Portrait of Jean Nouvel: An architectural artist
The curiosity, and the willingness, to take risks
There are few master architects who can boast as varied a life’s work as Jean Nouvel’s. He rose to fame in 1987 with the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris. He equipped its fully glazed façade with mechanical
screens that open and close automatically upon exposure to light. Both its ultra-modern technology and square windows are reminiscent of ancient Arabic palace architecture, which reveal Nouvel’s interest in Middle Eastern culture and architecture. In fact, this is a common thread that runs through many of his international projects.
Jean Nouvel: A constant quest for a “unique concept”
Jean Nouvel’s designs are based on a search for a unique concept, rather than stylistic or ideological considerations. “No matter where I am or where I'm working,” the master architect said in an interview, “I can't help but tickle the beauty of this one particular place and caress it with my architectural ideas.”
His striving for originality and his willingness to take risks in every project have shaped his reputation. "Since the beginning of his architectural career in the 1970s, the Frenchman Jean Nouvel has broken with the aesthetics of modernism and postmodernism to create his own stylistic language," writes Pritzker Prize director Bill Lacy in his book One Hundred Contemporary Architects.
Inspiration from his surroundings
Using one of his latest major projects as an example, Jean Nouvel explains how he continually pushes the boundaries of his own creativity. He points to the National Museum of Qatar, which opened in March 2019. "I was looking for a symbol that is respectful, dignified and unique," Nouvel explains.
Wishing it to be a symbol of the desert, Nouvel designed the 52,000 square metre building in the form of a sand rose. This, according to him, “Stands for the archaic and the eternity of the desert. But if it is enlarged excessively, as in the case of this museum, the sand rose also becomes a symbol of the modernisation process of this country: from the era of nomadism and the desert to striving into the future".
From the art school to the Jean Nouvel studios
As a person, Jean Nouvel is just as assertive and stubborn as his architecture is. Friends and customers know him as a lateral thinker. This became apparent early on: Despite objections from his parents, Jean Nouvel began studying art at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris at the age of 20. To earn money, he took a job in an architectural office and after only a year was responsible for a large apartment complex as project manager.
Before even finishing university, the 25-year-old Nouvel opened his first architectural office.
After several other companies with various junior and business partners, he founded Ateliers Jean Nouvel in Paris in 1994. The well-filled order books were followed by six further branches, in cities like London, Barcelona and New York. With these, Jean Nouvel realised major projects all over the world: whether hotels, cultural buildings and office buildings or commercial centres and residential complexes.
Urban natural phenomena and artificial landscapes
Many works in Nouvel’s home country have paved the way to success for this Pritzker Prize winner. One of the most famous buildings is probably the Parisian art museum Fondation Cartier (1994), whose glass façade seems to sparkle in the sunlight. Other projects which have also received international recognition include the Palace of Justice in Nantes (2000), the Paris Philharmonic (2015) and and the monumental Musée du Quai Branly for the art of non-European peoples (2007).
Nouvel designed Lucerne's Culture and Conference Centre (2000) so that it offers a view of the entire city in an exclusive lakeside location. Through the monumental design and the use of materials such as glass and metal, Jean Nouvel's buildings are characterised by an aesthetic of the sublime. The Torre Agbar in Barcelona (2006) and the 230-meter high Doha Tower (2012), for example, proudly stand out from the cityscape. The Louvre in Abu Dhabi (2017), which seems to float above the water with a dome of 8,000 silver metal stars, also resembles a natural phenomenon.
One clear leitmotif of this architect’s works is the integration of the environment. This is particularly evident in many of his works.
Thus Jean Nouvel has been living up to his own ambition to create unique buildings and to rediscover his own creativity again and again for more than half a century.
Which of Jean Nouvel’s buildings do you find particularly impressive? Have you ever visited one of his buildings? Let us know in the comments!