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The French Connection

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA
Editor-in-chief

The world compressed a millimeter yesterday. At least, that’s the way it felt, as cities in the U.S. and France leaped into electronically abetted, split-screen simultaneous conversation. Although I had personally sat in on teleconferences before, never had I witnessed a 5-part conversation, much less moderated one—replete with multiple shots on divided monitors, attuned to every head-scratch and cough. I think I said something I shouldn’t have when I walked in the room, unaware that we were live.

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Architects, not diplomats or atomic scientists, gathered around the virtual global countertop: AFEX, a French organization representing 100 leading firms, and the International Practice arm of the American Institute of Architects linked up, with assistance from the US Department of Commerce, to explore ways of making architecture together. Despite the recent hype of globalization, French and American architects have found relatively few occasions to share in joint ventures, on either side of the Atlantic. This electronic, digital leap attempted to bridge the distance.

Here’s what I have to report. First, the French spoke beautiful English, in a way that shamed this former student of the French language. I could barely mumble hello and goodbye, while every English-speaking Frenchman waxed eloquent on matters esoteric and pragmatic. Second, the issues we discussed drew us together. The somewhat nervous participants relaxed as their colleagues discussed shared passions, in this case sustainability and urban growth. Presentations by architects including Robert Mazaud (head of AFEX) and Jean-Louis Cohen, Randolph Croxton or Sandra Mendler were tasty but brief, rather like canapés spread too thinly with paté. Third, the pragmatics of practice, including licensure and liability, while important and subject to further exploration and debate, drew less visible heat than the speakers’ obvious passion for architecture itself.

Some of us knew each other already; familiarity smoothed the airwaves. It came close to fulfilling those images in my fourth-grade Weekly Reader, which religiously promised telephones that could see. Close, but still so far. I realized that when the proceedings had broken up and the lights had dimmed, my French colleagues would repair to a better meal.

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