MEET: architect and illustrator Helene Lacombe

Photos: ALINA SEPP

Text: KATYA ULITINA

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Hélène Lacombe from Reims lives and studies architecture in Paris. She creates sophisticated, finely drawn architectural illustrations. But the main thing about Hélène is that she has such sparkling eyes and contagious laugh that it felt like I was not interviewing, but chatting with a friend over a cup of coffee. Hélène and I talked about her vision of Paris, the creative process and how to deal with the lack of inspiration.

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Let’s talk about art and creativity now. When and how exactly did you know that architecture and illustration was your thing?

    My dad is an architect, and when he spoke to me about architecture, there were sparkles in his eyes. He also draws a lot, and me too, I started sketching when I was a little girl. After high school, I was not sure that architecture was exactly what I wanted to do. I was wondering if it is not my father's profession that was very influential to me. That is why I studied at the School of Applied Arts for a year. It helped me to understand I was actually attracted by the golden middle between the creative and the specific, which is architecture. I truly want to become an architect, but at the same time it is vital for me to continue making illustrations. Now I am finishing my Master’s final project, I work as an architect and as an illustrator, and since October I also draw on shop windows.

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Are Hélène the Illustrator and Hélène the Architect the same person? Do these activities demand same personal qualities?

    Both require a lot of patience and perseverance. One illustration takes an average of 6 to 15 hours, so you need to stay as concentrated as possible. I can only say that the illustration is less stressful. When I draw, I feel self-confident, whereas in architecture school teachers constantly try to destabilise you and to make out question your own work. But I think they do it on purpose: the architect is an emotionally exhausting profession, so they try to prepare for hard reality.

Most of your illustrations are drawings of architectural monuments. Why is that?

    Because even if I lived in Paris, I got a feeling I didn’t have the opportunity to see it that often. But when I was drawing a Parisian building, I got to know every column and statue by heart. When you draw architecture, you understand it more profoundly. I like drawing ancient churches and cathedrals with many exquisite details. However, making illustrations with modern buildings is also great! For example, I recently drew the Marseille apartment unit of Le Corbusier and the Pompidou Center.

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Can you name some illustrators that inspire you?

    Thibo Rassa (@thibautrassat), an architect and illustrator, his works are very lively; Mark Puglia (@markpoulierart), an Australian illustrator who daily uploads drawings of train window views. There is a French version of it, it is called @attention_à_la_marche; this guy sketches people in the subway, and for each sketch, he puts a background of the colour of the metro line he drew it on! I love both the idea and the style. I mainly follow by artists, photographers, illustrators, friends from an architectural school on Instagram.

So Instagram is you work platform only?

    Yes, and it is a source of inspiration as well. Without Instagram, I probably would not become an illustrator and I would not meet so many interesting people from all over the world. But Instagram has this kind of false, fraudulent side that I don’t like. Before children used to dream of becoming scientists and movie stars, and now they only want to be influencers on Instagram. I try to protect myself from the toxic influence of social networks and the false values they impose.

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Do you have the lack of inspiration sometimes? How do you tackle that?

    Yeah, sometimes I don’t feel like drawing, or I draw less. Then I try to take my mind off the work and do something else; it helps to relax and to find fresh ideas. We shouldn’t push ourselves all the time: otherwise, you can simply burn out. This happened to me in Helsinki: I drew illustrations for clients non-stop one by one, and at some point, I didn’t enjoy the very process. Not to mention I also felt the pressure of Instagram: I just started to have more subscribers, and I felt like I had to keep posting regularly. Now I've learned to stay away from this and to tell myself that it's pointless to draw just for the sake of Instagram. We must give ourselves time.

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Is Paris your final stop, or is the journey "to be continued"?

    It is the final stop - for now. Since I came back here, I feel comfortable in Paris; I can’t imagine myself in any other city. After all, I've been here for six years! Wherever I go, it’s like I have an inner Parisian who compares all the cities to Paris. And Paris always wins.

Your three places to visit absolutely?

    First of all, it’s Svalbard, this is my ultimate dream! Such a lost Arctic treasure on the edge of the world. Secondly, Iceland, I guess. And finally, I only was in St. Petersburg among Russian cities, three times though, and am genuinely looking forward to seeing Moscow and other Russia’s regions. What can I say: I adore the North!

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What do you like and dislike the most in Paris as an architect?

    Many people and even my friends from the architecture school constantly criticise new Parisian architecture. They believe that Paris is the Baron Haussmann’s ancient buildings, and as soon as a modern building appears, for them, it is a sacrifice. Friends sometimes point me out the modern architecture saying: «Don’t you build such a thing, Hélène!» - but I will! Architects can’t keep designing old stone mansions anymore; architecture must evolve. Parisians are not very open to new approaches, new technologies in construction. For example, Renzo Piano is actually designing a project of the Palais de Justice - such an incredible project! But many of my friends think it is too defiant and not representing the spirit of Paris. And I just hate to hear such arguments! After all, when Baron Haussmann conceived his mansions or broad Parisian avenues, people blamed it on being provocative and ugly, while nowadays everyone is delighted. In Paris, there are not so many modern buildings, and people are not used to it yet. At the same time, I adore the ancient architecture in Paris. Every day I walk on the Pont des Arts and take a picture of the Seine, and I am still charmed even if it has been six years I am nearby. No matter how long you live here, Paris will always be inspiring.

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Do you think creativity is something innate or something that can be developed?

    I don’t know really… Somehow I have been drawing so much since my early childhood that it is already unclear whether these were innate abilities or it is like a trained muscle. I believe that there are some initial skills you have when you are a child that help to understand which direction to follow, like the sense of proportion, the sense of perspective. But talent ... There are certainly little boys and girls who play symphonies on the piano since they are tree or something,  and they are undoubtedly gifted. Anyway, even if the talent exists, it means nothing without effort and striving to achieve the perfection. Drawing is like sport, seriously!

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-Monmartre or le Marais?

Montmartre.

-The Left bank or the Right bank?

The Right bank!

-Croissant or Pain au chocolat?

Croissant.

- Disneyland or Versailles?

None of the two! Can I choose that?

- Subway or bicycle?

Subway!

-Quish or Swedish meatballs?

Oh! Meatballs!

-Normandy or Brittany?

Normandy.

- Red wine or White wine?

White wine!

- Ski station or the beach?

Skiing!

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