“Architecture exists, like cinema, in a dimension of time and movement. One thinks, conceives and reads a building in terms of sequences. To erect a building is to predict and seek effects of contrast and linkage bound up with the succession of spaces through which one passes.”
- Jean Nouvel
Stare at a face, any face, even your own. Can you ever really see all of it? If we think, like Nouvel, of cinema, and the great iconic scenes from the silver screen, we think of Bette Davis in Sunset Boulevard, Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca. Those enormous close ups and headshots seem so familiar, and yet what are we perceiving - a lip, a nose, an ear? We only even perceive one eye at a time. This impossibility of faces can be extended to buildings. One can never experience a building completely and architecture can be seen as the management of this impossibility. Many architects overcome this with brutal assaults on the skyline or breathtaking facades, but Nouvel manages this impossibility by allowing his buildings to breathe and co-exist with their surroundings.
It is this dynamism of the movie camera that we can see flowing through Nouvel’s work. Movement and change are constant motifs in his design and integral to the experiencing of his buildings - both emotionally and intellectually. The almost dreamlike sense of growth that we see in the now classic Cartier Foundation is transmitted through the innovative cell-like quality of its construction. The gallery spaces of this iconic modern art museum are elegantly vacant light filled spaces, uncluttered and encased in glass, where one is apart and yet visually integrated at all times with the lush green gardens that surround the building. The central structure is actually hard to identify when viewed from afar, with the East and West faces of the gallery comprising two enormous panels that extend far beyond the central structure. When functioning as walls these finely and simplistically wrought grids of steel and glass represent the fundamental structural integrity of the building and enable the building’s wonderfully evocative translucence. However it is when they take leave of the building that Nouvel’s design really takes off. By tapering the Foundation’s physical integrity into the atmosphere if the city that surrounds it, by merging what we see with what we are seeing it through, Nouvel succeeds in an act of true architectural integration. In selecting him as the Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate in 2008, the Pritzker Prize Jury cites the Cartier Foundation alongside the Lucerne Cultural and Conference Center as making “dematerialization palpable”. What does one perceive - the Cartier Foundation or the Paris skyline? The answer is both and neither.
Nouvel makes movement and change possible even in traditionally static contexts, such as the shimmering washes of vibrant color that sweep the surface of his Agbar Tower in Barcelona. Another revealing example is the mechanical oculi operated by photoelectric cells that automatically dilate and contract in response to light levels outside, much like camera apertures, and which constitute entirely one of the facades of the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris. This concept can be taken as a cameo of Nouvel’s genius - a simple idea, combining high culture and high technology, which writes a multitude of exquisite consequences on the experience of experiencing his building. This painting of the outside - in all of its fickle dappled beauty - on the inside unites one’s presence within and the world without the building in a truly and uniquely integrated experience.
As a young man, Jean Nouvel’s plan had been to go art school. It is to architecture’s gain that his more practically minded parents, fearing a career in art too risky, persuaded him to channel his talents elsewhere, and by the tender age of twenty five, he was a qualified architect with his own office in partnership with renowned architect François Seigneur. There is an eclecticism to Nouvel that has always kept his vision broad and at times focused in a bewildering number of directions. Maintaining a staff of one hundred and forty at his firm Ateliers Jean Nouvel, he has maintained a close relationship with the arts since his fifteen year directorship of the Paris Biennale. One of the largest practices in France, Ateliers has carried out ground-breaking work - on constructions as varied as museums, social housing, concert halls, and convention centers - at prestigious sites around the world and currently boasts over forty active projects in thirteen countries.
The term starchitect is sometimes used to describe those working at Jean Nouvel’s level, although it is not clear how comfortable he would be with the term. However, with projects such as the extraordinary Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi which, alongside projects by luminaries such as Frank Gehry and Tadao Ando, will form part of the 100 billion dollar Saadiyat Island cultural complex, it is clear that he is one of the most sought after architects in the world. Other marquee projects that he has in development include the upcoming Tour Signal in La Défense and Tour de Verre next to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.
If Jean Nouvel builds movies, then they are now playing on the biggest screens with the biggest stars.
- Benjamin Stewart
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Photo Credit: Ateliers Jean Nouvel: Louvre Museum Abu Dhabi, Chelsea NYC, Philharmonic Hall Paris, Signal Tour La Défense, Tour de Verre NYC.
Philippe Ruault: 40 Mercer NYC, Agbar Tower Barcelona, Reina Sofía Museum Madrid, Cartier Foundation Paris.
Georges Fessy: Lyon Opera, Institut du Monde Arab Paris.