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France Honors Rick Bell

On February 1st, 2013, Rick Bell received the insignia of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Lettres at the Center for Architecture in New York. Antonin Baudry, Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy in the United States, presided over the ceremony and delivered the following speech.

Ladies and Gentleman,

Good evening and thank you to Rick Bell and the staff of the Center for Architecture for their warm welcome.

Tonight, we are gathered to honor an exceptional man, a man who is one of the most avid connoisseurs and promoters of French architecture and urban planning in the US.

In fact, very few people have so intensively worked to foster French-American dialogue on these topics. Rick Bell you are our man.

Cher Rick, as Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, it is my sincere pleasure to honor you tonight. I would like to extend a warm greeting to your wife Polly Bell, your son Thomas Bell and all of your friends who have come to show their support and admiration.

Dear Rick,

Your long lasting love of France and your passion for intellectual and cultural exchanges have led to constant and constructive dialogue between our two countries. Your dedication and drive to connect both sides of the Atlantic transforms the people around you and builds a bright future for us all.

You have worked so diligently to foster knowledge about French architecture in the US and are a true “passeur” of culture. But in fact, I must admit… you are also a real “agent double” or double agent: with one foot in each country, you bridge the small sea of water between us and move so fluidly between France and the US. You make connections and collaborations happen.

On this side of the Atlantic, you serve as Executive Director of the AIA New York, where you actively engage the architectural community and New York citizens to work together. Under your leadership, policy issues such as accessibility, active design, affordable housing, climate resilience, and energy code are priorities. For instance, you have been very instrumental in creating the New York New Visions program which rebuilt Lower Manhattan.

But you also work for the French.  Indeed, in your role as a double agent, you facilitate debates between professionals and policymakers in our two countries, and highlight convergences between them that they might not always realize themselves.  Last December, you had a central role in organizing the 2012 French-American Sustainable Cities program with the French Ministry of Culture and the French-American Foundation. This week-long program brought together French and American experts in urban planning and sustainability to share and compare their experiences for the 21st century.

Cher Rick, you are not an undercover double agent but on the contrary, you are open in your activities. So please allow me to give a little bit more away on this double agent identity.

To begin, I heard that you’ve always dreamt of living in France. And so, after obtaining degrees from Columbia and Yale, France was the obvious destination to study abroad in 1978.

You embarked on your voyage, and the very bucolic town of Lussan became your home, a small village near Uzès in the South of France,– very different from Coney Island where you grew up!

You began as an intern for your friend François Confino, and you took care of his five-year-old son, Raphael when his parents were away.

There you could be found:

- living in a 13th-century farmhouse

- driving an oversized truck, a Citroën Type H, to Nîmes to make prints or…

- Driving to Paris in a hurry,

And you made sure to attend the Cannes Film Festival even if it meant sleeping in the back of the Citroën Type H.

These experiences were most certainly different than those you later undertook in the US but you learned a great deal !

You told us that your most valuable lessons learned in France included:

- How to draw in ink on vellum and how to use a razor blade as an eraser.

- How to work with the local building code, particularly with regard to historic properties.

- How to eat.

- How to drink.

- How to cut grapes during the vendange.

- How to drive an old truck with a “double débrayage”!

You really could be made a Chevalier for all these achievements as it is not easy to master this “art de vivre”.

But, dear Rick, I have so much more to say…

Yes, you learned to eat and drink but you also discovered (and again, I’m quoting your own words) a new way of thinking, imagining, and looking at the world--more precisely at buildings, in both practical and theoretical terms.

When you returned to the US, you used your knowledge of both cultures and constructed bridges.

After working as Chief Architect and Assistant Commissioner at the NYC Department of Design & Construction, and as a design partner at Warner Burns Toan Lunde Architects & Planners, you were elected a Fellow of the AIA in 2000 for your work in public facility design.

You then helped to create the Center for Architecture. This wonderful building, designed by Andrew Berman and located in the heart of Greenwich Village, opened its doors in 2004. The center creates a constant dialogue with the public, hosts conferences and exhibitions of high quality and, because of you, is an important place for French-American exchange.

Indeed, your time in France served you well and provided you with two of your most important double-agent weapons:

  • One: Your familiarity with the intricacies of urban policies in our two countries and

  • Two: Your friendship with all the protagonists of the French architectural world. You invited many greats such as Christian de Portzamparc, Frédéric Borel, Grand Prix d’architecture 2011, and Jacques Ferrier, the architect of the French Pavillion in Shanghai, to the Center for Architecture and introduced them to the American public.

But you did not stop with presenting French architects to the American public. Rather you cultivated the most profound friendships and shared with them on the deepest level. It is your generosity that makes you unique: your willingness to bridge cultures and your openness to grow together. Presenting is one thing ; understanding, learning and growing alongside another culture is another thing. This is how you build your bridges, cher Rick, through your humanity and kindness.

At the French Cultural Services, we are very thankful to have such a great partner and collaborator.

- In November 2009, we organized an exciting colloquium together at the Center for Architecture, in collaboration with Cooper Union School of Architecture and Columbia University, to study and compare New York and Paris’s urban planning policies. On this occasion, you masterfully highlighted the common points of policies on both sides of the Atlantic.

- In 2011, when the French Ministry of Sustainable Development asked Jean-Louis Cohen, professor at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, to organize an urban project workshop in New York, you were fundamental in preparing and organizing this research trip for about 150 French professionals. You prepared the on-site visits and suggested names of possible speakers for the panels.

You played a central role in the workshop’s success.

- And just a few months ago, dear Rick, you hosted a discussion involving young architects from France and the US, such as The Freaks Architects and Marc Kushner.  It was an excellent occasion for these young professionals, to meet and share with one another their first experiences in both countries.

- And the work is far from over! France is grateful for all that you have done in the past and will continue to do in the future.

Cher Rick,

You have received countless awards, including the prestigious "Newsmaker of the Year’’ from Engineering News Record.

Tonight, for your exceptional professional and civic achievements, your friendship to France, your ability to build bridges between cultures and for your role as a terrific double agent, we honor you as a French knight.

Cher Rick Bell, au nom du Gouvernement français, je vous fais Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.