Gold Medal in the Book Design category at the European Design Award in Warsaw in 2019, winner of the student selection of the Best Dutch Book Design 2018, and more recently awarded the Architecture Book Prize by the Academy of Architecture in October 2019 (see our post), François Chaslin’s latest book is still being rewarded, in France and internationally.
In Rococo ou drôle d’oiseaux, published by Éditions Non Standard and modestly presented by the author as “entertainment”, Chaslin returns with humour and poetry to the recent controversies that surrounded Le Corbusier. A concise summary warns the reader that he is about to discover “The Le Corbusier affair as seen by one of its protagonists, with considerations on criticism, plagiarism, hogwash and denunciation” (1). But beyond apparent amusement and fable, Chaslin’s verve is also representative of quality writing in architecture, and his commitment is undoubtedly emblematic of a textuality specific to the discipline. The text can, moreover, be understood in turn alone or supported by the author’s drawings, hidden between the pages.
But what are the members of the prize juries looking for: the content – the text, the tropical horizon, even the literary quality? Or the form – the physical medium, the printed matter punctuated by admirable drawings that never cease to amaze us as we cut the paper?
In this award-winning book, the architect-writer depicts a disciplinary universe populated by colourful characters, a small world where proud roosters, croaking crows and cuckoo cuckoo looters intertwine. Such a work had to have a title that would make its mark; in “Prélude”, François Chaslin preferred “Drôles d’oiseaux” (“Funny Birds”), and with good reason: “Distracted booksellers would not present it next to Chopin’s twenty-four preludes or, even worse, in the architecture section, this confidential discipline relegated to a dark corridor, near the unsold stockroom” (2), in short, “where no one ever goes” (3). Books on architecture seem to be sidelined, or at least unknown to the general public – no one seems to read books written by architects; at most, they are leafed through.
In the video presentation of the publication, François Chaslin advises, not without humour, not to read his book in order to be able to talk about it better: “This is something I discovered: you talk much better about a book if you haven’t read it… this is why we could invite people not to buy it and not to read it” (4). To go further, architecture would have little aura or meaning without the text, as the architect and architectural historian Jean-Louis Cohen pointed out when he was awarded an honorary doctorate at the Université de Montréal, “The written word is crucial to the architectural culture that buildings and printed books, whether by architects or critics, constitute inseparably” (5).
In the eyes of François Chaslin, Rococo as a printed book remains “a beautiful object, but not a beautiful book; I don’t like the idea of a beautiful book, nor a book as an object – adds the author – it is a subject, it is a book with a personality” (6). While he was reluctant to add the drawings of birds, which could comment on the text and inject possible irony, Chaslin finally accepted his publisher’s idea by hiding the images in the folds of the book: “You can read the text without ever meeting a bird” (7).
So, let’s ask the question again: What do the jurors value in the prizes awarded to Rococo: the words or the audacity of the layout (8)? In a previous reflection on the Academy of Architecture Book Prizes, we had noted that the literary dimension of the work was targeted, the jury having appreciated its “literary, original and humorous form” (10). But the titles of the two other prizes won by Rococo lead us to believe that the “design” of the book is undoubtedly the element that prevails over textuality. This intuition would be confirmed by the criteria announced for the Best Dutch Book Design 2018 (note that this was the student selection): “the 295 entries were evaluated for their distinctive qualities by a panel of experts looking for outstanding work in aspects such as content, design, image editing, typography, choice of materials, printing and binding” (10).
Finally, with regard to the prize awarded by the European Design Award in Warsaw in 2019, the criteria focus on three areas of visuals: ‘1 – Quality of design, including the use of images, typography; 2 – Creativity, originality and artistic quality; 3 – Relevance, the extent to which the design meets the specific purpose for which it was conceived’ (11). The literary quality of Chaslin’s book would be secondary to image and composition. This observation echoes the observations of Pierre Chabard and Marilena Kourniati in their book Raisons d’écrire: “(…) from the point of view of material form, architects’ books privilege the articulation between text and images, between discourse and itinerary; from the point of view of reading, they are often less read than consulted, traversed in their visual narrative. (…) Indeed, more than writing books, architects know how to make hybrid editorial objects that have the ability to transform themselves to adjust to constantly changing conditions” (12).
- (1) Back cover of the book; Chaslin, François. Rococo, ou drôles d’oiseaux (divertissement), Éditions Non Standard, Paris, 2018
- (2) Chaslin, François. Rococo, ou drôles d’oiseaux (divertissement), Éditions Non Standard, Paris, 2018, p.32
- (3) Chaslin, François. Rococo, ou drôles d’oiseaux (divertissement), Éditions Non Standard, Paris, 2018, p.32
- (4) Transcription of an extract at 5’20 of the Rococo presentation video at the Librairie La Galerne (https://www.lagalerne.com/videos/5988004/details/)
- (5) Extract from the speech for the honorary doctorate awarded to Professor Jean-Louis Cohen in 2019 (https://nouvelles.umontreal.ca/article/2019/08/28/trois-doctorats-honorifiques-decernes-aux-plus-recentes-collations-des-grades/)
- (6) Transcript of an extract at 1’46 from the Rococo presentation video at the Librairie La Galerne (https://www.lagalerne.com/videos/5988004/details/)
- (7) Transcript of an excerpt at 3’00 of the Rococo presentation video at the Librairie La Galerne (https://www.lagalerne.com/videos/5988004/details/)
- (8) It should be noted that the design of the book is signed by Élodie Boyer and Patrick Doan (https://editions-non-standard.com/books/rococo)
- (9) See http://academie-architecture.fr/prix-du-livre-darchitecyre-et-du-livre-pour-la-jeunesse-2019/, Note on the Architectural Book Awards (p.4/5), page consulted on 31 October 2019
- (10) Information found at https://debestverzorgdeboeken.nl/en/news/the-best-dutch-book-designs-of-2018-announced/, accessed February 26, 2020
- (11) Information found at https://europeandesign.org/ed-awards/rules/, accessed February 26, 2020
- (12) Pierre Chabard and Marilena Kourniati, Raisons d’écrire. Livres d’architectes 1945-1999, Éditions de la Villette, Paris, 2013, p.11