Jean Nouvel Wins Architecture's Top Prize

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 31, 2008

The visionary French architect Jean Nouvel, whose style is broad and adventurous and always distinctive, has won this year's Pritzker Prize, the most prestigious international award for excellence in architecture.

"My interest has always been in an architecture which reflects the modernity of our epoch as opposed to the rethinking of historical references," Nouvel, 62, said in a statement yesterday. He will receive a $100,000 grant and will be honored at a ceremony at the Library of Congress on June 2.

Nouvel, whose buildings in this country are limited to a handful of highly regarded projects, wanted to be an artist, but was diverted into architecture by his parents. His often sculptural buildings demonstrate a keen eye for surface texture and light, an artist's vision that is intellectual, distinctive, subtle and sometimes breathtakingly innovative. No two look quite alike, yet all bear a strong family resemblance.

"My work deals with what is happening now -- our techniques and materials, what we are capable of doing today," he said. And yet his work very much stretches the definition of what is "capable" of being done today. In the early 1980s he designed the Arab World Institute in Paris, which included a wall made of adjustable metal "lenses." From a distance it suggests a piece of precious metal that has been stamped with a repetitive pattern, but from the inside, the small portals create a wild cascade of polka-dot light patterns.

The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, whose new complex opened in 2006, includes a long and daringly cantilevered arm, from which windows frame precise views of the city's muscular and gritty landscape. And a tower being built in Manhattan twists and turns into an almost skeletal diaphanousness as it soars above the adjacent Museum of Modern Art -- a symbolically satisfying site for an architect whose almost every work can bear serious artistic scrutiny.

"The jury acknowledged the 'persistence, imagination, exuberance, and, above all, an insatiable urge for creative experimentation' as qualities abundant in Nouvel's work," said Thomas J. Pritzker, chairman of the Hyatt Foundation, which created the prize.

The Pritzker Prize, created as a kind of supplement to the Nobel Prizes (which do not have a category for architecture), has become a career-retrospective endorsement of the world's top star architects. Frank Gehry won in 1989, Renzo Piano in 1998, Rem Koolhaus in 2000 and Richard Rogers last year. For an architect of Nouvel's stature, it was only a matter of time.

The award ceremony moves from year to year. The current Pritzker Prize marks the 30th year of the award and will lead the Hyatt Foundation back to Washington, where the first Pritzker was given in 1979 to Philip Johnson.

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