Rooted in the Here and Wow

The French architect, winner of the 2008 Pritzker Prize, is known for his broad, adventurous and distinctive style.
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 2, 2008

ST. PAUL DE VENCE, France -- The architect Jean Nouvel dresses all in black, like a French Johnny Cash. On the front of his black sweat shirt, there are often bread crumbs and bits of excellent cheese. That is because on many days his workbench is a restaurant table, like the one here in the hills above the Riviera, covered with stained linen, drained espresso cups, a plate of picked-over cherries, ashtrays, half-eaten tarts and empty bottles of wine. It looks as if a great gastronomical battle has been waged, Man against Lunch, and our side won.

For some reason, celebrity architects, like fashion designers, are expected to adopt little personal flourishes. Le Corbusier had his thick, round glasses. Frank Lloyd Wright favored a swirling cape. Nouvel has his enormous shaved dome, the bigger the better, to hold all his ideas. He needs the extra storage space. At any one time, he must keep the details of a dozen major projects -- a billion dollars' worth of potential construction around the world -- in his head.

Today at the Library of Congress in Washington, the 62-year-old Nouvel will accept the Pritzker Prize, which is awarded annually by the Hyatt Foundation to honor a living architect whose built work represents a significant contribution to humanity. It is often described as the Nobel Prize for architecture, and its recent winners constitute the shortlist of jet-setting "starchitects" whose sports stadiums, museum complexes and luxury high-rises compete with one another in a contest of wow from Kuala Lumpur to Las Vegas. Nouvel now officially joins this elite club, alongside such better-known brand names as Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas and Renzo Piano.

When he is not at his loft offices in Paris -- where he keeps a hundred architects busy -- or flying around visiting clients and jobs, Nouvel can be found at his table on the terrace of the rustic-chic Colombe d'Or, a small family-run inn that is unusual for its modern art collection, its whitewashed walls lined with paintings and doodlings of Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, who paid for their stays with their art. Nouvel spends most of the summer either at his table or a dozen steps away in his simple stone room. His family comes and goes. It is the existence of a monk, but one sluiced with killer Bordeaux. This medieval village in Provence is too cute for words, and is overrun with tourists, but Nouvel's little corner is so peaceful you can hear bees bumping into the flowers.

At the end of his midday meal, around 4 in the afternoon, two collaborators from Spain have unrolled amid the dirty cutlery a scroll of paper, a design of a new building, which Nouvel covers with a spidery cloud of black ink, making emphatic jabs with his pen. There is something he does not like.

Though he eagerly employs the newest materials and techniques when designing and constructing his buildings, Nouvel himself does not use a computer. "That would be the end of my brain," he says. He fears it would enslave him. He doesn't even draw much. He prefers to either think or talk.

"He is a master of choosing the right words," says one of his project architects, Kris Geldof, who is working on Nouvel's design for a Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi, which Nouvel envisions as a small village of buildings covered by an enormous umbrella, a floating dome of a still-undetermined material riddled with holes, which will create shafts of changing light. (The Louvre is renting its name and lending its art to the United Arab Emirates for $1.3 billion.)

"Forget the computer," Nouvel says. "First for the architect, they need to have the feelings. Then take a pen and explain an idea like this, a little sketch." He holds up his pen. "But not too much drawing. An idea first." Like the umbrella? "Yes!" On a scale never done before? "Yes!" He says all this with fluency, but his English is heavily flavored by his French, so when he says "feelings," it has a musical bounce. He has big, arching eyebrows.

Nouvel is a bit of mischief-maker, so who knows what he might say in Washington today? "To be an architect is to dream something and put the something into a reality," he says. "But now for stupid reasons, for economical reasons, and because people are very lazy and not so interested in culture, you have this very flat layer of anti-culture, this banality of the clone. That is my main problem."

Sameness? "Oui," he says.

This dull repetition, this "thirsting for the already thought?"

"You have read my manifesto?" Nouvel asks, pleased.

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