August 12: happy birthday Jean Nouvel

2012/08/12 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1945 Jean Nouvel was born.

Don’t let the smile fool you (although, take a moment to enjoy: a smiling architect!), M. Nouvel is a conflicted man who is difficult to please.  After completing his studies at the École des Beaux-Arts in the 1970s he tore through three partnerships until founding his own shop, Jean Nouvel et Associés, in 1985, which three years later morphed into JNEC.  He launched his current firm, Ateliers Jean Nouvel in 1994, which has grown to be one of the largest firms in Paris, with satellites in London, Copenhagen, New York, Rome, Madrid and Barcelona.  Meanwhile he’s divorced two wives and now resides with a girlfriend 25 years his junior. We don’t judge, we just make the point, it appears that Monsieur finds it difficult to settle down and commit to people.

Perhaps that restlessness is evident in his buildings too.  Across a very rich career he has followed a few general themes of modern thought and technical inquiry, with widely differing results.  The hideous Nemausus I public housing project (Nîmes, 1985) is one step above 1960s motel architecture; nothing about his grim design for the Guthrie Theatre (Minneapolis, 2006) is an invitation to indulge in the delights of drama.  You’d think that after the catastrophic renovation of the Opéra (Lyon, 1985; now named after him so everyone knows who is to blame), no one would ever again let him near an old building, but you’d be wrong.

The Muse doesn’t dismiss these buildings for just being contemporary (she’s not like that), but because of Nouvel’s handling of the traditions of Modernism.  All three were mined from the worst of its potential blandness or aggressive ugliness.  On good days, Nouvel has instead drawn from the stores of sharp elegance and even, on occasion, subtle symbolism to design more compelling work.  The Dentsu tower (Tokyo, 1998) is a building of many moods, but from a good angle is a slick wedge of Minimalism.  Likewise, the fragile and enticing screen of the Fondation Cartier (Paris, 1994) makes an unusually sound argument for transparency and also strikes a reasonable chord among its neighbors.

These are nice-enough Modernist buildings, but it’s in his work for the Arab world, when he admits the richness of tradition and symbolism to lead his work, that Nouvel really shines.  Indeed, his biggest global splash was made with the design for the Institut du Monde Arabe (Paris, 1981-87) and its famous wall of light-sensitive apertures that open and close throughout the day; their mechanistic routine aesthetically informed by the complicated geometric designs that are central to Islamic art.  Likewise, the quality of light inside the building reminds one of the sunlight that passes through mosque grilles and glints off gilded pages of the Qur’an.  Now underway, his project for the new Louvre (Abu Dhabi, begun 2007 and part of the amazing plans for Saadiyat Island) promises some of the same kind of adoptions of traditions of Islamic art and desert life within his particular minimal and oftentimes graceful idiom.  Here’s hoping that Nouvel’s relationship with clients like these are long-lasting.

Image: Jean Nouvel, caught smiling in a huge model for the Louvre Abu Dhabi

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