it quickly became the first” (20). He points out that there is little connection between his experience in architecture (which is a service to a client) and his experience in literature (a much freer activity): “In literature, there is no commission from the client, only ours, and that’s what’s so wonderful and makes all the difference” (20). While words may seem more ephemeral than stones, for Folch-Ribas, building architecture that lasts over time is as much a challenge as writing a novel that will endure for centuries, “especially in America, where buildings have an average life expectancy of twenty years” (20).

Like Fernand Pouillon, Pierre Riboulet or Michel Bataille, Jacques-Folch Ribas is one of those rare architects who asserts himself as a true writer with freedom of action, rather than a writer at the service of the architectural project. In 2021, we asked the late Jean-Louis Cohen, an eminent researcher and architectural historian, about the criteria that make an architect’s personality switch from the figure of an “écrivant” to that of an “écrivain”. He replied: “A certain talent, a certain ambition, a position in the social field in contact with publishers or intellectuals who stimulate them” (21). Cohen then thought of Frantz Jourdain, about whom he wrote a chapter in 2019 in Emmanuel Rubio and Yannis Tsiomis’s book, L’architecte à la plume: “He was close to Zola and the Goncourts. Clearly, he had a knock-on effect” (21). The same undoubtedly applied to Jacques Folch-Ribas, who came into contact with Albert Camus, then Jean Cayrol, Robert Laffont and Hervé Bazin, even on the other side of the Atlantic. In addition to pre-existing literary qualities, the influence of an intellectual circle would therefore be fundamental in the switch to writer’s status: “What often leads architects to write is the association with writers (…) In this respect, we should take an interest in the modes of sociability of architecture” (21).

(1) The composition of the Fonds Jacques Folch-Ribas can be consulted on the Advitam platform, BAnQ’s online catalog: www.advitam.banq.qc.ca (call number MSS478)

(2) Our translation. Barthes, Roland. Essais critiques, Paris: Seuil, 1981 (first edition 1964) p.148

(3) Our translation. Heinich, Nathalie. Faire voir. L’art à l’épreuve de ses médiations, Bruxelles: Les Impressions Nouvelles, 2001, p.13

(4) Our translation. Letter from Hortense Chabrier to Jacques Folch-Ribas, September 10, 1985, held at BAnQ Vieux-Montréal (portfolio 478/004/012).

(5) Our translation. Letter from Robert Laffont to Jacques Folch-Ribas, April 25, 1986, held at BAnQ Vieux-Montréal (portfolio 478/004/012).

(6) Our translation. Letter from Robert Laffont to Jacques Folch-Ribas, January 31, 1989, held by BAnQ Vieux-Montréal (portfolio 478/001/011).

(7) Our translation. Letter from Marguerite Yourcenar to Jacques Folch-Ribas, July 1971, held at BAnQ Vieux-Montréal (portfolio 478/001/011).

(8) Our translation. Letter from Jean Cayrol to Jacques Folch-Ribas, July 1977, held at BAnQ Vieux-Montréal (portfolio 478/005/002).

(9) Our translation. Letter from Hervé Bazin to Jacques Folch-Ribas, March 17, 1975, held by BAnQ Vieux-Montréal (portfolio 478/009/008).

(10) Our translation. Letter from Michèle Lalonde to Jacques Folch-Ribas, November 10, 1989, held by BAnQ Vieux-Montréal (portfolio 478/001/011).

(11) Our translation. Letter from Gilles Toupin to Jacques Folch-Ribas, November 27, 1989, held by BAnQ Vieux-Montréal (portfolio 478/001/011).

(12) Our translation. Unreferenced press clipping entitled “Une aurore boréale par Jacques Folch-Ribas”, held at BAnQ Vieux-Montréal (document holder 8 – Critiques, promotions (Romans) de la boîte 2014-07-005/01).

(13) Our translation. Press clipping signed by Gilles Marcotte in the July 1986 issue of L’actualité magazine, held at BAnQ Vieux-Montréal (document holder 8 – Critiques, promotions (Romans) from box 2014-07-005/01).

(14) Our translation. Press clipping signed by Guy Champagne, entitled “Entre l’histoire et la fiction”, held at BAnQ Vieux-Montréal (document holder 8 – Critiques, promotions (Romans) from box 2014-07-005/01).

(15) Our translation. Press clipping signed by François Nourissier in Le Figaro Magazine, November 10, 1989, held at BAnQ Vieux-Montréal (document holder 8 – Critiques, promotions (Romans) in box 2014-07-005/01).

(16) Our translation. Press clipping signed by Louis Caron in Le Devoir, March 4, 1989, held by BAnQ Vieux-Montréal (document holder 8 – Critiques, promotions (Romans) in box 2014-07-005/01).

(17) Our translation. Letter from Pauline Marois to Jacques Folch-Ribas, 1990, held by BAnQ Vieux-Montréal (portfolio 478/008/010).

(18) The full text can be consulted at BAnQ Vieux-Montréal (portfolio 478/008/009).

(19) Our translation. Letter from André Blouin to Jacques Folch-Ribas, October 27, 1989, held at BAnQ Vieux-Montréal (portfolio 478/001/011).

(20) Our translation. Interview by Éric Etter with Jacques Folch-Ribas, in the December, January and February 1993 issue of Continuité magazine, entitled “Jacques Folch-Ribas: La pierre incarnée”, held at BAnQ Vieux-Montréal (document holder 8 – Critiques, promotions (Romans) in box 2014-07-005/01).

(21) Our translation. Jean-Louis Cohen, quote from an interview conducted by Zoom between Paris and Montreal on August 26, 2021. The full transcript of this exchange is available as an appendix to my doctoral thesis, entitled “De la textualité du projet professionnel en situation de concours en architecture. Hermeneutics and comparison of texts related to winning architectural competition projects in Quebec between 2010 and 2020”.