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Birth of a Project



 March 21st 13, the first day of Spring.

Since January I’ve been conscious of being at a crossroads. I’ve been obsessed with a certain project which could potentially bring a big change in my life. It came about in a rather strange way, though not that strange from another point of view.

 Just before Christmas I was in Normandy with my family for the weekend and my wife and I went to a village near Dieppe for the day. We had an objective, which was the fruit of a long reflection on Georges Braque. I knew he was buried at this place, and that there was a house there where he spent half of each year. That was about all I knew. So it was by accident that I came across another house in the same village, as a result of this strong desire to go one day to see Braque’s tomb. We were passing in front of a house and garden, just a few hundred metres from the church where Braque is buried, and it was like a memory, as if I knew the place, even though I’d never been there in my life. I said to my wife, ‘We must come back and take a look.’ We went to see Braque’s tomb; it was an emotional experience, a beautiful place, the weather was clearer, there was a fine view on the bay, on the Dieppe cliffs. I was very happy.

On the way back we stopped in front of the house I’d spotted. There was a public entrance which was open, and we went into the garden. It was winter, there was no-one there; we went further and further into the garden, feeling a bit like intruders. I was really struck by the beauty of the place. I imagined coming back one day and meeting the family (there was no-one around that day). Then we went back to Dieppe to join the children.

I thought no more about the house in the next few days. Then, during the Christmas holidays, I was telling my parents about it and recommended to them to visit – it’s the sort of place they like. The next day my mother calls and tells me about a long article in the newspaper and says, ‘I think it must be the house you were talking about yesterday.’ It was indeed the same house, and it was for sale. I went onto internet and found an address and telephone number.

I rang the next morning, Monday, from the office. I spoke to the house manager, who’s a member of the family. I told him that I’d seen the house was for sale but didn’t believe it. ‘You must have a project – how can I help you with it?’ He was surprised, but without hesitation started to tell me, a perfect stranger, about his project. An hour later he invited me to come and see the house, exactly as I had imagined a month earlier. That Saturday I was up there with him, and ever since we’ve been working on the project together...

There was an immediate connection with this person. That was what made me so sure that there was a real contribution I could make to the project, that it wasn’t just a fantasy. It was more about this feeling of connection than about the place itself. He took me round, he was very authentic, easy to talk to. We both felt a kind of friendship. That happens to him quite easily apparently, but for me it’s rather rare. We call each other from time to time, saying ‘Thank goodness you’re there, if not it would all be too complicated…’ His convictions help me keep my eye on the goal, and he says the same thing about me. It’s a proof that I’m of some use in the project; if there wasn’t that proof… What matters for me is that I bring something useful. The fact that we share the same goal protects us against adversity. The other members of the family don’t yet see the value in the goal, but we do.

I haven’t received a penny so far, but I work on the project as if this were my most important client. From the rational point of view I find this actually quite hard to understand. It doesn’t help me earn my living but brings me something more important. My business colleagues scratch their heads a bit. My real boss is my wife, of course! She doesn’t usually tell me straight out what to do, except if she thinks I’m off track. In this case that’s what she thinks, but at the same time she can understand. There’s always the good excuse : it’ll pay later on. But there’s no guarantee. The family’s representative says he’s aware that it must pay off in the end, which reassures me, in other words I allow myself to be reassured…

On good days I have the impression of mending something that was torn inside, of assembling pieces which have been forgotten in a trunk somewhere, sewing them back together to make a kind of sense. The pieces of a puzzle for which I don’t have the picture. Music, museums, my business career, strategy, innovation, brand development, fund-raising, organisation, HR… everything I’ve done in the past is useful for this project, it’s all relevant and important. And what’s more it’s an Anglo-French project, and that’s what I’ve become now. There’s even a link with Krishnamurti’s philosophy, since the history of the place is associated with Theosophy…

It’s like sewing pieces back together: they aren’t necessarily torn, but don’t make much sense together. If I manage to bring this project alive, all these strands will form part of the score that needs playing.

It’s a risk, very political, a lot of money at stake. There’s a low chance of success in fact. But week by week my confidence gets stronger. The family are coming together. This was far from the case previously, there had been years of conflict. Different members of the family understand the project differently, but it serves as glue that binds them, gives them a sense of what they could achieve. They’ve made a transition from selling the property to giving it new life, playing it like an instrument, they even talk about it as a Stradivarius.

I can come at things from a different space from them, and that is useful for them. That gives me new energy and enables me to stay committed. As we talk I realise that I’m always looking for a source of energy to keep going. There has to be a return, even if it’s not a financial one.

It’s like walking in a forest, on the way home, when you recognise a tree and say ‘I came this way.’ Some time ago I put up a quotation from Heidegger in the office; he talks about ‘wood-paths’ (Holzweg). It’s a word used by foresters; they know which paths lead nowhere, which ones lead somewhere. We are all on ‘wood-paths’. In the forest we lose our way, we search for something we can recognise. In this project I’m looking for a way back to the path. Will life come to meet me on this path? It will if I’m on the right one. In every project that’s what I’m looking for. It can take different shapes. Money is one of them, not the only one and not the most important. It’s about energy. Since 2003 I’ve sometimes felt that there was no life on such or such a path. What does one do at that point? One doesn’t necessarily act rationally. I wait… You have to keep living, but in the knowledge that you’re on a Holzweg that may run out. The forest isn’t like a corridor, there are gaps between the trees, you can change paths.

To sum up, you and the person in charge of the house felt a connection, which one can understand looking at your past career, but without him knowing anything about that.  

 Yes, that’s right. Karl Weick says, ‘How do I know what I think until I’ve seen what I say?’ You act, then you turn round and look back and understand what it was about, you make sense of it. Which is why, incidentally, companies have difficulty making genuine ‘vision statements’. There are limits to how far they can project themselves into the future.

You speak about ‘the project’, but how do you and the others define it?

 It’s about creating a foundation, with the goal of contributing to rethinking the place of man in nature. The place itself is perfectly suited to that. The house was built by French and British craftsmen working together. It was designed by an architect from the Arts and Crafts movement, at the end of the 19th century, with an English landscape gardner. It’s a piece of England set in France.

At the heart of the house there’s a music room. An astonishing room, with a 9-metre ceiling, tapestries, huge windows composed of small panes… Debussy and Satie played there. It’s in the form of a square, with private meditation spaces in two of the angles, used by the couple who built the house. There are 9 bedrooms, so it’s not a palace. The gardens are wonderfully fine, like jewelry around the house’s throat. And then the garden merges into wooded alleys leading into the park, which is like a long sloping descent to the sea. There are rare trees, from China and Japan, including famous giant rhododenrons. The whole is like a set of Russian dolls, fitting inside each other. The smallest doll is the music room, standing for transcendence. Around it is domesticity, the physical body, then the garden like jewelry, then the park, a velvet robe, with rare treasures brought by man mixed with the results of nature’s actions, then the cliffs, and 30 hectares of virgin forest, and at the edge, the sea, which cannot be changed, cannot be influenced, just experienced. It’s a symbolic image of man in nature. At each level there’s a different proportion in the mix of human and natural elements.

Whose idea was this project?

I helped formulate it in the way we present it today. The manager’s idea was to contribute to saving the world, bringing together people from all over the world, creating residences that would catalyse new thinking. His project wasn’t fully worked out, but he had the original idea. I just proposed a version that might make it suitable to sell to sponsors. With a small team we reformulated it and embarked on a feasibility study…


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