Attempting to write and curate the history of the radical architectural activities associated with the events of May 1968 comes with several challenges. One is archival. A key feature of 1968 was the questioning of a Beaux-Arts architectural training system centered on the creation of artistic objects; this was accompanied by the rise of an expanded view of architecture, one that gave new attention to architecture's meanings, its publics, its economic and political underpinnings, and the various tools used to build it. Sometimes temporary and ephemeral, the architecture of this era survives in drawings and models but also emerges through written manifestos, research reports, happenings (recorded in photographs and videos), and various experimental structures (some surviving, most not). The traces of such production are, at best, partial and dispersed; often, they are lost altogether.
That the events of May 1968 began in architectural schools complicates the matter further. Relevant materials reside not only in institutional and administrative archives but also in the private records of former students and their teachers. With many of the soixante-huitard(e)s still alive and available for interviews, oral histories offer welcome sources that bring their own challenges. Protagonists looking back on this period often express remarkably divergent feelings, from disillusionment to nostalgia.
The exhibition Mai 68: L'architecture aussi!, held in Paris on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of May 1968, responded well to such historiographical challenges. Curated by Caroline Maniaque, Éléonore Marantz, and Jean-Louis Violeau, it drew from an impressive array of interviews with architects (including Philippe Boudon, Jean Castex, Christian de Portzamparc, and Philippe Panerai), historians, sociologists, critics, and key actors in educational reform, including Ginette Baty-Tornikian and Françoise Véry. The exhibition also mobilized a wealth of materials from personal archives, institutional collections, and publications. Activist posters, large drawings of often-fascinating student work, models, booklets, sketchbooks, and lecture and travel notes offered visitors a colorful, visually stimulating experience and an insightful and detailed investigation into the world of 1968.
The exhibition also showed how architecture was presented by many of its makers and users as a stake in an expanded field that included urban politics, environmentalism, and the organization and occupation of social space. Additionally, through photographs of people at work in design studios, travel reports, sketches, and notes, visitors were able to get a sense of the everyday life of students both prior to 1968 and in the reformed educational system that followed.1 Central to the reforms were the Unités Pédagogiques, better known as the UPs, which famously replaced the Beaux-Arts educational model across France in the wake of May 1968.
Another historiographical challenge is posed by disagreements around the impact of 1968, the legacy of which we still inhabit. For example, proposals for the reconstruction of the historic urban fabric promised potentially effective and widespread, if piecemeal, future regeneration for many European inner cities. Proposals that, at their origins, were firmly embedded in grassroots urban politics were often depoliticized during the 1970s and 1980s, sometimes informing more complacent approaches to cultural heritage as well as the rise of historicist postmodernism. Some commentators have asserted that these aftereffects call for stripping some of the 1968 legacy of its radical credentials.
The exhibition resisted such judgment calls by inviting viewers to revisit this pivotal moment through the various ways in which students and architects, both within the Beaux-Arts system and in the new UPs (in this exhibition, 1968 was viewed as beginning in the early 1960s), responded to their shared questioning of the foundations, methods, and products of architecture and design education. A pluralist picture of architecture autrement, or “other architecture,” emerged through accounts of “resistant” architectures that were not always straightforwardly classified as either progressive or conservative. The history of 1968 unfolded through inflatables, domes, solar projects, theoretical counterprojects, vernacular and spontaneous architecture, 1:1 installations, participatory design, and utopian manifestos.
The exhibition did not shy away from reflecting on the effects on the profession of May 1968's educational reforms. After guiding visitors through the process of the rejection of the Beaux-Arts educational model and the implementation of the new system of UPs, the exhibition's final section showed how design education entered professional practices of the era. In doing so, it focused on architectural competitions, including notable examples such as Les Halles, La Villette, and Roma Interrotta. Largely beyond the scope of this exhibition, the often-difficult transition from radical education to mainstream professional practice nonetheless still deserves more attention.
In concluding, I wish to recognize a final challenge posed by any attempt to curate the architectural history of May 1968: the necessity to discuss this moment both as a situated event, sprouting from specific geographical-societal circumstances, and as a wider field of influence shaped through international exchanges. A product of Paris, and of France, the architecture of May 1968 gained momentum through events and reforms occurring across Europe. Individual and institutional networks were formed through personal contacts, traveling exhibitions, and networks of students, architects, educators, and critics operating in Brussels, Bologna, Paris, and London, among many other places. The history of May 1968 is in this sense both specific and internationally entangled. Focused and richly documented exhibitions such as Mai 68: L'architecture aussi! can offer excellent and encouraging contributions to our knowledge of this pivotal moment in the discipline and profession of architecture.2