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Rooted in the Here and Wow

The French architect, winner of the 2008 Pritzker Prize, is known for his broad, adventurous and distinctive style.

Of course. "Mass construction as misconstruction!"

It is a quaint anachronism of architecture that its practitioners still have the gumption to fire off manifestoes, as Nouvel did as part of an exhibit at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark in 2005. His five-page treatise begins: "In 2005, more than ever, architecture is annihilating places, banalizing them, violating them."

The virus, globalism. The symptoms, everywhere.

"When we rush across the world faster and faster," he wrote, "when we dance to the same hits, watch the same matches, when they flood us with the same films, in which the star is global . . . when we shop in cloned shopping centers, work behind the same eternal curtain walls . . ."

Then we are assaulted by a dominant architecture of automatic sterility, of mere convenience, the dehumanizing, the depressing, the soulless same, "the work of globe-trotting artist-architects, princes of repetition. Specialists in the perfect, dry, perennial detail, the true confession of emotional impotence."

Zut alors! To the ramparts: "No more corsets, no more ready-to-wear lives! No more architecture by-the-numbers that turn us into numbers! No more cloned cities, global offices, pre-occupied homes!"

And what indeed sets Nouvel apart is the eccentric un-sameness of his work -- an almost biological diversity. You look at a Frank Gehry building, for example, you see Frank Gehry. The curvaceous metal sculpture of Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is from the same hand as his Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. A Renzo Piano museum is going to be a box of light; that is what Renzo Piano does.

But a Jean Nouvel? He does the Agbar Tower in Barcelona and look! It's a cartoon phallus, it's a rocket ship that glows at night with LED light -- like a disco. He does the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris and it is completely different. It is a jewel box of glass and steel, so restrained, very calm, very quiet. His first big commission, the Institute of the Arab World, just down the Seine from the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, has a facade made entirely of motorized metal diaphragms, like a wall of camera apertures, that open and close with sun or cloud.

Nouvel likes to compare building to making a movie, in that the architect, like the film director, is focused on the creation of "a small invented world." Perhaps it is no surprise that one of Nouvel's favorite directors is the great experimentalist David Lynch.

The jury of his peers for the Pritzker Prize praise Nouvel for his nerve but warn that sometimes it just doesn't fly. "His inquisitive and agile mind propels him to take risks in each of this projects," they said, "which, regardless of varying degrees of success, have greatly expanded the vocabulary of contemporary architecture."

Nouvel grew up in the 1960s, okay, though he was far away from the action, until he came to study in Paris. "I was the son of a family of teachers. A very special boy. My sister was sick, she had a virus when she was 4, in the brain, viral encephalitis. So I was very protected. I grew up in a small medieval town," he recalls, the city of Sarlat in southwest France, close to the Lascaux caves, whose walls display the work of artists from 16,000 years ago.

"There were all these very old buildings," he says, "the churches with the stained glass and special floors, all of that. It was impressive for me. The city was a kind of adventure. Going down narrow streets, very difficult to find your way, very mysterious. It was my earliest feeling about architecture."


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