Bernard Lassus - Biography

Portrait of Bernard Lassus
Bernard Lassus © 2008
Bernard Lassus was born in 1929 in Chamalières (Puy de Dôme), France. He was encouraged to exercise his independence of mind at an early age. He enrolled as a student of painting at the National School of Beaux Arts. However, taking advice from Pierre Francastel, he only attended Fernand Léger's workshop at the Beaux-Arts but chose the courses he thought interesting at other schools such as the Louvre or the Musée Guimet. In the 1950s, he engaged in experimental artistic research on visual effects of lights in motion. He presented his first works in 1957 in Amiens. Being close to the group Recherches d'Art Visuel (Visual Art Research), he created the Center for Environmental Moods (Centre de Recherches d'Ambiance) in 1962 with inspiration from Merleau-Ponty's Phénoménologie de la Perception (1945) and Le Visible et l'Invisible(1964). He also took part in the Salon de la Jeune Peinture (Salon of Young Painting) in 1955, and began participating in 1963 in the institutional world of art by exhibiting at the Galerie de l'Art socio-experimental (Art Gallery for Socio-experimental Art), the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles (Salon for New Realities), and the Salon de la Jeune Peinture (Salon for Young Painting). In 1965, he had exhibitions at the Museum of Offenbach and the Maison des Beaux Arts in Paris, showing works which were later presented at the Museum of Modern Art in Zagreb. He was included in several group exhibitions during this period: "Mouvement 2" (1965, Denise Renée Gallery, Paris) and in 1967 the "Aktionsrum" in Munich and "Light and Motion" at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, an exhibition organized by Frank Popper. He was then part of the Cinetism Movement in France, and was invited to many artistic events, such as the Biennale of Sao Paolo and the Triennale of Milano. Yet he reconsidered his involvement in the art market, museums and galleries, and decided to move away from this world in 1968 even though he had already acquired the reputation as an avant-garde artist.

Lassus' engagement with landscape started at the beginning of the 1960s. In 1961 the Ministry of Housing and Public Works asked Lassus to study the use of color in Corsican housing. The Ministry was interested in limiting drastically the palette of colors authorized for all new buildings in each region, in order to prevent changes in traditional landscapes. Lassus met Corsican mayors and discovered the great symbolic value local dwellers attached to the choice of new colors for their houses. Moreover, he observed that visual interactions among environment, buildings and daily changes of sunlight in the countryside made it unrealistic to expect that a limited choice of colors would prevent changes in the existing landscape. He refused to recommend a limited range of colors for the Ministry. A two-pronged concern-for a careful and most objective study of visual phenomena, and for attitudes and judgments passed upon these phenomena by people directly exposed to them–rather than an exclusive attention to public agencies or decision makers points of view, has since become a hallmark of Lassus' work throughout his life.

He was made a professor at the Higher National School of Beaux Arts (ENSBA), on January 1, 1968; and was later called, with Bernard Teyssèdre, by the Director for Higher Education at the Ministry of the National Education to create the first Unité d'Enseignement et de Recherche d'Arts Plastiques (Department for Teaching and Research in the Plastic Arts) at the Université of Paris 1 at the Sorbonne. He was also involved, from 1976 to 1985, in the creation of the Landscape School at Versailles where he was the director of the Workshop Charles Rivière Dufresny. He was teaching a phenomenological approach to multi-sensorial relationships between man and nature.

His first major work, Black Garden (1967), the design and furnishing of the dining-room of Pierre Dreyfus, then CEO of Renault, at Boulogne-Billancourt stems directly out of his research on relationships between lighting, material appearance, and living moods ("les ambiances"). The design was first remarked and analyzed in a book on constructivism by Stephen Bann, who introduced him to Ian Hamilton Finlay and remained the keenest critic of his work ever since.

Lassus' working attitude stems from and pursues Fernand Léger's hope for a renewal of the visual arts that would make them contribute significantly to changes in social practices and to the improvement of general welfare in the contemporary world. He has always engaged in creative practice, taking a personal stand in each social situation without allowing aesthetic or ideological perspectives to direct his thinking. He has worked for the decoration of work places in the chocolate industry in Paris (1958–61), for the coal mining industry in Lorraine (1961–63), for public housing in Marseille (1962–67), Quétigny-lès-Dijon (1967–74) and Maubeuge, as well as for a number of schools where he provided works of art under the aegis of the 1% contribution to the arts of the Ministry of Culture (1 % of the budget of publicly financed schools had to be used to commission an artistic intervention in the building), such as a Mosaic in Strasbourg (1961–64), another one and a ceiling at Saint-Avold, (1963–65), and artificial bushes at Guénange (1972). He also did all the interior decoration of three cruise ships: Renaissance in 1965 at Saint-Nazaire and Marseille, Mermoz in 1975 at Gênes and Marseille, and Rhapsody in 1985 at Norfolk and Miami.

His works as an artist are difficult to pigeon-hole. In addition to the afore-mentioned projects, many others could be mentioned, such as the environmental design of the Renault factories at Douai. His contributions to a scientific research program of the Minister for Research (Délégation Générale à la Recherche Scientifique et Technique) and of the Ministry of Culture (1967–77) are the most unexpected of all. The study addressed folk aesthetics in everyday life, and demonstrated a creative garden culture among suburban dwellers in industrial towns, which was poles apart from the aesthetic principles of modernist housing. The research gave rise to a 16 mm film Les habitants-paysagistes: techniques d'apparence (Landscape-dwellers: appearance producing techniques, 1972), and a book, Jardins Imaginaires, Les Habitants-Paysagistes (Imaginary Gardens: The Landscape-Dwellers, 1977). Later he produced critical studies of current theories of Landscape Integration (rules meant to insure that new buildings would be unnoticeable in the landscape and would seem to have always been part of it), which were and still are influential among civil servants and landscape conservationists in France. Lassus' study proceeded from a demonstration of the radical difference between dichotomous categories in everyday language (natural/artificial, self/object, collective/individual) and the categories of thought that one uses in action. Pursuing this approach, he later embarked on dynamic studies of interaction between people and their environment, some of which were carried out as artistic interventions in exhibition format. The exhibition, Paysages Quotidiens, de l'ambiance au démesurable (Landscape of Daily Life, Immeasurable Moods), for example, was sponsored by the Beaubourg Museum, took place at the Pavillon de Marsan in 1975 with a catalogue, and was later followed by a book, Jeux (play) in 1977.

His first landscape projects date back to the end of the 1960's: a project for a seaside resort near Toulon, La Coudoulière (1967–71), and a city park in the new town of L'Isle d'Abeau near Lyon-"Garden of the Anterior" (1975) which proposed for the first time the layering of several possible readings of the same place in order to address the concerns of different populations living together. This idea was developed in a symposium he organized at the Senate in the Palace of Luxembourg, which was later published under the title Hypothèses pour une Troisième Nature (1992). For very different reasons neither of these projects was realized. To a certain extent, one may see this period as a time of very rich and diverse artistic experiments that paved the way for later projects such as a public fountain at the Arche-Guédon in the new town of Marnes-la-Vallée and the exhibition The Landscape Approach at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh (1978). From 1973 to 1989, a large series of projects, renewing the residential landscape of an industrial region that was written out of the map by the steel industry crisis, allowed Lassus to pursue experiments in landscape perception at a totally different scale. He modified the visual appearances of 15,000 housing unites belonging to the Wendel-Sacilor industries, winning the support of a growing number of inhabitants over time. These rehabilitations were meant to enable the diminishing population to stay in place in a world that was disappearing. It led him to develop the concept of "critical landscape" to designate a landscape that was meant to enable its inhabitants to turn a critical or ironic eye upon their own living environment. Most of these buildings have been destroyed since; it is fortunate that he was able to produce a lavishly illustrated book, Villes-Paysages, Couleurs en Lorraine (1989), to explain and present many of these color schemes.

An important turn in the direction of Lassus' work took place in the 1980's and 1990's. In 1981 he proposed a new approach for the design of the Rond Point des Champs Elysées in Paris which is still followed to this day by the city gardeners. It was, however, his proposal for the international design competition of Park de La Villette-"The slope, the meadow, and the vertical garden. The La Villette" (1981)–drew broad attention to his landscape approach. He shared the first prize award with Bernard Tschumi who was then given the commission. The contrast between the two first-prize proposals established Lassus as a proponent of a renewed sensitivity to landscapes and minimalist design intervention.

His project, Le Jardin des Retours, for La Corderie Royale at Rochefort-sur-Mer begun in 1982 and supposed to be finished in 2006 and his inventions of poetical rest areas for turnpikes in France have enabled him to demonstrate this sensitivity and to show how it could be articulated with a concern for local history and also, most importantly, for contemporary users. Other worth-mentioning projects in this period are: the gang-way over a turnpike at Istres "The Serpent and the Butterflies Footbridge" (meant to be a source of amusement to children and to discourage them from crossing on foot a turnpike which had already been fatal to several youngsters), "The Path to the Fountain" (1982), and the rest-area on the turnpike at Nîmes-Caissargue (1989–1990) that signaled a turn in motorway landscape design in France. Another significant innovation was introduced in the landscape design of the turnpike A-85 on Angers-Tours (1996–1999) where for the first time in France, rural landowners and farmers are involved in design choices and are contributing to landscape changes by planting trees on their own lands according to schemes discussed with Lassus. Moreover, changes in the computer techniques used for calculating the cut and fill grading slopes along the road shoulder secured cooperation from farmers whose lands were crossed by the motorway. These and other motorway projects contributed to redefining the relationships between countryside, motorway, and landscape in a contemporary society.

Lassus has also touched upon questions of urban landscape. In his proposal for a landscape approach for the development of a new town at Marnes-la-Vallée-"Schéma incitateur d'apparence du secteur II de la ville nouvelle de Marnes la Vallée" (1972)–the concern was to avoid the strong contrast, caused by the Paris zoning regulations in the 1960s, between entirely new neighborhoods realized according to a deliberately unique architectural style. He proposed an approach that challenged urban planners and architects to respond to different visual problems in large areas without imposing any new normative rules, such as a uniform color, material, or design principle. He pursued this research and developed proposals for the city of Marseille (1972–77), Nîmes (1989), and for the urban design of a new city center and residential development in the empty area in the middle of the new town of Melun-Senart (1990). In 1990–92, he was called as an adviser on landscape problems in Germany, and invited to a design competition for the rehabilitation of an industrial landscape along the Emscher River, at Duisburg-nord, which led him to reflect upon environmental problems, and to design with a view to both the practical and symbolic dimensions of landscape. Another interesting project was the Garden of the Tuileries in Paris (1990) where he proposed an archeological approach to the maintenance and renewal of historical gardens. Adopting the phenomenological concept of intertwining towards a theoretical approach of landscape design, he emphasized the succession of changes that the Tuileries gardens had gone through since the sixteenth-century in order to reveal and continue the historical palimpsest of design perspectives with a contemporary interpretation.

In 1990 Bernard Lassus received the Légion d'Honneur from Président Francois Mitterand, and was later awarded the Gold Ribbon for Motorway Design in 1993 and 1997. He was called by Christian Leyrit, the Director of the Roads Administration at the Ministry of Housing and Public Works to advise on a national landscape policy for turnpikes. This was the first policy of its kind in France, and it has had a considerable impact upon a large number of projects. It led in 1994 to a joint publication, Autoroute et Paysage, edited by Lassus. He was also consulted as an expert and a mediator in the most difficult conflicts between turnpike design and local opposition. Such experiences helped to further his understanding of the political significance of landscape intervention at a time when the French rural population is shrinking under economic pressures, and the countryside is cherished more and more as a national heritage. The Landscape of Rocks in Motorway 837, Crazannes (1993–99) is one of the best demonstrations of Lassus' landscape approaches developed through out the years. Since then, he has been involved in many other motorway projects in France and other European countries, including Germany, Italy and Sweden.

Lassus' interests in landscape and garden history since the 1970's has stimulated the creation of a doctoral program for landscape studies in 1989, jointly sponsored by the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and the Ecole d'Architecture de Paris-la Villette, which he directed until his retirement in 1998. Recently, he received honorary doctorate from University of Bristol, UK and Hanover University, Germany.

by Michel Conan

Main works by Lassus:

  • The Black Garden, Boulogne-Billancourt, Régie Renault, 1967
  • Coloring of the Apartment buildings in the modern neighborhood of La Maurelette, Marseille (1962–67)
  • Coloring of the Apartment buildings in the modern neighborhood at Quétigny-lès-Dijon, with A. Champetier de Ribes and J. Sgard (1967–74)
  • Vegetal and Brick Facades with M. Macary and A. Zubléna, at Evry I, (1971–1978)
  • Environmental moods and colors for 15000 flats and houses in Lorraine: Uckange, Thionville, Villerupt (1973–1987)
  • Mosaic in a school at Strasbourg, (1961–64),
  • Mosaic and painted ceiling at a school in Saint-Avold, (1963–65)
  • Interior design of the Cruise ship "Renaissance" (Saint Nazaire et Marseille, 1965)
  • Artificial bushes at a school in Guénange, 1% for the arts of the Ministry of Culture, (1972)
  • Interior design of the Cruise ship "Mermoz" (Gênes et Marseille, 1975)
  • Footbridge at Istres "Le Serpent et les Papillons" for the Epareb (1981)
  • Re-design for the Central backing platform at the crossroads of the Champs Elysées, Paris(1981)
  • Footbridge of the "Chemin de la Fontaine," Marseille (1982)
  • Interior design of the cruise ship "Rhapsody" (Norfolk & Miami, 1985)
  • Motorway rest-area at Nîmes-Caissargues, (1989–1990)
  • The Garden of Optical Bushes, Niort, (1993)
  • Rest-area on the Nantes-Niort motorway, A83 (1989–1997)
  • City-square Dorian "The Vosgian hollow path," Paris 11ème, (1990–1997)
  • Rest-area and Quarries landscape at Crazannes, motorway A837 (1995–1999)
  • Landscaping of the Angers-Tours motorway, A 85 (1996–1999)
  • Landscaping of the Alençon- Le Mans-Tours motorway, A 28 (1998–2000)
  • Roof Gardens for Colas: Le Jardin du Jeu des Saisons / Le Jardin de Pins / Le Jardin de l'Attente / Le Théâtre de Verdure, Paris, France (2000–2007)

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