I have mentioned Eugène Claudius Petit (1907-1989) several times in this space. I have to talk more about him. To say first of all that Claudius, a name he adopted in the underground of the anti-Nazi resistance, was first and foremost a politician. Of modest origin, worker, he became a cabinetmaker as part of one of the learning associations (the “compagnons”) that exist in France since the Middle Ages and still today enjoy legendary prestige. As “compagnon” he made the “return to France”, a tour of different localities of the country as an apprentice of established working masters. He fought early in the workers’ organizations in the political atmosphere of a convulsed France.
His participation in the Resistance earned him the Cross of War and the Legion of Honor and developed in him the passion for politics, which allowed him to be a member of the Constituent Assembly elected after the Liberation, as a member of the UDSR, of center-left, which was part of the successive coalitions that marked the political life of his country in the immediate postwar period. Following the formation of one of them he was appointed Minister of Reconstruction in November 1948.
After Liberation, he was made a member of a technical commission that had, among other things, to travel to the United States in search of technical support for the process of reconstruction of the country. He embarked then, in 1945, in the “Liberty Ship Vernon S. Hood” and there he met Le Corbusier, who was part of that delegation. It was an encounter that, we heard him say personally, marked his life. During that trip Le Corbusier would complete the studies of the “Modulor” (a system of dimensional normalization based on human dimensions), and it is to be assumed that when the two characters met, they talked about the rich universe of convictions and motivations that the architect 58 years old he would feel impelled to communicate to the young politician twenty years younger. Claudius was made on that trip, it could be said, a disciple of one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century and thus lived the rest of his life, dedicated to serve as an instrument for the realization of the ideas of new architecture.
The occasion was to be presented more than three years later with the incorporation of Claudius to the French Cabinet where he would be until 1953 surviving five parliamentary coalitions. Already Raoul Dautry, a Communist, who had preceded him a few years earlier, had entrusted to Le Corbusier the project of the Marseille Unit, which was to become one of the architectural monuments of the century and whose construction was halted for the Claudius’ moment to assume the position as a result of legal and financial problems, many of them product of political pettiness; but he managed to finish it, and it was opened to the public in 1952.
Nothing more for its instrumental role in this specific case, Claudius Petit deserve special recognition, without counting their efforts to open the way to the ideas of a new architecture and urbanism that were expressed in the legislative field in 1950 with the National Organization Plan Territorial, and in very diverse legal dispositions relative to the financing of the housing and the industrial equipment.
In that same year 1953 he was elected mayor of the city of Firminy, in the south of France, near Lyon, a position he would exercise for more than ten years and that would allow him to promote a widening of the city that he named Firminy “green” to be an example of modern urbanism throughout France. As mayor he commissioned Le Corbusier a Youth Center, a simple sports complex and what would be his posthumous work: the church of Firminy, completed only a year ago, by his former collaborator, José Oubrerie.
But the great lesson of this man, the one for which I think it is very pertinent to talk about him among us, is that as a politician, from politics, he sought to turn that perspective that we could call ideological into concrete realization. Therefore, when he said the phrase, for me memorable, which I include again at the end of this note, in the Auditorium of the Faculty of Architecture more than twenty years ago, in a certain way he justified his life.
Is it that the exercise of politics is only a moral philosophizing without concrete consequences?
I do not believe it, it is politics to legislate or help to legislate, to help build a society. And in that help to build, the city is an emblem, an objective. The exercise of politics has consequences in the modification of the physical space in which we live. If you do not have it, it is leaf litter, it is a rhetorical exercise, it is, for us Venezuelans, the “Bolivarian Revolution”, neither more nor less. That would have to be the most important lesson of this period of our political history in which speaking and proclaiming a vocation of social redemption, financed with jets of dollars, has replaced action.
These recurrent manifestations of populism and demagogy have done us a terrible damage, before which one can claim the legacy of a man from another tradition, from another culture, like Claudius Petit.
Here he left a seed despite the fact that his visit was partially ignored. And he left it in his country as proven by two phrases including the text written by the young architect Michel Kagan, on the occasion of the tribute that took place last year in Paris:
On the principle that guided their struggles:
“Networks of basic services depend on the primacy of space, architecture and urbanism, in symbiosis with the landscape and the territory, and not the other way around”.
And about the meaning of his work as a politician:
“For this Stateman, -helping those who want to build and those who build- is to serve instead of to command … he was the friend of architecture and architects to serve the common man”.
I conclude, once again, with the phrase that I would like to turn into a motto of a new way of doing politics:
“Every political program manifests itself in the domain of the built.”.
Óscar Tenreiro Degwitz, Architect.
Venezuela, february 2008,
Entre lo Cierto y lo Verdadero