When the 75-year old renowned French architect Jean Nouvel in an interview in April 2020 with ‘France Televisions’ in the backdrop of COVID was asked: ‘What will be your first requirement in this next world?’ his answer was, ‘What I would like is that suddenly we realize that ultimately, in terms of democracy, it is not only the direct economy that counts, there is everything that lives from the city, everything that lives on architecture, by the very conception of the city landscape, the meeting of nature and history, geography and history ... Periods like this make us understand the importance of this sensitive dimension that we have somewhat forgotten in a kind of race for profitability and which shows great deficiencies.’
Over the decades, Jean Nouvel who designed his buildings to ‘create a visual landscape’ that fit their context,has acquired a reputation for experimental designs, which defy a uniform categorization.Born in France in 1945, Nouvelgraduated from the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris with a degree in architecture.
Nouvel bagged the Aga Khan Award for architectural excellence for his design of the ‘Institute of the Arab World’ (‘Institut du Monde Arabe’} or IMA -- where one of its facades is made entirely of mechanical oculi operated by photoelectric cells that automatically open and close in response to light levels. The main, south facade of that building, with its high-tech aperture-like panels, manages to be at once cutting-edge in its creative response to changing levels of light, and evocative of traditional Arab latticework grills.
Likewise, in the ‘Fondation Cartier pour l’ArtContemporain,’ the grid of glass and steel supports extend beyond the edges of the building itself, and is transparent or reflective depending on the time of day.
Time and again,Nouvel’s projects transform the landscapes in which they are built, often becoming major urban events in their own right. His unique approach, driven by the specificities of context, program, and site has proven effective in numerous successes around the world.
In 2008, Nouvel was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize. The ‘Arab World Institute’ is just one of more than two hundred of his projects that the Jury singled out for special mention in its formal citation. Another project cited was ‘The Guthrie Theater,’ of which the Jury says, ‘The iconic Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota both merges and contrasts with its surroundings. It is responsive to the city and the nearby Mississippi River, and yet, it is also an expression of theatricality and the magical world of performance.’
The ‘Cultural and Conference Center’(CCC) in the Swiss city of Lucerne along with the ‘Cartier Foundation’ in Paris are two more of Nouvel’s completed projects that the Pritzker Jury mentions in their citation as making ‘dematerialization palpable.’Nouvel has described the CCC project as ‘an example of the principle of framing the landscape. It is a building on an exceptional site, by the lake, facing the town. The entire town can be seen from the foyer.’
Nouvel has been bestowed with the Golden Lion from the Venice Biennale; a Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects; and the PraemiumImperiale of the Japan Art Association.
His portfolio of landmark projects is phenomenal: one of the three buildings that comprise ‘Leeum Museum’ in Seoul; the bullet-shaped ‘Agbar Tower’ in Barcelona; the quirky ‘Quai Branly Museum’ in Paris; and ‘Copenhagen’s Concert Hall,’ with its bright blue exterior that functions at night as a video screen.
One of his recently completed notable projects include ‘53 West 53,’ which is a super-tall skyscraper located in Midtown Manhattan, New York City adjacent to the ‘Museum of Modern Art.’ Also worthy of mention is a museum for the cultural district of Abu Dhabi, ‘Louvre Abu Dhabi.’ It features a distinctive latticed dome that filters the bright desert light; the building showcases art leased from 13 French institutions. Not to mention Nouvel’s‘National Museum of Qatar’ in Doha, comprising a series of interlocking discs.
In the late 1980s,Nouvel had also completed social housing in projects in France,viz, ‘Nemausus I’ and ‘Nemausus II.’
Bill Lacy, executive director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize from 1988 to 2005, in his book, One Hundred Contemporary Architects, says, ‘Since the beginning of his architectural career in the 1970s, Frenchman Jean Nouvel has broken the aesthetic of modernism and post-modernism to create a stylistic language all his own. He places enormous importance on designing a building harmonious with its surroundings. In the end that building’s design may borrow from traditional and non-traditional forms, but its presentation is entirely unique.’
Hemalatha is a Chennai-based architect practising and teaching architecture; and co-founder of SIDART Photography and two centers of Globalart.