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Architecture is a frame of mind

Jean Nouvel has but one ambition: to become the greatest architect of the 21st century

24 November 2010

JEAN Nouvel has but one ambition: to become the greatest architect of the 21st century.

Each of his remarkable buildings seems to bring him one step closer to that ultimate recognition. After the Institut du Monde Arabe and the Fondation Cartier, both in Paris, the Dentsu Tower in Tokyo, Lucerne’s Cultural and Congress Centre and the Agbar Tower in Barcelona and the Quai Branly Museum, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, he is now working on the Louvre, in Abu Dhabi no less, and the Tour de Verre in the heart of Manhattan.

Nouvel is a chameleon with a distinct fondness for wearing black. With his shaven head and well-built frame, he could be described as a cross between Yul Brynner and Orson Welles. Never one to shy from the media, his stature and his way with words are not exactly unassuming.

Nouvel is admired, maligned and envied in equal measure. Something of a megalomaniac, with a dash of the dandy, the architect cultivates a unique image: that of a man whose ambition is nothing short of perfection. With 77 achievements to his name, and another 30 or so projects still ongoing, Nouvel can boast no fewer than 3.23 million mentions on Google.

Dashing constantly from airport to airport and from meeting to meeting, with his eye ever on the next award, he seems insatiable. He is currently working on the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi and the Tour de Verre in Mahattan, having completed in 2006 the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, a showcase for primal art. Jacques Chirac has been known to call him “master”, which often raised a smile among his entourage. Nouvel has leftist leanings, a slight stammer and a fierce desire to build, as if his very life depended on it.

Born in south-west France in 1945, the son of primary school teachers, Nouvel attended the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts with plans to become a visual artist. He ended up working with the Paris-based architects Claude Parent and Paul Virilio, whom he has described as his “architectural fathers”.

A dedicated campaigner, Nouvel was the driving force behind the French architectural movement Mars 1976 and, the following year, the country’s first architectural union. As a young man, he became interested in form and materials, and approached the discipline from a fresh new perspective.

“Very early on, I spoke of ‘de-materialising’, of how space and light should predominate over structure, of how buildings are perceived by night,” he says. In breaking away from the classicism of his profession, Nouvel first became known primarily for his opinions rather than his buildings.

His fellow architects were quick to condemn his rise to fame, dismiss him as pretentious, and, above all, begrudge him his success. Nouvel upset the apple cart because he spoke up and did not mince his words. He was convinced he was right, almost always.

During the 1990s, he even sued the French government for having – as he saw it, quite unfairly – excluded him from the contract for the Stade de France, built for the 1998 World Cup. A suicidal act, perhaps, but for Nouvel, this was first and foremost a question of principle. He finally accepted an amicable agreement in order to avoid a lawsuit.

In 1999, he strongly criticised plans to demolish the disused Renault plant on the Île Seguin, the car builder’s historic headquarters on the outskirts of Paris. A defiant Nouvel said at the time: “It’s as beautiful as the Krak des Chevaliers [the stunning medieval fortress in Syria], but this is the Krak des Ouvriers [‘Castle of the Workers’]. There’ll still be a few of us left to stand in the way of the bulldozers.” His efforts were in vain; the factory is now no more.

Yet Nouvel has remained true to his ideals. Like Le Corbusier before him, he sees architecture more as a frame of mind than an occupation. Some of his critics even claim he is not, in fact, an architect. Indeed, Nouvel himself has his doubts: “I’m so focused on the space, the light, that the architecture often only comes to me right at the end.”

Despite this, however, his work has been hailed throughout the world: the Borromini Prize for his superb Cultural and Congress Centre in Lucerne, the Praemium Imperiale awarded for his work in Japan, France’s prestigious Équerre d’Argent for the Institut du Monde Arabe and later the Lyon Opera House, a gold medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects, Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, and so on.

All that was missing was the most coveted of them all – the Pritzker, the Nobel prize of architecture, which he received in March 2008.

Although often praised, Nouvel rarely emerges triumphant. His bold creations may win him applause, yet they are somehow unsettling, and he is ultimately marked down. So many projects shelved, so many defeats in international competitions, pitted against the likes of Renzo Piano, Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas or IM Pei. Along with Christian de Portzamparc, he is one of the few Frenchmen to have made a name for himself on the world stage. And yet, despite his left-wing credentials, Nouvel was only awarded one of François Mitterrand’s “great projects” – the Institut du Monde Arabe. “I was quickly identified as the man behind the ‘great projects’, when I was actually only responsible for the smallest of them. With the institute, I probably peaked too soon,” he says.

Paradoxically perhaps, his ideas have often won him more praise than they have actual commissions, but then Nouvel has always spoken out about his failures as well as his successes. He “lost” the Stade de France, the Forum des Halles and the Tour sans Fin (“endless tower”) in the futuristic La Défense district of Paris, and then there was the Guggenheim Museum in Tokyo. The list gets just that little bit longer every year.

Here and there, the pain of rejection lingers on, like a series of still open wounds. “The project for Les Halles [the principal shopping area in central Paris], which I worked on for 30 years, is probably the biggest failure of my life,” he laments. In 1996, the Japanese publisher Kenchiku Bunka produced a book charting some 300 of his rejected projects. The myth was born.

Nouvel is hungry – very hungry – and he has set his sights high. Frank Gehry, the genius behind the Guggenheim in Bilbao, sees him as one of the greatest in field. “Jean has always had high ideals and known exactly what he wanted to do: create a new form of architecture, gain recognition,” he says.

Nouvel is a contextual architect, who constantly aims to adapt his work to the surrounding environment. He has a true urban awareness, and likes to immerse himself fully in a place before designing. For him, a building’s setting, the nature around it, are as important as its structure. At the Quai Branly Museum, Nouvel worked alongside the landscape specialist Gilles Clément to create what he was unable to achieve with the Institut du Monde Arabe: an 18,000m2 garden that forms a natural backdrop to collections from throughout the world. “People don’t know it, but the original plan for the institute incorporated gardens and fountains around the building to reflect Arab civilisations,” Nouvel says.

In developing his innovative ideas, the architect is ever mindful of the notion of place. His work must not only adhere to a set of specifications, but also fit harmoniously into a particular landscaped or urban setting – be it collective housing (Nemausus in Nîmes or la Cité Manifeste in Mulhouse), museums (the recent extension to Madrid’s Reina Sofia), shopping centres (the Galeries Lafayette in Berlin), theatres (the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis) or offices (Barcelona’s Agbar Tower).

In 2005, coinciding with an exhibition devoted to him at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark, Nouvel wrote a manifesto, turning architecture into prose. To him, architecture was no longer about building, but about actively campaigning, speaking out against the ignoble nature of a profession he sometimes felt lacked an opinion, a bias, devoid of poetry and ignorant of the places it invaded.

“To be an architect is to be alive to how a place lives and breathes, to feel its heart beating; it means interpreting its rhythms to invent something new,” he wrote. “To be an architect one must also be a poet, for only poetry can create instant metaphysics.” Goethe once described architecture as “music in mid-air”. Nouvel is convinced that there are still some notes to be written.

One of Nouvel’s close associates, the French model-maker Etienne Follenfant, says: “He’s not ‘on trend’; he’s the one out there setting the trend. He’s on a permanent quest, challenging everything he does.”

As if to prove this, Nouvel has also begun to design furniture and objects for the biggest names in the design world: Zeritalia, Sawaya & Moroni, Mateo Grassi and Alessi. A firm believer in fusing beautiful with practical, the architect-cum-designer advocates functionality and simplicity above all. Nouvel strives to stamp his creations with the hallmark of their era.

“He’s a child of his time. He understands the society he lives in”, says Hubert Tonka, one of his most steadfast advisers. Nouvel’s work proclaims the culture of his century, which brings to mind the words of Auguste Perret, the man who rebuilt Le Havre (a city classed as a Unesco world heritage site): “Architecture is what makes beautiful ruins”.

Therein lies the paradox. Living in the present – not looking back at the past, at his work – Nouvel is a man on a quest. He has his eye on the horizon. “You get the feeling that he’s no longer interested in what he’s done,” says a former colleague. For fear of being judged, perhaps, or of being found wanting.

Nouvel is also afraid of solitude. “He can’t bear dining alone,” reveals one of his close friends. “Behind the self-aggrandisement and the rugby-playing physique, there’s a generous and fragile guy.” The bankruptcy of his former business and a string of failures have all taken their toll on him. Friends say he is on top of his debts now. His only possession is a Porsche. The architect prefers to rent his home, so he is not tied down.

At 62, Jean Nouvel now longs for the sun, for southern skies. He claims he wants to take on fewer projects and talks of setting up a foundation somewhere near Nice. More than a decade ago, Libération newspaper ran a special feature on him, entitled: “The architect who refuses to behave.” That makes him smile. With the Pritzker Price, Nouvel the campaigner seems at last to have settled down. For once, he just feels like wearing white.

© InnerFrance

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