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Jean Nouvel (1945-)

Whether text and context, image and simulacrum – or just smoke and mirrors, Jean Nouvel’s architectural ambitions are no less grandiose than his legendary epicureanism 

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Jean Nouvel

Illustration by Marianna Gefen

Now well into his eighth decade on Earth, and his sixth on Planet Architecture, Jean Nouvel is showing no signs of slowing down. After last year’s critically acclaimed Louvre Abu Dhabi, he’s about to deliver another desert mirage in the form of the National Museum of Qatar (due to open this December), is continuing work on Manhattan’s 320m 53W53 (aka the MoMA Tower), which topped out this summer, and, in his native France, will be inaugurating yet another tower this autumn, the 135m-high La Marseillaise on the waterfront in Marseille. And these are just the most visible among the countless current projects being undertaken by Ateliers Jean Nouvel (AJN), an international firm that employs around 140 people and has an annual turnover oscillating between a pre-crash, 2008 high of €54 million and a more modest but still significant €27.3 million in 2015 (the most recent figure available). 

‘With his epicureanism comes the silhouette of a bon viveur, a bourgeois embonpoint straight out of Balzac’

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Source: Didier Zylberyng / Alamy

The Institut du Monde Arabe, 1987, clad in a mechanical mashrabiya composed of shutters designed to open and close according to light levels, but the mechanisms were prone to stick

Yet this flurry of activity, at an age that not so long ago was considered crepuscular, is entirely in keeping with the character of a man long reputed for his larger-than-life appetites. His personal ambition is legendary, as evidenced by his often reckless pursuit of prestige projects. First there was the 92-storey Tour sans Fins, or Endless Tower, at Paris-La Défense in 1989, an endless saga that was only finally laid to rest with Nouvel’s bankruptcy in 1994. Then came the Musée du Quai Branly in 2006, a gargantuan anthropological museum which ran two years over schedule and €64 million over budget, and on which AJN reportedly lost €5 million. Following close on its heels was the personal debacle of the 2015 Philharmonie de Paris, another in-the-red affair for AJN which his then business partner, Michel Pélissié, had pleaded with him not to do (given the way things had gone on Quai Branly), and which Nouvel famously disowned on inauguration day, describing his project as ‘martyrised’ and ‘sabotaged’ and the barely half-finished concert hall as ‘counterfeit’. And finally, after a loss-making year for AJN in 2012, the 2013 competition for the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC), which Nouvel was so determined to win that he sank €2.5 million into it, imperilling his firm’s finances yet further and destroying, he later revealed, his friendship with rival contender Frank Gehry – a heavy price to pay for a project which, at the time of writing, seems to have been quietly shelved by the Chinese authorities. ‘If I win Beijing, I’ll be the greatest architect in the world!’ he reportedly declared; all trace of the NAMOC has since been quietly removed from the AJN website.

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Source: Didier Zylberyng / Alamy

The Nemausus housing blocks in Nîmes, 1987, a radical early project that brought Nouvel to wider attention

‘No one resists the will of Jean Nouvel, he’s a steamroller, a true madman,’ says architect Francis Soler. ‘He built his career by killing others. He lives only for that.’ But perhaps not quite only for that, since just a tad less legendary than his personal ambition is his epicureanism: the 14,000 bottles of wine that were cited in the 2014 lawsuit that followed his falling out with Pélissié; the secluded garden table permanently at his disposal at the Colombe d’Or, in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, where he goes every summer to work; or his taste for the fattest of phallic Havana cigars à la Mies van der Rohe or Che Guevara. 

And with this epicureanism comes the silhouette of a bon viveur, a bourgeois embonpoint straight out of Balzac, which his mentor Claude Parent described as ‘a mass which moves with the majesty of a bear’ – a bear invariably swathed in black, ’80s-architect style, and coiffed with a trademark fedora to protect a glabrous head which the Swiss cartoonist Exem infamously likened to Nosferatu, part of a (successful) 2016 campaign to sink Nouvel’s ambitious plans for the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva. Addicted to sports cars – Porsches, Ferraris – Nouvel lives life in the fast lane, spending his way through a fortune, and continues to accelerate with age, running quicker than ever to keep feeding the machine and, just perhaps, beat the inevitable. His life partners, in inverse proportion, have become ever younger – his third and current wife, Chinese architect Lida Guan, whom he met during the NAMOC competition, and with whom he has a two-year-old daughter, is 34 years his junior.

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Doha Tower, 2012

A cross section through the priapic tip of the Doha Tower, 2012, a 46-storey cylinder wrapped in a double-skinned aluminium lattice

Key works 

Nemausus housing, Nîmes, 1987
Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, 1987
Saint-James Hotel, Bouliac, 1989
Fondation Cartier, Paris, 1994 
Congress Centre, Lucerne, 2000
Torre Agbar, Barcelona, 2004
Reina Sofía Museum, Madrid, 2005
Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, 2006 
Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, 2006
One New Change, London, 2010
Philharmonie de Paris, 2015
Louvre Abu Dhabi, 2017

Awards

Aga Khan Award for Architecture, 1989
Pritzker Prize, 2008 

Quote

‘The future of architecture is no longer architectural’

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Saint-James Hotel

Source: Stephane Couturier / Artedia / View

The rusted steel volumes of the boutique Saint-James Hotel, 1989, are set in a rural vineyard

‘Only sporadically a formalist, he believes that architecture should procure pleasure, but that which his offers often seeks its effects in flimsy flat-screen window dressing’

A child of the Dordogne, land of foie gras and confit de canard, Nouvel was born to a school-inspector father and an English-teacher mother. Like so many architects, he initially wanted to study fine art, but his parents pushed him towards a safer occupation, which he began studying in Bordeaux before transferring to Paris’s École des Beaux-Arts in 1966, from which he graduated in 1972. The events of May 1968 coincided with the three-year period he spent working with Claude Parent and Paul Virilio between 1967 and 1970, which culminated in the founding of his first firm and his first solo competition entry, in 1971, for the Centre Pompidou: a project that paid discipular homage to his mentor’s fonction oblique (less obviously, the Philharmonie de Paris also channels the Parental diagonals). To this day, he cites Structuralist and Post-Structuralist figures such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze as his maîtres à penser, not to mention Jean Baudrillard, whom he knew well.

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Torre Agbar, 2004

Source: Dennis Gilbert / View

The unabashedly phallic Torre Agbar intrudes on Barcelona’s skyline

The year he founded his firm he was appointed as architect to the Biennale de Paris – an art fair which, without a permanent home, needed temporary scenography for each edition – to which he succeeded in adding an architecture section in 1978. It was no doubt this early proximity to contemporary art and scenography that informed many of the tics and mannerisms of his later work – the taste for a concept-based approach overflowing with multiple contextual references, not to mention his liberal use of the set designer’s and/or night-clubber’s box of perceptual tricks. Rare is the Nouvel project that takes more than a perfunctory interest in tectonics, engineering, how things stand up or the intrinsic materiality of materials. A notable exception is perhaps his Lucerne congress centre with its giant cantilevered roof which establishes a calm artificial horizon against the backdrop of the Alps. 

Instead it’s a question of text and context, image and simulacrum – or just smoke and mirrors, according to his detractors. ‘The future of architecture is no longer architectural,’ he declared in 1980, by which he meant that rather than remaining a closed discipline, as it seemed to be in the technocratic France of the time, ‘architecture needed to seek its sources in the culture of today, in other disciplines’, and fully embrace the nature of the society of which it was the ultimate expression. At its best, when he doesn’t overdo it, his is an approach that can enchant with its theatrical blurring of boundaries, its poetic feeling for atmosphere and its light-hearted play with signs and signifiers: the winking mechanical mashrabiyas of the Institut du Monde Arabe, the tree-filled mise en abyme of the crystalline Fondation Cartier, or the pluie de lumière that filters through the intricate metal-mesh dome of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. 

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Louvre Abu Dhabi, 2017

Source: Slywire / Wikimedia

The vast latticed dome of the Louvre Abu Dhabi combines grand gesture with pluie de lumière atmospherics

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Source: Collection Artedia / View

The Fondation Cartier, 1994, a monumental crystalline display case for contemporary art

But at its worst it can come across as too much noise, facile and heavy-handed, as at the Quai Branly, where no one seems to have been able to tell him when to stop, and where the plethora of finishes led to notably poor execution, as the screws were tightened on the deliberately under-estimated budget. It’s not as if he hadn’t been warned. In a 1997 conversation with Baudrillard, the philosopher said to him: ‘If one plans too much, if the conceptualisation is too dense, the seam becomes depleted, and I think that’s also true with respect to theoretical research: those who cumulate too many references, who pile up the data and explain ad infinitum a trajectory, exhaust themselves before saying, what? Nothing.’

In many ways Nouvel followed the classic trajectory of his fellow soixante-huitards. An outsider and troublemaker in his early days – a left-leaning, rock ’n’ roll, nouvelle vague rebel who founded the Mars 1976 movement in opposition to the Athens Charter establishment that then held sway in France – he has now become exactly the establishment he sought to usurp, a millionaire architecte d’état who wields enormous influence, even if that position has been weakened in the wake of the Philharmonie train wreck. Where, before the fall, he could bag a competition despite the fact that seven of the eight architects in the jury didn’t vote for him (the Philharmonie, where he clearly enjoyed the support of higher powers), he afterwards whined, without the slightest hint of irony or self awareness, that he ‘could no longer get hold of [Aurélie] Filippetti [the then culture minister]. All of a sudden I couldn’t get hold of anybody. Which is absolutely incredible given my situation in France. Incredible! I’d never been treated like that in my whole life!’

‘No one resists the will of Jean Nouvel, he’s a steamroller, a true madman’

If he got there, it was in part thanks to his enormous talent, so typical of the 1980s when he came of age, for image, marketing and the manipulation of the visual mechanisms of the société du spectacle. In the context of Mitterrand’s 1981 election victory, after seven years of small-c Giscardian cultural conservatism, he was in the right place at the right time, winning the competition to build one of the early presidential Grands Projets, IMA (the building that brought him both national and international fame). Rather than dialoguing physically with its given site, much of his architecture has a tendency to converse with it intellectually in a film-script scenario; space, with Nouvel, is often just a question of depth of field. Only sporadically a formalist, he believes that architecture should procure pleasure, but that which his offers often seeks its effects in flimsy flat-screen window dressing.

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The Louvre Abu Dhabi, 2017, on the cover of L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, France’s leading architecture magazine, which Nouvel acquired in 2007 in an attempt to save it, but then quickly lost interest in

This glossy PR tendency in his oeuvre reached an apogee of self-caricature in his 2007 design for the packaging (branded ‘design by Jean Nouvel’) of Yves Saint-Laurent’s perfume L’Homme: a sort of mechanic’s butt plug, the bottle takes the form of an inverted phallic test tube à la Torre Agbar, a suppository-smooth bolt which screws into an anthracite nut. Just as the fragrance ‘mixes virility and fragility’, Nouvel wrote on jeannouveldesign.fr, ‘the bottle possesses a consciously virile symbolism; in contrast, the delicacy of the glass implies a form of fragility and softness. A play of light traverses the glass and the scent. That’s what makes the bottle as precious as the luxurious perfume it contains’. Brad Pitt, it turns out, is such a diehard fan of Nouvel’s that he named his first biological daughter Shiloh Nouvel in the architect’s honour – as brand recognition goes, you couldn’t do much better.

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Jean nouvel 176l 1200x1577 q60

Nouvel’s career is far from over, and it remains to be seen how the future will pan out. Were he to retire today, he would be remembered for a dozen or so excellent buildings bobbing about in a sea of less interesting – and sometimes frankly mediocre – projects, as well as for having embodied certain fin de millénaire tendencies in the Zeitgeist. Is he suddenly going to surprise us with an unexpected late period? Or will he carry on as he always has, nineteen to the dozen, churning them out left, right and centre, the good, the bad and the indifferent, in a blistering blowout of building bulimia?

This piece is featured in the AR October issue on Food – click here to purchase your copy today