Fernand Pouillon


Fernand Pouillon was born on May 14, 1912, in Cancon in the region of Lot-et-Garonne and died in the Château de Belcastel on July 24th, 1986.  He grew up in Marseille, where he attended l’Ecole des Beaux-arts until he moved to Paris to study architecture from 1932-1934.  Pouillon received his first architectural commission at the age of 22 in 1934 in Aix-en-Provence.  In 1948 he gained national prominence through his reconstruction of the Vieux Port of Marseille, where he restored the ancient quayside buildings that had been destroyed by the Nazis.  While working in Marseille, he worked alongside many Algerian immigrants, who came into the port seeking jobs in France.

Through his studies and early work, Pouillon developed a deep conviction about the importance of populist architecture.  He consistently sought to bring high-quality, low-cost housing to the greatest number of people.  France was in a period of reconstruction, still reeling after the destruction of World War II.  Pouillon strove to be a part of the rebuilding effort.  His beliefs were put to the test when he won a contract to build public housing.  He declared that he could build 200 apartments in 200 days with a budget of 200 million francs. He kept his promise, gaining both fans and political enemies in the process.  

In 1953 he was hired by the country of Algeria to repeat his performance by creating 1600 urban housing units in 365 days, while maintaining respect for local architectural style.  Once again, the project was a great success, and it brought him work in Iran.

Pouillon returned to France to work for the prominent architecture firm of Auguste Perret.  In 1961, as part of a major national effort, Pouillon was commissioned to build a group of low-cost apartment buildings on the outskirts of Paris.  In order to realize his vision for the project, Pouillon acted as both its building contractor and its architect.  At the time, it was illegal for architects to serve as contractors.  Pouillon’s enemies in Paris brought his illegal actions under scrutiny, and he was sent to jail.

Determined to escape after eighteen months in prison, Pouillon staged a hunger strike and feigned sickness.  He was moved to a minimum security wing for treatment and allowed a visit by his brother.  During the visit, his brother smuggled in a rope, which Pouillon tied around his torso inside his shirt.  Once night fell, Pouillon used the rope to climb out of a three-story window.  With the help of the Sorbonne Network, a group of French nationals dedicated to Algerian independence, Pouillon escaped to Fiesole, Italy, and then to North Africa. The Sorbonne Network helped Pouillon compile a strong case to assert his innocence.  Pouillon returned to France in 1963 to defend his actions in a sensational trial.  The court ruled him innocent of his original crime, but sentenced him to a reduced penalty for escaping.  Continuing his artistic efforts, Pouillon spent his days in prison writing a novel, The Savage Stones (Les Pierres sauvages in French), which won a major French literary prize in 1964.  The novel is a fictionalized account of the medieval construction of the Abbey of Thoronet by Bernard de Clairvaux.

Not surprisingly, Pouillon felt disenchanted with France and, once out of prison, decided to follow his friend Jacques Chevallier back to Algeria, where he devoted himself to helping the newly independent country develop hotels, tourist complexes, office buildings, post offices, and universities.  He also finished his memoirs, published in 1968. Both his memoirs and The Savage Stones are still in print today.

Although pardoned in 1971 by Georges Pompidou, Pouillon remained in Algeria.  From there, he opened Le Jardin de Flore, an art book publishing house in Paris that republished old works and sold them cheaply in the hope of bringing great literature to the greatest number of people.

Pouillon returned to France in 1972 and began his search for a historic property to restore and call home.  After discovering the Château de Belcastel, an 11th-century fortress in the Aveyron valley, he purchased the ruins in 1974 and hired ten Algerian master craftsmen to aid him in its reconstruction.  Throughout the eight years he spent working on the Château, Pouillon continued to work extensively in Algeria and France.  Along with many hotels, villas, spas, harbors and universities in Algeria, some of Pouillon’s work during those years included a monastery in Provence for repatriated Algerian nuns (1976), a center for the Ministry of Culture near Versailles (1984), and the administrative subdivision for the Music Academy in Paris (1985).   Pouillon also helped restore Le Colombier house in Belcastel in 1979.

Pouillon was awarded the Legion of Honor by Francois Mitterrand in 1985 to thank him for his architectural contributions to his country.  Pouillon also posthumously received an award from Algeria for the whole of his work from 1964-1984. In 2012 the 100th Anniversary of his birth was proclaimed a day of National recognition by the French government.

Pouillon married four times during his life and was the father of six children.  He converted to Islam in order to marry an Iranian princess, but then changed his mind about the union at the last minute and returned to France to marry Vera, the mother of his daughter, Catherine.  Vera later confirmed that Pouillon remained a devoted Muslim in his heart.

In keeping with his egalitarian ideology, Pouillon requested that, at his death, his body be buried in the small cemetery of Belcastel in an unmarked grave.  His wish was honored.  He died in the Château de Belcastel on July 24th, 1986, and joined the ranks of generations of craftsmen who remain anonymous in their graves.