Interview with Jean-Paul Viguier: Creativity Happens When You Do Nothing

Words by Katie Puckett

Jean-Paul Viguier / architect / Jean-Paul Viguier et Associés / Paris

“To me, creativity very much relates to movement, to action. Creative people start by making up their mind to do something, but then they have to test it in a real situation. This is particularly true of architects — if I just design projects and have theories about architecture, I do not accomplish my work completely. You have to build the projects that you have imagined.

“When I am seated in an airport doing nothing and waiting for the next plane, my brain is running at high speed”

But I have a friend who is a psychiatrist who says that the time you are most creative is when you do nothing — if you take a picture of the brain, that’s when it is most active. It’s a very interesting paradox. When I am seated in an airport doing nothing and waiting for the next plane, I’m very creative, because I’m in a stimulating environment and my brain is running at high speed.

Sometimes I’m looking for contact and movement, and sometimes I want to be by myself. It takes a little bit of training to be able to put yourself outside of your environment — I can be in a crowd with a lot of noise and a lot of people and I don’t hear the noise and I don’t see the people.

Another word that is very important to me is “synergetic”. I try to put things together. Here in France, the education system separates the disciplines, particularly at university. That’s why I decided to study for a masters in city planning at Harvard. The electrical engineering department was just next door so architects and engineers were all talking with each other. I love this type of unexpected encounter and the fact that you learn from others’ points of view.

My office is an old industrial building, and it illustrates this idea of the unexpected very well — it was a factory making welded furniture for hospitals. We have transformed it into a space that is very free and open, and replaced the roof with a steel and glass box. It’s not a flat environment — there is stimulation all the time from the view, the air, the hot or cold, the garden on the terrace. In the past, spaces were designed to be very specific to what they were used for, but they are becoming much closer to each other. We are designing offices that you could live in — the couches and materials are the same as you have at home — and the reverse is true of our homes.

What prevents me from being creative? Stress — I think it is very inhibiting. This is something I have realised about myself, and I try to apply it to my projects too. For instance, when you go into hospital as a patient, you feel a tremendous amount of stress and I think that the way we design hospitals can help to relieve this — the shape of the building, the quality of the light, the materials, the ambience of different spaces, the fact that you can welcome your family when they visit.

I applied this theory on a hospital in the south of France at Castres-Mazamet, and then on a cancer research institute in Toulouse, and it worked very well. At the beginning, the doctors were very sceptical but they noticed that the patients were more relaxed and more prepared for treatment. It has even facilitated healing to a certain extent.

I try to select projects that push you to be creative. I think that creative architecture is when you add something to the commission, and you answer a question that has not been asked by your client. That’s what makes architecture interesting and it is also what makes architecture an art, because a piece of art is something that you do not reproduce. It is a unique answer to a question. A client has an idea of what he wants, but what you propose and how the project ends up is unexpected. That’s why architecture is so exciting.”

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