Jacques Tati and Architecture


A ‘Tati trip’ is what curators Macha Makeïeff and Stéphane Goudet call the major retrospective, currently hosted by the Cinémathèque Française this summer. Over 650sq m of design, fashion, film extracts, soundtracks, costumes, accessories and sketchbooks fill the space and tell the story of this unique artist and ‘Jacques of all trades’ who began his career as a music hall performer and a mime artist. Tati died in 1982 and in 2001 Makeïeff, along with Tati’s daughter, Sophie Tatischeff and director Jérôme Deschamps created the company Films de Mon Oncle to acquire the rights to Tati’s films. In 1959 Tati’s film Mon Oncle won an Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film and the Special Prize of the Jury at Cannes. It was a platform for him to develop a critical eye on society’s changes through the character Mr Hulot, played by Tati. Following this success, Tati felt confident enough to dive into another dimension and created the most ambitious film of his career, Playtime (pictured below). Though the shooting of the film took three years, beginning in 1964, Tati had already been planning the film’s set for years. The result was a full-scale concrete, glass and steel city built on the outskirts of Paris. But the film was a financial disaster, budgeted at 2.5m francs (£320,000), the cost escalated to 15m francs (£2m). Eventually the set, Tativille, was demolished despite Tati’s pleas to André Malraux, French minister of cultural affairs at the time. tati-2 In an interview from 1967, Tati makes his ideas explicit: ‘in the first half of Playtime, I direct the people to follow the architect’s guidelines. Everybody is filmed as if moving in straight lines and feeling prisoners of their surroundings. Modern architecture would like typists to sit straight, would like everyone to take themselves very seriously. In the first part of the film, the architecture plays a leading role but gradually, warmth, contact and friendship as well as the individual I defend, take over this international setting and then neon advertisements make their entrance and the world starts to swirl and it all ends up in a merry-go-round. There are no more straight angles at the end of the film’. The relationship between Tati and modern architecture is more complex than it seems, however. Beyond the exquisite jokes that punctuate his films and made him so popular, Tati provided us with a very subtle, yet acute reading of our modern society, questioning the functions of the city: living, working, circulating and embracing the notion of historical heritage, themes all present in Le Corbusier’s 1943 report on urban planning, the Athens Charter. In 1958 Tati jokingly said, ‘I am not at all against modern architecture, I only think that as well as the permit to built, there should be also the permit to inhabit’. In 1966 he also admitted that ‘above all, the star is the set’. If, on one hand, his satires denounce the threat of dehumanisation generated by progress itself and question what he perceives as an architecture of power, on the other hand, both Mon Oncle and Playtime display his aesthetic fascination for the designs of his time. [caption id="attachment_3127" align="alignnone" width="560" caption="A scene from Tati's Mon Oncle"]tati-3[/caption] Earlier this year, a full-scale version of the Villa Arpel, the brilliant parody of modern house design that is central to Mon Oncle, went on display at the 104 (pictured, top), a new venue in the north of Paris. Sadly, the public was not allowed to step inside the geometric, multi-coloured gravel garden, nor to play with its jet fish, its plastic water lilies or the automatic garage and noisy gate, or hi-tech gadgets in its laboratory-like kitchen. The villa and garden stood there, inanimate, and the curators had even forgotten to add words to explain the significance of the set. Not a board, or leaflet of explanation about the making of the house and the fabulous designs it contained was to be found anywhere. Architect Rudy Ricciotti recently said that ‘the modernity that Tati demonstrates through the Villa Arpel reflects a certain fear of minimalism, linked to the idea of super cleanliness. An approach expressed in many contemporary art works stamped with a white, hygienic, sort of totalitarian thinking.’Tati’s ambivalent, hilarious and poetic perception of architecture and the post-war way of life can be fully appreciated through the present retrospective, 8 April-2 August. And as far as a double bill goes, it is also the opportunity to discover the new Cinémathèque Française designed by Frank Gehry. With its curves and drama, I wonder if it would have won over Mr Hulot?

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