Elizabeth de Portzamparc: The Language of a New Architecture

Portzamparc’s most recent projects include the Museum of Roman Culture in Nîmes, the Grand Library on the Condorcet Campus in Aubervilliers, and the Le Bourget Railway Station in a northern suburb of Paris.

By: Juan Abelardo Carles
Photos:  Courtesy of /  2 Portzamparc – Elizabeth de Portzamparc – Serge Urvoy / Steve Murez


The city of Nîmes in southern France pays tribute to its Gallic origins in many ways, and it likewise honors its subsequent role as the communications hub of the Roman Empire. The cityscape, dotted with myriad museums and historic monuments, is balanced, graceful and harmonious. A significant historic monument is the Nîmes Arena, a Roman coliseum built around 70 A.D. in the heart of the city; an outstanding entry on its list of museums is the Museum of Roman Culture —opened just this year— that houses part of the city’s enormous archeological collection.

Translucent glass tiles cover the museum façade in a mosaic that alludes to the city’s recent discovery of a Roman mosaic floor that shows the story of Pentheus, grandson of Cadmus and heir to the Greek city of Thebes. The well-preserved mosaic is one of the most important items in the museum’s collection. The glass tiles drape across the building, seeming to form a protective wrap over the heritage housed inside. This architectural narrative, with parallel multi-disciplinary readings, is characteristic of the work of its creator, Franco-Brazilian architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc.

“In this project, I emphasized a dialogue through complementarity, where two geometries, two materials, and two morphologies interact.”

“Located across from the massive stone amphitheater with its magnificent vertical arches that transcend the centuries, the museum projects its clear and luminous presence in fluid contemporary architecture. The diaphanous echo is embodied in a horizontal curtain that seems to float over the site and its archeology garden. One of the many objectives was to assert the essential role of creation, whether artistic or not, in our time,” Elizabeth de Portzamparc observes.

The Museum of Roman Culture is the smallest of the public museums designed by the architect. But, as she notes, it is also the most iconic, given that it stands on a space that is symbolic to the city. It preserves much of the history of Nîmes and juxtaposes sculptural architecture and performance.

Born in Rio de Janeiro to a family that encouraged intellectual exploration, the young Elizabeth de Portzamparc experimented with conceptual art, and later, in France, complemented her coursework in architecture with studies in anthropology, urban sociology, and regional planning.

Australian house Images Publishing recently published a monograph on her work as part of the Leading Architects of the World series. It might seem that Elizabeth de Portzamparc’s legacy has been firmly established, but she still has much to contribute. “We recently enjoyed the honor of winning an international competition to design the Taichung Intelligence Operation Center in Taiwan, which I consider my crowning achievement. This 820-foot tower has been designed as a vertical housing complex that will be home to thousands of people; I call it the first ‘fourth-generation urban tower.’ Public plazas and private spaces overlap, stimulating horizontal and vertical movement and off-setting any sensation of enclosure. We have developed a sustainable human project, an urban architecture that offers another lifestyle within the tower’s spaces. It is an urban continuity, not an interruption,” she explains.

As in so many fields in the humanities, which were the preserve of men until relatively recently, we need exceptional women to break down barriers and preconceptions, women like Elizabeth and the late Zaha Hadid.

Should universities, higher educational institutions, and guilds rely on quotas in order to achieve an equitable balance of the sexes?  “Quotas help provide access to education, but they do not make women achieve. I think you need a lot of effort and confidence to get ahead in a field like ours. We have to convince girls that there are no male professions and they can become astronauts or engineers if they want. They must be supported and encouraged to fulfill their dreams and to be able to face the prejudice and misogyny that still exist in these types of professions,” responds Elizabeth de Portzamparc.

Another feature that distinguishes Elizabeth de Elizabeth de Portzamparc is her firm’s multi-disciplinary team, which goes beyond pure architecture and design to bring in sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists, among other scholars. The 1960s were a golden age of collaboration for these disciplines and architecture and urban planning, resulting in initiatives like the Popular Urban Planning Workshops. However, many architecture and urban planning firms currently prefer targeted consultations, especially in the initial stages of each project.

Elizabeth de Portzamparc’s agency, on the other hand, has this kind of support on staff. Why? “I think that having these professionals permanently on staff was a determining factor in building a culture of sociological, anthropological, and political issues as they relate to architecture and urban planning.

studied sociology at the Institute for the Study of Economic and Social Development (IEDES) of the University of Paris and I have always been aware of the importance of understanding the relationship of architecture with our world at different levels ―ethical, aesthetic, industrial and technological, economic and political, environmental and ecological— and the purpose of the act of creation. That is why I decided to set up a think tank in my agency, a Workshop in Multi-Disciplinary Sustainable Urban Planning that looks at an issue from all sides; the research (for example, Mission Littoral 21, a prospective study on the future of the L’Occitane coast) feeds into all my projects,” she notes. 

Elizabeth de Portzamparc is not the only person who seeks to draw up architecture projects that respect the landscape and urban context, while still being creative in social and cultural terms. The architect gives a nod to colleagues in Latin America whose work has influenced her. “The architecture of Italian Lina Bo Bardi is sensitive and remorseless at the same time and is always faithful to the concept. The SESC Pompeia in São Paulo is noteworthy for its recreational and cultural spaces.”

“The work of Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, especially in Iquique, is highly representative of a new generation of architects who move toward compensating for government deficiencies in handling social issues. His residential project was designed to replace slum housing and hotels with low-priced homes financed by the government. The homes were designed to allow the inhabitants to expand them as needed. It is an ingenious way of linking economics to the residents’ own efforts in adapting a place to their needs,” she specifies.

Elizabeth de Portzamparc continues to be productive. After finishing the Museum of Roman Culture, she was involved in projects like the Grand Library on the Condorcet University Campus in Aubervilliers, which brings together 45 libraries specializing in humanities and the social sciences. “The Condorcet Library has been designed as the first bioclimatic library in Europe. The connections between indoor and outdoor areas offer researchers a multitude of expanded outdoor working spaces, such as terraces and balconies. The Forum, in the heart of the project, represents the first point of contact between the public and the building, and between interior and exterior spaces. Beyond its role as a vast library, this project was designed to be a meeting point for users of every social class, all of whom can take advantage of the knowledge and culture offered by the Library.” There is also the aforementioned Taichung Intelligence Operation Center in Taiwan and the Le Bourget station on the Paris metro line. She previously completed works like the Florianópolis French Cultural Center and the Riocentro Exhibition Center in Rio de Janeiro.

In tandem with her professional career, the architect is also busy jotting down ideas and opinions on the current and future role of architecture and its practitioners, while examining topics like creativity and the contrast between the legacy of classicism and modernism. She questions the commonly-held idea that the 17th century marked the end of true creation and any work worthy of interest. “There are many examples showing that it is possible to combine classicism and modernism, and more broadly speaking, many artistic movements, since they are simultaneously witnesses to and transcribers of their time and their social and cultural climate, and they do not necessarily clash,” she explains.

Commenting on the future of architecture, Elizabeth de Portzamparc suggests that we need to delineate creative expression: “There is a new movement that I call New Architecture, that encapsulates a set of innovative architectural practices and demonstrates the various initiatives and unifies them under a common banner: the search for architectural solutions to the challenges of the energy and social crises faced by our civilization, in other words, an architecture focused on the construction of a truly sustainable society.”

According to the architect, these parameters reflect the facets of a basic question posed about the purpose of architecture in its original sense: “Serve humanity and society.” From now on, it will be more appropriate to say: “Serve humanity in relation to the environment.”

The theoretical framework of these ideas is laid down in a book that has been years in the making. “I have been working on it for years, but with all the agency’s projects, it is difficult to make as much progress as I would like. This year, I published a monograph (part of the Leading Architects of the World series by Images Publishing), and the book on the Museum of Roman Culture will come out soon.” She concludes, “All in good time.”