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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.

He wanted to be a painter. "My family, they refused because for them it was very risky. The arts were not so important. They imagined I could not earn my living with this kind of life. So I decided on architecture, because for them that was serious. You did mathematics. I never went to those classes, of course."

Nouvel remembers traveling to Bordeaux as a youth and seeing his first buildings built in the International Style of the 1920s and '30s, conforming to its strict rules: Ornamentation is crime; form follows function; truth to materials; dwellings are, as Le Corbusier famously put it, "machines for living."

"When I saw International Style, I was shocked by this beginning of globalization. By this same idea parachuted onto different cities around the world," he says. "I hate globalism. It is horrible. It is the opposite of what is the essence of architecture."

Which is? Context.

"Context" and "globalism are" big, wide words. Nouvel uses them a lot. There is good globalism, he concedes, the exchanges of money, ideas, culture that makes his work possible. The globalism he hates is the kind that reproduces the same subdivisions in every country, the same coffee shops, the same corporate parks.

"Context is geography and history. You are building in very special conditions. You have to be totally linked to knowledge of the site -- the weather, the humidity, the soil, the geography. The fruits, the trees! What are the habits of the people, the neighborhood, what has come before, the layers of life, the memories." Meaning? "You have to know, am I in Iceland or Italy?" Nouvel says.

Nouvel pauses to find his credo. "When I create something," he says, "I want it to be somewhere."

Nouvel's work is not much seen in the United States, though that is about to change in a big way. His best-known building in America is the 2006 Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, which both ordinary people and critics quite like. The Guthrie sits among the renovated husks of old flour mills and grain elevators, clad in midnight blue metal, with cantilever bridges -- a riff on its made-over industrial neighborhood.

On the drawing board, Nouvel has a soaring spire of a 75-story skyscraper, Tour de Verre (Tower of Glass), going through the final stages of approval in midtown Manhattan, where it will butt against the Museum of Modern Art. Nouvel says he took inspiration from the drawings of Hugh Ferriss, who in the 1920s imagined a future New York as "a city of needles."

"It is a very New Yorker building, the tower at MoMA," he says. "I cannot imagine the Barcelona project in Paris. I cannot image the New York building in Barcelona, or anywhere else. It's stupid. It would be a shape without meaning."

In Las Vegas, he is designing a mega-casino that will include red rock canyons and an enormous aquarium, with a reef and dolphins, perhaps. In Los Angeles, he is working on a wafer-thin $400 million apartment building for Century City, which will be decked with hanging gardens (and where a smaller apartment on a lower floor will start at $5million).

"In L.A. I wanted to capture the spaces of gardens. The feelings of gardens. With the golf course in front. The art of Century City behind. It is an abstract building, with this idea of sun, with vegetation, a very specific building. A very L.A. building," he says.

And Vegas? "What I like in Vegas is the crazy situation that what you can do in Vegas you can never do anyplace else," he says. "When you are in Vegas you are a kid again but you are also the high roller, the gambler, the player, proud to be here with your girlfriend. It is an artificial world with kids' dreams. It is naive. But it is grown up. They like the wow in Vegas. I like the wow also. But if you play with wow, you make it the best kind of wow." With a fish tank?

"We're working on that," he says.


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