Page N1.2 . 02 April 2008                     
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Jean Nouvel Pritzker Prize

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The result is a body of work that transcends much of the current star architecture in intimacy of fitness to place and purpose, while equaling or surpassing it in dramatic impact, daring, and delight.

This is the magic of Jean Nouvel.

Working with a team that has grown to 140 architects out of the main office in Paris, with dozens more in site offices in London, Copenhagen, New York, Rome, Madrid, and Barcelona. He has more than 200 built projects, and the firm counts more than 40 projects currently underway in 13 countries.

As designers, builders, and inhabitants of place, we can appreciate some of the themes and devices to be found in the cinematic sweep of le Oeuvre Nouvel. Some of these are familiar, and simply used well. Others are familiar, yet cast successfully counter to type. And some are new to our urban scenes.

Some of the mystery of Nouvel's approach may stem from how relatively little exposure his overall body of work has gotten in English — although, conveniently enough, Taschen has a $200 complete works book coming out in May 2008.

The Nouvel Palette

One area of fascination in Nouvel's work is around how buildings stand against the sky — which of course has been one of the fundamental concerns of architectural expression for millennia. Where many architectures seek to express their grandeur, strength, and permanence with cornices, roofs, or bluntness — the typical approach in modern and classical buildings alike — many of Nouvel's buildings fade out against the sky, merging with their world rather than standing hard-framed.

The Lucerne Cultural and Conference Center along with the Cartier Foundation in Paris are two of Nouvel's completed projects that the Pritzker jury mentions in its citation as making "dematerialization palpable." The citation calls attention to Nouvel's Endless Tower, a 400-meter-high structure for Paris intended to be the tallest building in Europe. For the jury, that project's importance was "the building's skin, which changed materials as it progressed upward — from granite to aluminum to stainless steel to glass — becoming increasingly diaphanous before disappearing into the sky."

The Cartier Foundation in particular works along lines similar to Renzo Piano's Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center, in Noumea, New Caledonia (1992-1998), with the facade skin, and then just facade framing members, extending the facade plane out beyond the enclosed mass of building.

The Lucerne center uses another recurring approach, perhaps foreshadowed in the riverside block of L'Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA), of meeting space with a knife edge, clean against the sky, and thin, parting the air around the joining faces in a powerful yet lighter way than, say, the neoclassical cornice. Nouvel uses these edges at times on both horizontal edges of roofs (as at IMA), and on vertical edges connecting building sides (as at Lucerne).

The continuing freshness for Nouvel of this dematerialization approach seems to be supported in three dimensions — it is simply so unusual, it helps buildings to merge with their surroundings — which tends to be inherently connecting and enriching — and it seems to project a kind of gentleness, even while dramatically bold, which can be winning in ways untouched by a more arrogant or aggressive approach to boldness.

The Agbar tower in Barcelona also partially dematerializes with the change of its glazing, though I'm still not sure what to make of its shape, and a project underway in New York City, a mixed-use tower next door to the Museum of Modern Art, called Tour de Verre, uses shape very much for progressive attenuation into the air above, while the exact character of the structure's glazing is yet to be seen.   >>>

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L'Institut du Monde Arabe comprises two forms, each representing a major programmatic element.
Photo: Philippe Ruault Extra Large Image

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Inside the Arab Institute, the shading devices create an interesting play of light.
Photo: Georges Fessy Extra Large Image

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Designed to resemble screens common to Arab architecture, an array of operable shutter-type lenses controls light access on the south facade of L'Institut du Monde Arabe.
Photo: Kevin Matthews/ Artifice Images

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A public entrance on the southwest corner of the site leads to a wide plaza in front of L'Institut du Monde Arabe.
Photo: Kevin Matthews/ Artifice Images

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L'Institut du Monde Arabe ground-floor plan drawing.
Image: Ateliers Jean Nouvel Extra Large Image

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L'Institut du Monde Arabe upper-floor plan drawing.
Image: Ateliers Jean Nouvel Extra Large Image

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Detail elevation drawing of the shading devices.
Image: Ateliers Jean Nouvel Extra Large Image

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L'Institut du Monde Arabe stands near the Seine River.
Photo: Philippe Ruault Extra Large Image

 

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