He inspires a deep respect, such as the one we can feel when we taste the profound silence and discover the breathtaking beauty of his houses. The encounter with the famous architect and teacher, Maurice Sauzet, is also out of the ordinary, because it happens like in his art, in a real introductory journey. Step by step, we enter the path of his life, as through the front door and the curved corridor of one of his houses. Then, we will be led, with grace and astonishment, to the places that inhabit him, between space and counter space, between shadow and light and between outside and inside. And this harmony will awaken our senses and conscious, leading us to ourselves, to that place where we finally realize the eternal and vital roots of human kind with the nature and the world.
The entrance through the gate of the Levant
Born in Ardèche, Maurice Sauzet grew up and lived in Sanary-sur-Mer (Var) because his parents were particularly fond of this Mediterranean region. “I lived my childhood drawing the landscapes of the South, thanks to my mother who was an artist.” Dyslexic, his formal education at school was arduous, but he was excellent in drawing and scientific subjects and brilliantly obtained his diploma of architect. “I had such a need to create. I wanted to change the world!” He will meet his fashion designer wife, and “it was a shock with so many connivances in the artistic vision.” They will go together to Japan in the 1960s, and there, he will become a collaborator of Junzo Sakakura, a pupil of Le Corbusier in Osaka. This experience will be a decisive moment in his career.
“It was there that I discovered the meaning of my call”. During a visit to a Zen temple in Kyoto, he is captured by the architecture, the one that arouses emotion through the five senses and allows to live in close connection with the environment. “I went into this house without realizing what was happening. And when I came out, I was stunned.” The Zen monks actually build these temples, to convince that God is in nature, with “all a reasoning, a system that is set up in small wooden houses, which has nothing externally special.” The temple is unveiled gradually to the young architect and, at the end, with the sudden appearance of a breathtaking landscape, offered even on a tiny ground. “Everything is made to represent the world, and it took me years to understand that.” Wood, stone, fragrances, wind, air touching the skin like a gentle caress, feet in contact with the wood or the tatami or the roughness of crafted straw.
“All this makes you get into a world and suddenly, you feel it in you. And this reality has awakened the memory of billions of years that rose up from the deepest part of me. And I exclaimed, “It’s unbelievable. This is my way!” Back in France, he is inhabited by these sensations and he decides to build his own home in the image of this temple. “I built my house empirically, according to my feelings and the memory of my senses, without any access to the concepts. How was it? And when it was not that way, I demolished to rebuild.” The first friends who discover the house had a shock too, and Maurice Sauzet decided to devote his life to this experience coming from the Zen architecture, to reveal it to many.
Working as an architect and teacher
He was already a professor of architecture in the early 1970s when he first met Augustin Berque, an Oriental geographer, who wrote a book entitled “Living space in Japan”. “It allowed me to conceptualize what I had experienced from the inside. This is what I will finally be able to tell my students.” He will launch a few years later a new concept named “counter-architecture” or “natural architecture” with the objective of moving the senses and living in harmony with nature. He will publish a dozen of books that are all true references for all architects, especially those he will train for more than 25 years in Marseille and Toulon.
Maurice Sauzet will also put his architecture into practice by building or rehabilitating many houses throughout France. “Now I wanted to prioritize the quality of the relationship between man, and space, especially with the notion of pathway.” To this day, he has developed more than 250 houses according to his principles of natural architecture. It concerns private and individual places, but also large public and private facilities like factories, schools and retirement homes. In 2001, he received the Medal of the Academy of Architecture for his entire work and became an Academician in 2004. He continues to practice in a Varese agency, founded with his daughter Sylvie, who is an architect too, and with whom he keeps a professional complicity and filial love every day.
Maurice Sauzet’s architecture is based on contrasts between fullness and emptiness, light and shadow, horizontality and verticality, and the result really impresses. In each house, as when he reveals himself, there is a series of pathways that lead from outside to inside, in a constant interpenetration. This approach is also thought to be progressive so that “we will become more and more conscious of our body and get prepared for the final picture where our senses will be completely struck by an absolutely magnificent landscape”. Large picture windows will replace the classical ones to invite the garden inside. Conversely, complex roofs will lean over to the green spaces outside, as if nature was interlocking in the habitat. Besides, we could see an old tree piercing the roof under the covered terrace. “When the house is finished, my customers have a shock, and they often have tears in their eyes. How beautiful nature is! How beautiful the world is! I have the world in me! They will not say such things but that they feel a sense of well-being.” And the therapist-architect asserts, with a little self-satisfied smile, that this powerful relationship arouses every time and will last, changing their very lives.
“The house always welcomes you through a door because it needs to be respected by a ritual of passage to access at its privacy.” The entrance corridor is also curved to create a relationship and prepare those who are getting into the experience. “I make them bump against a stone, or they have to bend or lift their feet, to be really there, here and now.” As in any encounter, Maurice Sauzet admits the need for this test to get to know those who come to him. “My customers have often read my books but they still have their own ideas and they want to control everything. I let them discover 2 or 3 houses and there, they understand that they have to let go.” Now, we are visiting the different rooms and patios that unfold in successive screens. Suddenly, the architect gives you a little kumquat and this fruit exhales with all the scents and Mediterranean flavors. A few steps later, and there we are: suddenly the high point is offered with the appearance of an exceptional frame of view on the surrounding nature. It is place for the release of tears and Maurice Sauzet, silently, withdraws to let the inner emotions flow freely. “It is therefore a matter of transforming the habitat with light, view and land, keeping all that can be, to create this path that will allow an osmosis with the site and the environment.”
Maurice Sauzet has a contemplative soul with a quest for meaning. Since this awakening in the Zen temple, he searches, writes, shares and scrutinizes the reality to understand this matter of state that comes from the depths of time, and revealed with every transformed house as the mirror of an inner and immutable truth. “There is like a communion, a correlation with the world and the living that I witness at every instant. It is like God Itself which has a root that draws from the millennia behind us. And when I see my cat and my dog running thru, I know that I come from the same place. ”
With the philosopher Chris Younès, he will write several works of great poetry about his design. At her contact, he will also get introduced to the phenomenological approach, where architecture becomes a kind of proof “whose driving nerve is Dasein: Being there”. Because his architecture explores the vital and sacred link between man, nature and the world. And it can only be done through the senses and the body, hence the importance of kinesthesia and emotions, which lead to this awareness. Moreover, even if his inspiration comes from Japan, there is a real work of personal creation mingled with softness. Maurice Sauzet has this great sensitivity and understanding of human suffering, with a rare optimistic gaze to emerge from the ignorance and patterns inherited from the education and culture of our Western world. “The Japanese have a different sensitivity than us. But there is also a violence that coexists and is fundamental and structural to them for ancestral reasons. They have covered it with a great sensitivity to nature, but when this volcano wakes up, it is a liberation of their culture that will tousle your hair!” Patiently, he is the one who will be the bridge to translate, straighten and adapt this architectural vision in the today’s world. For “the most important remains the space lived where, for always we must seek the emotion before the function”, a thought that is still with counter to current mainstream.
For certain beings, an event, a journey or an encounter can be a spark in their lives to initiate a turn. It is the case with Maurice Sauzet who spent his life transmitting this flame through its architecture. He incarnates what he teaches and realizes, and it is by this authenticity that we in return, we learn to walk in silence, to be and to become ourselves by being more aware to the beauty of the world, outside and inside. Full of life, he continues to build and write to explain the essence of his architecture to all those who are seeking for sense and wisdom. A great greeting to this visionary of our time!
Interview held by Carine Mouradian on May 2, 2017 in Six-Fours (Toulon)