Rooted in the Here and Wow
Architect Jean Nouvel Has Built a Following With His Novel Vision

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.

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."

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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