Benoît Bartherotte

Interview & Photography by: Mart Engelen

Benoît Bartherotte
 

Benoît Bartherotte, La Pointe du Cap Ferret, France 2015


 

The French rebel with a cause talks about how he managed to save his childhood paradise at La Pointe du Cap Ferret by constructing a dyke against the erosion caused by the powerful Teychan current.
 

Mart Engelen: In 1985, more than 30 years ago, nobody would have believed that it would be possible to stop the erosion here at La Pointe du Cap Ferret, which had been losing a hundred metres of land per year. But you have managed to stop this process by constructing a dyke more than 400 metres long and 37 metres high against the powerful Teychan current which was nibbling away at La Pointe. Are you satisfied with your achievement?
Benoît Bartherotte: Of course. As far as I can see, I stopped the erosion which was destroying my childhood paradise. Imagine you see a damaged landscape: that was the case here as the coast had been eroded by anthropomorphic action; that is to say not by nature, since this erosion was the result of a hydraulic problem created by the hand of man. Before 1850, because it was not fixed, the sand moved with the wind and the tides. The prevailing northwest winds pushed the sand from the mouth of the Gironde, which is 100 kilometres north of here, towards the headland of Cap Ferret. This is why it kept growing over the centuries: as there were no pines, no plants, the sand was pushed by the wind. Everything was quite golden, like the Dune du Pyla. And then the sand began to be pushed to the other side, creating small islands that then joined together, piled up by the wind into a dune. That is why there is a dune 118 metres high in front of us. The whole seafront is now covered with pine trees. They are not hills: 150 years ago, everything was golden like the dunes and there was no plant cover, and the sand would not have been stable. But there was an obstacle behind the dunes: the ancient privately-owned forest of La Teste. The forest was a natural barrier and the sand was lifted like a snowdrift and kept piling up, making dunes over a hundred metres high. On this side, the sand piled up at La Pointe du Cap Ferret, where erosion was already active. An erosion current came from Arcachon. Cap Ferret is just a sandbank; it lacks a solid base. It does not rest on solid earth; in essence it is marine territory; it is made of sand, and this sand can be swept away if the pattern of currents ever changes. The flow of sand used to be so strong – it was stronger than the erosion – that Cap Ferret used to gain one kilometre per century. This flow of sand stopped in 1850 when people started planting pine trees to stabilise the dunes at the Pointe de Grave, where now there are 100 kilometres covered in vegetation. The sand is not pushed here anymore but, on the other hand, the current continues to come from Arcachon. Since I was born, I’ve seen one kilometre disappear. But I also noticed that the swell from the mouth of the Gironde was still endlessly transporting sand to the tip of the peninsula. So, I said to myself, we must keep this sand here. We no longer have the wind-blown sand in the enormous quantities that created these dunes – the Dune de l’Herbe and the Dune du Piquey, which are 40 metres high – and of course the famous Dune du Pyla on the other side of the Bassin. So, I thought, the sand isn’t arriving here anymore on the wind but the tide transports it southwards onto the bank. If I can build a dyke to stop the and, it will accumulate here and
I can regain the lost land. I naturally became interested in this property, which belonged to our neighbours, because it was the only one offering a seafront on the Bassin, some 500 metres long and with a view to the east. I could not imagine doing this work on our land, which only had a 25 metre-long seafront with houses above. I was not going to manoeuvre sixty truckloads a day with machines. To fight a battle, you first have to have a battlefield. On average, the tip of the peninsula lost 41 metres every year between 1973
and 1980. From the 1980s onward, it was losing 100 metres. I began to fight against this phenomenon in 1985. We remember battles but we
always forget the fields they were fought on. Yet battles are named after the battlefield! They are not named after the generals or the marshals. We do not say ‘the battle of Wellington’ or ‘the battle of Napoleon’, we say ‘the battle of Waterloo’: it’s the field that matters. And mine was precisely here! And it didn’t happen by chance; the battlefield was actually called Carpe diem!
ME: What was Cap Ferret like when you were young? How did your family become connected with Cap Ferret?
BB: My family has had roots here for over a hundred years. My grandfather loved to sail. He had salt-water in his veins. He was in love with this area and it’s thanks to him that we are here. Every summer, he rented a villa on the other side, called Babord. The villa was one of the first houses that was built there. It was on the water and he could use his sailing boat. My grandfather was there during World War I. He was a seasoned sailor. At the time we considered Cap Ferret as a sort of annexe to that side. There was no road access to the peninsula. Over land, you had to walk or ride on horseback in the sand for 20 kilometres,
and that’s not very comfortable and it’s even worse in a cart. So people only went there by boat. My grandfather’s sailors had wooden shacks here. They came from La Teste, where they had been established for centuries. He recruited the bravest sailors from the families of La Teste. These were the ones who owned wooden shacks on the tip of Cap Ferret. They would spend three or four months each year in Cap Ferret, fishing and hunting. They very rarely came with their families.
ME: Rich people had houses on the other side of the Bassin and the workers, the fishermen, had their shacks on this side, is that right?
BB: That’s right, but I wouldn’t call them workers! That would have been a notion unfamiliar to them. They were fishermen! The big difference is that workers are often dependent on someone else. Here, things were completely different. As we say in French, “Free man, you will always cherish the sea!” The sea is the home of free people. Of course, when they began working on bigger ships, they were crew but we never use the term ‘worker’ for crewmen. A ‘crew’ encapsulates the idea of a team, as in soccer or rugby. The sailors of La Teste were selfemployed. They didn’t work for a skipper, they were independent. They came here in their rowing boats, called pinassottes. Sometimes they sold the sardines they had caught to the canning factories on the other side as these were near the beach in Arcachon. Arcachon had been a ‘town’ since 1850; it was the town of the Bassin d’Arcachon. It used to be in the middle of nowhere; there was just a sailors’ chapel. The original settlement was in La Teste, which was safely inland. People had lived there since Roman times. But the settlement was very modest.
ME: Let’s get back to your story now.
BB: Well, when I was a boy, my mother wanted us to leave our villa in Le Moulleau, near Arcachon. This became a reality in her mind after World War II. She had became aware of the life of refugees during the Spanish Civil War. She knew of the destitution caused by the war and discovered what the desolation of war was really like. Until then, she had only heard about it as she had been born into an affluent family. I have found letters in my mother’s desk which were written by my greatuncle, my grandfather’s brother. He was my mother’s guardian because my grandfather died when she was nine. There were five children in the family but she was my grandfather’s favourite; she had always been adored by her father and, up to her death, she revered him.
ME: So it’s your mother who first had the idea of coming here?
BB: Yes, she had been coming here since she was a little girl. She would sail across for the day and then return home to Arcachon, in the evening. To her, the shacks on this side, which had no running water, symbolised the spirit of Evangelical poverty. She pictured the fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. Her dream of turning her back on her former life was to have children and bring them up in these wooden shacks in a spirit of poverty and to give them the taste for poverty. That’s what is paradoxical and incredible, because this place, which was a place of destitution, has become very fashionable today with all these wealthy people who build wooden houses here. It is a paradox which goes completely against the original spirit of the place.
ME: What do you think would be an ideal situation for Cap Ferret today? I’ve heard that you are creating a foundation.
BB: Obviously, I am very upset and I am against the current development of Cap Ferret because this spirit of destitution and poverty is completely opposite that of the people we attract here. I don’t mind having very rich people here, if they move along the path towards destitution and poverty. But if they go the other way and seek wealth, it is completely different. It is an utter mistake and so, for me, the ideal situation would be that this place is managed by people who understand it, by people who don’t seek development at all costs but who, on the contrary, are very restrained in this respect. I wish they would step back and understand that it’s in the best interests of the area that it remains preserved and as little developed as possible.
ME: Why is Cap Ferret unique in the world for you? What does loving Cap Ferret mean for you?
BB: That’s a difficult question… Loving Cap Ferret is like loving one’s homeland, like loving one’s motherland. That’s to say you can love your land—and, why not, a sandbank—even if it is not land. When there are generations of culture and love for a place, it is passed on. It’s a culture which we have inside us and which we are going to defend as we would defend a civilisation. Deep down, this place is not just a sandbank, it is much more than that. It’s a way of being and a way of life. ME: In 1985 you decided to settle down permanently and live here with your family at the tip of the peninsula. You built your wooden house thanks to the proceeds of the sale of your fashion house Jacques Esterel.
BB: One day, we were in the restaurant ‘Hortense’. It was a very small business when it opened before the war. We have eaten there with the family ever since it opened. On the back of my plate, I had drawn the wooden house (‘La Cabane’) I wanted to build here. As a matter of fact I drew it exactly as it is now. I sketched the environment all around. Incredibly it was just as it is now. The day I drew it, I also bumped into my childhood friends who were joiners or carpenters. And I told them that I wanted to build a wooden house like that. In other words, I wanted to build a fishermen’s wooden shack like the ones I had known when I was a child. They told me, “We don’t build those kinds of houses; they are like our grandfathers’ houses! You are not going to make us build our grandfathers’ houses. It’s a disgrace!” But our family have always tried to look for something that was like the first day of the
world. I have had this rooted deep inside me ever since I was a child.
ME: What do you think are the criteria for building a perfect cabane?
BB: For me, there is an archetypal cabane as there is archetypal housing in Oceania or on other islands. For example, I can draw a certain type of habitat in Java or in Bali, in Indochina or anywhere else. Each corresponds to a culture, each is in accordance with a country and it is the same here.
ME: You came with your family; your children grew up here. This choice is a very unusual one. What is the spirit behind it?
BB: It was a very minimalist spirit.
ME: Very few people would want to live like that…
BB: Yes. It was difficult for the people who came to visit me at Rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris, in my 4,000 square metres opposite the Hôtel Bristol, to understand.
ME: You remind me of Harrison Ford in the film Mosquito Coast [laughs].
BB: I left Paris very suddenly because the life I had wasn’t the life I wanted. I could do it, but what I had really wanted since I was a child was to live in a cabane. Obviously, with all the money I’ve thrown into the water since I started, I could be living in a palace by now. [laughs] But with this life, I organised my poverty while transforming the means I had into something which is very beautiful and which is completely unique. My cousin, the artist Jules de Balincourt, calls it a ‘tyrannical utopia.’ He is right. It’s the best definition. It is no coincidence that he’s a remarkable painter. To paint like him, you have to have a very good ability to synthesise.
ME: What do you mean by ‘tyrannical utopia’?
BB: It is tyrannical in the sense that one can’t escape the natural order. Everybody who has tried to change this order has failed. This dyke is a travail de bénédictin, as we say in French: ‘a painstaking task’. My name is Benoît. Do you know who Saint Benedict (Saint Benoît in French) was?
ME: No.
BB: It is very interesting, if you want to know me. Benedict lived at the end of the Roman Empire when the barbarians started invading Rome. He had the idea of protecting endangered Roman culture—all the manuscripts which deserved to be protected. So he founded Monte Cassino, an island-like monastery. He realised that the barbarians may be all around, they could invade everything, come by water, but we would have an island and on this island we would protect the rule and civilisation. He is the founder of the regular clergy. There are two sorts of clergy: the secular clergy, who live with the people, and the regular clergy. If the people deviate from the rule, the secular clergy will live at a distance from the rule, whereas the regular clergy choose to live isolated from the world and to abide by the rule.
ME: Do you consider yourself to be a religious person? I think I am on an original and universal path. I have no spiritual problem in Japan, in Arabia, in Africa. Anywhere really. I manage to get along very well, I have a very universal key. I am Catholic in the original meaning of the term: in ancient Greek, 700 years before Christ, catholicos meant ‘universal’.
ME: You’ve been defending the tip of Cap Ferret for all these years now and while doing so you have been confronted with different traits of the human spirit. Given this experience, how would you describe the human race?
BB: I rather trust the human race, being a monarchist. I could be reactionary and doubt the human race but that’s not the case. On the contrary, I am full of hope, I am sure that life has meaning…
ME: Could you explain what you mean by this? I am sure that life has meaning. This is why I like it so much. I believe
that if you want to consider life and like it in spite of what can be horrible in it, you can for instance look up at the sky at night. This is a wonderful place to look at the sky. Towards the ocean, there is absolutely no light pollution. You can see the night sky, you see all this incredible order; it is not chaotic. It is order itself. It is harmony. How is it possible that billions of things, which circulate like that, do not crash into each other all the time, while we are so few on this Earth and still we crash into each other? Watching the sky from such a distance is an incomparable experience; it’s a model of pure harmony. And when you see that, you say to yourself that chaos is when we see things very close up. If we see them from a great distance, it all seems harmonious. This means that if we take a step back, we may come to terms with the worst things, even what plagues us. A plague is a natural disaster, like if my dyke collapsed in a great storm, and you have to prepare yourself for it. You even should go as far as welcoming it. ME: You had a fight with the mayor. I believe you are a person who tells the truth, who is not ashamed of speaking your mind. Where does that come from?
BB: I like the truth because I like clarity and light. The truth is when things are enlightened. I trust the order of things; this is why I am always happy to shed light on things because I think that things will always clear up.
ME: Were you also like that when you were in business? Definitely! As a result, I said that things were wrong in haute couture in France—that couture was the opposite of elegance. I gave an interview when I was thirty in which I evoked what Pierre Berger had said to me. “Monsieur Bartherotte, you should not ‘spit in the soup’” a French way of saying ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds you.’ I answered, “Dear representatives of the fashion world, I didn’t know that we were selling soup! But since we are, I’ll leave it to you!” They were the haute couture trade union and that made things clear to them.
ME: Do you run into trouble with people who do not like to hear the truth?
BB: I’m not saying I’m telling the truth. I try to say things as clearly as possible. Truth is an absolute term; nobody holds the truth. And I expect other people to do the same as far as we are both concerned. I am not afraid to face up to the truth, and I don’t like people who are afraid of the truth. You need discipline to fight this fear. It’s very difficult; you have to learn to fight back. It’s much more important to learn to use all these strengths to tell the truth and to find a way to say it. It’s much more important than learning to lie. I believe I owe this to the Jesuits. We often say that someone who has a devious turn of mind has a Jesuit spirit. In reality, it is a mistake to reduce the Jesuits to a devious mind. It’s pejorative. In fact, the Jesuits’ spirit has to do with the art of expressing the truth and making it come across. It is not always easy to convey the truth. This is why it is necessary to work a lot to be a good painter, to take good photos or to build a good dyke. When you are wrong, you end up facing a power that is much bigger than you and you choose to work against forces that are infinitely bigger than you. You have to tame the beast. You can’t be wrong, and so you need to be precise. You need to meditate. And to respect the strength of nature that is in front of you. My dyke is a bit like a sail—a huge sail which is 450 metres long and facing the strength, not of the wind but of a current of 400 million tons twice a day. That’s the current I have to redirect. I have to be very precise. If I ever make a mistake, a disaster could happen very fast. I have to be very calm and I have to think slowly and not lose my cool.
ME: Do you approve of the environmental talk of politicians? What is your opinion on this subject?
BB: There is a paradox, politicians look at the short term. Their horizon is the next election, generally two years, five years, or even one year away… These periods are far too short: when the term is seven years, politicians find it far too long. De Gaulle decided the President’s term of office should last seven years; we cut it down to five. Politicians look for the shortest term. They have hardly been elected before they start focusing on the next election and so they don’t do what should be done. It’s exactly what I’ve said about customers; it’s the same difference between a business and a brothel. A person who does everything the customer asks for, all the voters ask for, works in a brothel. If you want to work in a great business, you should only do what is needed. I believe that sustainability is being capable of looking at things on a long-term basis. I started building my dyke thirty years ago. I knew I was taking on a task that would keep me busy for at least several decades.
ME: How would you like to be remembered?
BB: I believe that when you express yourself as I express myself, that’s not a concern. You are only interested in expressing yourself. This means that you will be very satisfied with what remains of your accomplishments. What you have accomplished is what expresses you. As for you, Mart, all the photos, all the portraits that you have made, not only represent people but they also represent your vision of these people. How you see them expresses who you are. There is a common denominator in the photos you take and in the pictures you choose. Obviously, there are things I neglect. You cannot be completely focused on everything. That is a very difficult task. So in reality, when you are dead, the line that you followed will be seen from a distance. The longer I have been dead, the clearer people will see it. When I look at the sky and see the harmony, I say to myself that if all those things do not crash into each other, if they live in harmony while there are billions and billions of them, they are following their own trajectories. They
all driven by their own attractions! There is a complete equilibrium between the attractions. I truly believe that if everybody obeyed his own attractions, such as they really are; if they did not live in envy, things would be on Earth as in Heaven.
ME: I don’t know. Maybe that would lead to an anarchistic world…
BB: No! That would not exactly be an anarchistic world. It would rather be a monarchistic world, a universal one. But this universal order, this harmony, is very hard to achieve because a lot of people live in envy, they want something that is not themselves. They believe they know what they want but that isn’t really what they actually want.
ME: What do you think of the paradox of those famous people whose life is miles away from yours, who visit you here as if you were an odd fish?
BB: Well, I am indeed an odd sort of fish! [laughs] It’s obvious that I have put myself in the hands of fate by choosing to settle down here on this pointe of sand which I have seen with my own eyes cut back by the sea by one kilometre since my childhood. As I said, my cousin Jules calls it l’utopie tyrannique because I embarked on this adventure with my wife and children, who have been forced to live this utopia day by day. Jules witnessed this with them when he was a child and, as he likes to say, it has strongly inspired his art. Tom Sachs, a sculptor who Jules suggested should come and see me, came up with a very funny word to define this utopia which brought us together: we are Briconautes. It was said with a lot of humour, especially since I really think that the means which we persist in using can seem pathetic faced with the elements. But faith alone is capable of moving mountains. Some of the people who visit me here are really nice. Sometimes I invite them in for a cup of coffee. I make time for them because I can see
we are driven by a similar energy. Among them, there are also famous people I have never heard of before. To quote from the lines of Paul Valéry which are inscribed on the fronton of the Musée de l’Homme at Trocadero in Paris, “Il dépend de celui qui passe que je parle ou que je me taise, que je sois tombe ou trésor. Ami, n’entre ici sans désir.”
ME: Thank you for this conversation.
BB: Thank you.

 
—Copyright 2016 Mart Engelen
 
 
 

Benoît Bartherotte
 

Benoît Bartherotte, La Pointe du Cap Ferret, France 2015

 
 

Benoît Bartherotte
 

Benoît Bartherotte at his beach in La Pointe du Cap Ferret, France 2015