RSAP je suis Charlie aussi

Rice School of Architecture Paris faculty and students gathered in front of their home base during the second week of classes. From left, Barbara Wilson, Brianna Rogers, Dan Baklik, Rachel Estes, architect and teacher Clément Blanchet, Jae Boggess, Assistant Director Garry White, Gail Chen, architect and teacher Tarik Oualalou, Gina Rodriguez, Michael Kapinus and Patrick Daurio. Photo by John Casbarian

Rice School of Architecture Paris students reflect on first week in a city under siege

The architect’s primary tool became a symbol of free speech when Parisians took to the streets bearing pencils a few weeks ago.

That was not lost on Rice School of Architecture Paris (RSAP) students who were among the estimated 2 million to fill the city’s broad avenues in a demonstration for unity and peace in the aftermath of violence that left 17 innocent people dead.

Nine Rice students are in Paris for the semester that officially began Jan. 12 at the university’s only satellite campus on foreign soil – or, for that matter, anywhere. But all arrived the week before and found themselves witness to an initially terrifying and then uplifting time in the city’s history.

On Jan. 7, hours before graduate student Michael Kapinus boarded a Paris-bound airplane in the United States, two gunmen burst into the editorial offices of satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo and began shooting, killing 11 people and injuring 11 others. They shot a French National Police officer to death shortly afterward and fled, kicking off a two-day manhunt that ended with their deaths.

“It was a little unnerving,” Kapinus said of waking up to news of the attack before heading to the airport. “Not that I was fearful for myself, but I saw the news that morning and immediately started looking to see where it happened in relation to the school and to where I was going to be living, which is even a little closer.”

“It’s about a half-hour walk from RSAP to the Charlie Hebdo office,” said John Casbarian, Rice’s Harry K. and Albert K. Smith Professor of Architecture and founding director of the Paris program. RSAP is in the 12th arrondissement, southeast of the Bastille. The newspaper’s office is on the edge of the Marais in the 11th arrondissement, to the northwest of the Bastille.

Michael Kapinus, center, at the Jan. 11 march in Paris. "There was a staggering amount of people in the street," he said. Photo by Dan Baklik

RSAP, founded in 2002, welcomes up to 10 graduate or fifth-year undergraduate architecture students from Rice and other institutions to study for a semester in Paris. Students in the fall or spring sessions participate in an advanced design studio on urban issues along with history and theory, French culture and language studies.

Casbarian was in Houston during the attack and subsequent events, which included the deaths of four hostages and a policewoman at the hands of a gunman in a grocery on the outskirts of Paris. French police believe that event was related to the initial attack. The al-Qaida branch in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attacks as retaliation for the humor magazine’s portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad.

“That Wednesday, I remember waking up at about 5:30 as usual and getting an email from Garry (White), the resident assistant director,” Casbarian said. “He wrote, ‘You know, everyone’s arriving but there’s this big incident with Charlie Hebdo, and I’ll keep you posted.'”

Casbarian caught up with the news online and, with White, quickly put Rice’s safety protocols into effect. They asked each of the nine students to check in immediately. “Obviously, we wanted them to keep calm and be vigilant, and we asked that if any of them were afraid or had concerns to let us know. Of course, nobody did; they’re mature students and they understood what was going on.”

“I was struck by the calm and mature manner in which they reacted and adapted to their new surroundings in these conditions,” White said. “Despite experiencing a very dramatic moment, they immediately got their bearings in Paris.”

Barbara Wilson, a fifth-year undergraduate from Houston, arrived in Paris the day before the attack and, jet-lagged, slept through it in her 12th arrondissement apartment. “I woke up in the afternoon and had many texts and Facebook messages asking if I was okay,” she said. “I then saw the reports all over the Internet and TV. When I looked up where this had occurred, it was pretty shocking that it was close to where I am living.”

Wilson said a local barkeeper told her a few days later that Parisians “are very scared right now and that was why the streets, bars and restaurants were so empty. … He warned us not to go to any of the tourist attractions for a while.”

Marchers filled the streets of Paris in a show of unity on Jan. 11. Photo by Jae Boggess

Rachel Estes of Omaha, Neb., also a fifth-year undergraduate at Rice, arrived on the day of the attack and said she only became aware of it when her landlord showed her how to use the television in her 11th arrondissement apartment. “I glimpsed a headline that said ‘shootings in Paris,'” she recalled. “I am not even sure that he knew what had happened.”

All nine were at RSAP Jan. 9, the day the manhunt ended. “Garry meets with all the students the Friday before the start of the semester to orient them and to dispense with all the housekeeping stuff,” Casbarian said.

“There was a sense at the time that (the pursuit) was most likely a pretty isolated event,” Kapinus recalled. “Most people were carrying on with their daily existence as much as they could, but we heard lots of sirens.”

Estes said she and her roommate, graduate student Judith (Jae) Boggess, avoided the area around Charlie Hebdo until the manhunt ended. “We also kept a more careful eye on the news those first few days,” she said. “The day of the grocery store hostage situation, a woman stopped us on the street because she heard us speaking English, and she was afraid we weren’t aware that something else was going on.”

“You hear about the revolutionary spirit of the French,” Kapinus said. “I think there’s a truth to that, especially when something like this happens. Everyone is engaging.” He said Parisians didn’t hesitate to bring up 9/11 when they learned Kapinus and his friends were American. “It gave us a way to talk about it.”

Kapinus took part with fellow graduate students and roommates Patrick Daurio and Dan Baklik in the Jan. 11 demonstration. “We got up on Sunday and saw what was going on before we left the apartment,” he said. “It looked like a very peaceful march, and it was just a few blocks away,” he said.

“There was a staggering number of people in the street, all ages, and the closer we got to the route of the march, the more people there were. Everybody was carrying signs or wearing the ‘je suis Charlie’ patch on their coats,” Kapinus said.

Estes and Boggess joined the march as well. “I was surprised by how many kids were in the crowd,” Estes said. She described the mood as very somber.

A memorial to an officer killed in the attack at Charlie Hebdo. Photo by Barbara Wilson

“At first we thought we should maybe keep our distance for fear that there might be some risk of violence with all the people planning to gather there,” Boggess said. “I was actually amazed at how calm and peaceful the march was.”

Kapinus agreed. “You’d walk along and people were talking; then somebody might start a chant. People would join in and then would all start clapping together. But it was not a hooting-and-hollering kind of march. It was almost polite.”

Estes noted evidence in the crowd that not all were in league with Charlie Hebdo, which she said had “criticized many, many people, not only Islamic extremists but also other religious groups, such as Christians and Jews. … This is why we also saw signs that read ‘Je ne suis pas d’accord avec Charlie, mais je suis Charlie,’ which means ‘I do not agree with Charlie, but I am Charlie.'”

“The attack has not changed my feelings about Paris or RSAP,” Wilson said. “It was quite amazing to see the city come together so quickly and show their support.”

“I have to say I am impressed by the fierceness with which Parisians value their right to free speech and with the solidarity shown in the wake of these tragedies,” Boggess added.

“We are very fortunate to have been able to experience one of the great acts of solidarity in our time,” Baklik said. “France has a difficult time ahead in figuring out how to come to terms with what has happened, but I have seen the capacity it holds for exercising liberté, egalité and fraternité.”

The experiences of their first week in Paris can’t help but give the students a more worldly perspective, Casbarian said.

“It’s unfortunate that our students arrived right at that point, but I’m relieved that it didn’t cause the city to radically alter its way of life,” he said, adding they’ll get used to seeing armed guards in the streets. “For those of us who have traveled to Europe for many years, we’ve seen this before.

“These are experiences that make you aware of the difficulties going on in the world, encouraging a debate about problems and issues that, while seemingly peripheral to what we do as architects, we certainly have to take into account.”

“We’re constantly trying to engage politics and society through architecture, so it gives us something to connect with and talk about amongst each other,” Kapinus said.

Estes said the attacks “reminded me how important it is to understand the other people we share the world with.”

With new perspective, she said, “We can begin to understand our own strengths and weaknesses. Only then can we hope to improve ourselves and our relationships with those around us.

“So the world isn’t perfect? It never has been. It never will be. I am not giving up.”


About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.