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‘Architecture is sick but not totally dead’: Jean Nouvel on disasters, criticism and the future of architecture

Ajn constructa lamarseillaise ©michèle clavel img 4125

As his most recent tower, La Marseillaise, is inaugurated on Marseille’s seafront, Nouvel talks about the death of architectural criticism, taking pleasure in problems and why the future of architecture is not architectural

Jean nouvel 2009 vienna frontal

Jean nouvel 2009 vienna frontal

‘It’s too hot,’ Jean Nouvel complains, as the sun begins to sink towards the sea, burning through the glazing of the 27th floor meeting room of his boxfresh addition to the Marseille skyline. La Marseillaise is Nouvel’s most recent building in his native France, spitting distance from his beloved St-Paul-de-Vence near Nice. It feels something of a homecoming, with other current projects as far flung as Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and New York. So as we look out over the sparkling sea beyond Marseille’s port, shielding our eyes against the setting Mediterranean sun, I ask Nouvel about his exploits in the Middle East, architecture’s social conscience and returning to Vitruvius.

On urban planning 

International urban planning is a global disaster. For me, it is a destruction of geography and history. It is about history, of course, because we cannot pretend it hasn’t happened – it has happened. It’s a disaster for the pleasure we take in living in cities and for their identities. I have worked on different texts [for example The Singular Objects of Architecture with Jean Baudrillard in 2000] to denounce clonage (cloning) and parachutage (buildings that have been parachuted into cities). There are more clones every year because now, with computers, all the parameters are set up: if you want to build a building, an office, you change the proportion a little bit in just two days and it’s done. You receive a good fee. In three days, it is finished. Generally, that process used to take three months. And all these buildings are the same. When you arrive in a country, you can’t tell where you are – for me, this is one of the main problems of the city.

‘If you build for an extreme right party, something is wrong’

It is not the same catastrophe for every country. It does not happen in Nordic countries because they have lots of money, urban growth is very soft and the basis of the city is solid. The catastrophe is greater when growth explodes – such as in Asia, South America or even the big cities of Europe. Cities are being developed without vision; their progressive development is reduced to an administrative question. In France, we now have a lot of shopping centres in little towns – this is both an urban and a human disaster. I don’t propose returning to the city of the 19th century like Monsieur Krier, but I think we need to return to urban planning with a vision, linking it to the territory but with a human and poetic view that aligns with geography and history. This is urgent. But nobody wants to talk about that. Nobody.

Architecture is sick but not totally dead. It is not enough to talk about the existing situation. An architect has to put forward ideas. Criticism is one thing, but we also have to suggest how to tackle it. It is for that reason that I became a contextual architect.

On social conscience in architecture

There are good reasons not to build in two-thirds of the world – for example, because they sell weapons – both in the east and in the west [Ateliers Jean Nouvel completed the Louvre Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates last year and is about to finish the National Museum of Qatar – both are non-democractic states]. You have to have strong reasons. Sometimes it happens. I think it is very difficult to take care of that with architecture.

But we don’t build for political regimes. When we build a social landmark, a public building, a museum or spiritual building, we don’t build just for the generation here, we build for the future. These people won’t still be here in 30-40 years. Architects must consider the fact that they are working for people and future generations, they are not building for the government. Having said that, for me, if you build for an extreme, right-wing party, something is wrong.

‘Architecture has to have a popular heart, it is completely key to life’

There is a social consideration in urban development and in architecture because architecture is where people live. I was never a corporatist: I think architecture is not just important for architects but for all people. We have to build. We cannot use this as an excuse to say, ‘I cannot build in Iran’, for example. The people are not responsible.

Ajn constructa lamarseillaise ©michèle clavel a9990296

Ajn constructa lamarseillaise ©michèle clavel a9990296

La Marseillaise. Image: Michele Clavel

On picking favourites

I do not have a passion for one shape or one material. I know the story of every building. I know why it is as it is; I know its limits, its handicaps, I know everything. But I try to do the best in the situation. 

It is also not question of size – a small project could be fantastic. It’s like in literature: one poem can be amazing and the writer is famous for eternity. You don’t have to write a whole library to achieve that.

I have a sentimental attachment to the projects on which there were huge challenges, such as the Nemausus [a social housing project completed in Nîmes in 1987] or the Philharmonie de Paris, which there were attempts to kill [the building was nearly axed two years before its controversial opening in 2015]. They are effective buildings, but I had to defend them, fight for them. It is not a preference, not that these projects are better than other ones, but I take pleasure in problems.

Ajn constructa lamarseillaise ©michèle clavel img 4125

Ajn constructa lamarseillaise ©michèle clavel img 4125

La Marseillaise. Image: Michele Clavel

On architectural criticism

Architectural criticism has almost disappeared. Architecture is an art and many people forget that. Not having architectural criticism is disastrous. Fortunately, I think the Anglo-Saxon system is more effective than the one in France and in Europe more generally, where it is very rare to describe the building, the sensations, the emotions that are evoked. They can say the numbers: ‘it’s 300m high, it’s metal, it’s rectangular’. It’s like reviewing a movie by saying, ‘it’s 125 minutes long and it’s black and white’. It’s ridiculous. It is not criticism.

‘Architecture is sick but not totally dead’

People talk only about the technical – about the windows and the repetition of the system to create more apartments. We’ve never had more apartments! We have contractors putting more money in their pockets.

L’Architecture d’Aujoud’hui is alive [Jean Nouvel stepped in to financially support it in 2007] – it may be up and down but it is alive. From the beginning, I said, ‘I do not want to have a relationship with the l’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui. I used my influence to engage some people in the magazine. I did not want to reduce it to ‘Jean Nouvel’s review’, so I sat back. Now I am totally separate. They asked me to be on the official committee, and I said 20 times ‘count me out’. They never did.

3 ajn constructa lamarseillaise ©micheleclavel librededroits

3 ajn constructa lamarseillaise ©micheleclavel librededroits

La Marseillaise. Image: Michele Clavel

‘The future of architecture is not architectural’

It’s important to put this sentence into the context of the time [Nouvel originally wrote ‘the future of architecture is not architectural’ in 1980] because that was when the idea of the autonomy of architecture was being developed. There was a kind of step back in architectural thinking. I wanted to show that it was important to extend the field of architecture, not reduce it. It was important to come back to a very ancient idea – Vitruvius spoke about it. The learning of architecture, for example, cannot be to learn how to do an architectural project. Of course, you have to learn this, but even Vitruvius spoke about the importance of philosophy and opening the field. I think the teaching of architecture is not at the right level in a lot of countries today. In France, it is a big problem.

‘I have a sentimental attachment to the projects which had big problems, like the Nemausus or the Philharmonie’

An architect of Vitruvius’s time had many disciplines – design, sculpture, mathematics and so on. Now it is very specialised. Of course, you cannot learn the future of architecture in an ancient book, but it helps architects to understand their time, their technique and their art. I think architecture is a question of philosophy, of the will and consciousness of politicians, presidents and mayors.

For a long time I trusted that the field of architecture could be enlarged, but actually the opposite was true. Construction is expanding, but the field of architecture is reducing, partly because the role of the architect is not recognised in a lot of countries. It’s a big problem, but it doesn’t just affect architects – it is a disaster for the people who are living their lives in cities and elsewhere. Architecture has to have a popular heart, it is key to life.