words Marcus Fairs
“Bonjour. Jean Nouvel. Je suis l’architecte.” And with that, the security guard raises the barrier, allowing Nouvel to drive his wife’s ageing 3 Series BMW on to the construction site at Quai Branly, which lies beside the Seine and beneath the Eiffel Tower.
Nouvel eases the car up the steep hump but he has misjudged the camber, and the underside of the vehicle beaches on the concrete. “Ca ne marche pas, ça,” he whispers, perplexed, revving furiously. “Je ne comprends pas.”
“Ah, voila,” he nods as the car lunges forward, freeing itself with a curdling rasp and a tang of steel and brake fluid. “It smell very bad,” he observes, as we get out of the vehicle and head towards the Musée du Quai Branly.
There’s not much to see: Nouvel’s museum is a year from completion. The curved superstructure – raised above the ground on giant stilts – is in place, and the adjoining foliage-clad office block is complete, but little else.
When it’s finished, however, you won’t be able to see it at all. “I didn’t want to have a monumental museum; I preferred to have something quiet,” Nouvel explains. “The big gallery will be lost in the middle of the trees; you cannot see the building itself. It’s completely integrated in the geography.”
We don’t really want to be here, to be honest. It’s a cold, overcast, rain-spattered day and our planned in-depth interview in Nouvel’s studio has been scuppered by a last-minute site meeting that he cannot miss. Instead, we have to make do with a stilted conversation in the car.
In fact, we don’t want to be in Paris at all: the intention was to interview Nouvel in Barcelona to coincide with the completion of Torre Agbar, his extraordinary, polychromatic office tower in Barcelona. This bullet-shaped building is perhaps the most-talked about Nouvel building since the Institut du Monde Arabe, the 1987 building that made his reputation and which is a couple of miles upstream on the Quai Saint-Bernard.
But we could not find a mutually convenient date for the meeting and, anyway, the opening has been shifted back yet again to the autumn. So here we are in Paris.
Yet, on reflection, the accident-prone jaunt offers us a far better insight into both his architecture and personality than a glamorous Barcelona assignment would have done. Torre Agbar might reaffirm Nouvel’s position as one of the world’s leading architects but the Musée du Quai Branly underlines the fact that he is also one of the most enigmatic.
There is no obvious stylistic thread to his buildings, and the hardcore philosophising that accompanies them (he has co-written a book with Jean Baudrillard and employs two intellectuals in his office to stimulate project development) tends to hinder, rather than help, their interpretation.
Earlier, the day had started badly – Nouvel doesn’t seem to be a morning person. He is in a gloomy mood when we meet up with him at his studio just off the Avenue de la République in the north-east of the city. “It’s a bad day,” he declares. His lumbago is playing up: “I cannot move,” he groans. “I take a lot of medicine … I hope it is OK.”
He is, as usual, dressed head to toe in black – he wears only black, except for two months in the summer when he decamps to St Paul de Vence in the south of France and wears only white. Today he is not wearing his trademark black fedora (which has the initials JN printed inside the rim) and cape, which is a disappointment. But when we ask why not, he assures us they are in the boot of the car (his hat is so popular among journalists and photographers that his personal assistant keeps a spare in the office, just in case he forgets). Later, when we take the photos, he obligingly puts them on for us.
His Porsche had broken down that morning, hence the appropriation of his wife’s BMW – which has been boxed in by a courier’s van in the narrow cul de sac that leads to his office, prompting a weary altercation with its driver.
En route, his quiet discourse – barely audible above the drone of the engine and the Doppler roar of passing motorbikes – is punctuated by a resigned use of the horn and defeated, traffic-related asides such as “C’est pas bon, unh?” It’s a strangely melancholic delivery for a man with such vital physical presence.
“Torre Agbar is a heritage of Catalan obsessions,” he says, finally relaxing into the conversation. The corners of his mouth start to turn up, softening his huge ogre face, and he peppers his dialogue with great guffaws that are a cross between a cartoon French haw hee-haw hee-haw and Deputy Dawg.
“A few millenniums ago, in Montserrat [a mountain close to Barcelona that is of huge symbolic importance to Catalans], the wind created these shapes. For this reason Gaudi and other Catalan architects are really interested in this shape – the pinnacle, the parabola. You can see it in Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia; he also designed a hotel for New York exactly like this. I didn’t want to design an International Style tower in downtown Barcelona. I wanted a building linked to the identity of the city. So I revisited this form.”
Nouvel likes to think that sensitivity to context – cultural, geographical or architectural – is one of the defining themes of his work. The cantilevered roof of his 2000 Lucerne Culture and Congress Centre is similarly derived from the Swiss vernacular – albeit scaled up to the point where it becomes brooding and surreal.
“It’s to protect,” he explains. “Lucerne is very snowy and rainy. All the passages and the streets are covered – the bridges are also covered. For this reason I decided to create a covered square.”
The Institut du Monde Arabe also adopts a cultural motif – this time derived from the building’s programme, rather than its location on the Parisian Left Bank. “It was a building celebrating Arab culture, and I wanted to create a homage to Arab architecture. What I really liked [about Arab architecture] was the distillation of light through geometry; the precise light; the precise shadows. But in our country it’s not generally possible because sometimes it’s cloudy and rainy and sometimes it’s sunny. So I decided to adapt the geometry with holes like a camera aperture. Then I had a very precious facade, like the preciousness of mashrabiya [Middle Eastern carved screens] but in aluminium.”
The result was the striking southern facade of the building, made up of servo-controlled irises that open and close according to the intensity of the light, which is both scientifically rational and highly decorative.
The modulation of light – whether coaxing it into a building, banishing it, or merely playing with its effects – is perhaps the real defining theme of Nouvel’s architecture. All his great buildings strive to manipulate the power of the sun in a new way. In Lucerne, the aluminium-clad soffit doubles as a gigantic reflector, mitigating the oppressive shadow it casts. “It creates a game with light on the ceiling. It’s a plane parallel to the water of the lake so you have the reflection of the waves.”
With the cylindrical Torre Agbar, a fortress-thick concrete core is punctured with tiny square windows and covered by a jacket of glass louvres. “It is a building linked to the climate; a tower where you can open the windows, with more windows on the north side than the south. I created a double skin to create a convection of air so you have the feeling you can breathe the outside air.”
Nouvel has also used vegetation to achieve the same result. His 1994 Fondation Cartier in Paris uses internal gardens and trees instead of elaborate shuttering systems to get round the conundrum of regulating heat and light in an all-glass building; a forthcoming hotel tower in Barcelona will, judging by his brief description, be clad in living palm trees. His abortive Tokyo Guggenheim and ongoing Poble Nou park for Barcelona go further, with topography and foliage almost entirely replacing architecture to the extent that it is more akin to landscape gardening.
Nouvel was brought up in south-western France and went to study in Paris in 1968 – the year of student uprisings and anti-establishment protest. He seems reluctant to talk about this momentous time. I ask if he took part in the demonstrations and he unleashes one of his great laughs. “Aw-ah-uhuh-uhaw! Yes, it was the epoch for that. We had a dream of another future, but it was very short, eh? Haw-haw-hoo-ha. One month with the hope of another future.”
Nouvel was perhaps more interested in challenging the architectural status quo than the political one: throughout his career, he has proven adept at maintaining his hard-living reputation while cultivating the establishment connections that seem such an essential part of the French way of doing things (the Institut du Monde Arabe was the first of Mitterand’s Grands Projets; Quai Branly is the first, and so far only, of Chirac’s).
By now we have arrived at the site and Nouvel disappears into his meeting while we wait. And wait. In fact, the meeting over-runs so severely that when he emerges again, we need to go straight to the station to catch our train back to London. Nouvel offers to drive us, suggesting that we finish the interview en route.
Yet the BMW refuses to start – no doubt due to the crunch it received earlier. It’s really not his day. He half-heartedly tries to flag a taxi on Quai Branly before disappearing back into the site offices. He emerges minutes later, triumphant: a Mercedes is coming for us.
When it arrives, we pile in and Nouvel continues his discourse. The sun comes out as we plunge into the Alma tunnel and Nouvel seems revitalised. “I like the sun. I’ve lived too long in Paris. Cough cough. I want work a bit more in the sun. I was born in the south-west, I was always in the sun, it’s a genetic story. Hee-aw hee-aw hee-aw.”
“I was really shocked by the International Style,” he says, referring to his student days. “When I arrived at the school of Beaux Arts it was always the same recipe, always the same thing, in every city, in every condition. But I like specificities. I have worked 30 years now in this way, identifying the specificity, researching the connections with the local culture, with the climate, with the client. And if you research always these specificities, you generally don’t do the same building twice.”
This is similar to the approach adopted by Foreign Office Architects, I suggest. “It’s not the opposite? Haw haw haw! I am older than them. Haw haw haw! Perhaps they do like me, but I don’t do like them!”
Nouvel’s philosophy of specificity reached its maturity with the Institute du Monde Arab – a building that offered architecture a way out of the dead end of post-modernism, while proving that a building could be modern without having to be Modernist.
But he then went on to baffle the critics by striking out in different directions with each subsequent project. “I had a lot of difficulties at the beginning, because some architecture critics said to me you did three buildings and there is no relationship between them. I said you’re wrong! There is the same attitude. Of course, there are three different kinds of shapes, of vocabulary, but for good reasons. I call that in French poésie de situation. I research what is the pièce manquant – you have to find the missing piece. To build something is a new opportunity – what would be the singularity of that opportunity?”
His approach is of equal relevance today, in an architectural climate where the universal application of context-free Modernism has been supplanted by the universal application of context-free iconism.
“I think we are in a bad way,” he says. “If you travel a lot in the world you see the same buildings in South America, in South-east Asia, in all the cities in the world. You see the same buildings without roots, without links to anything. You see a lot of repetition of stylistic vocabulary by architects who do the same building in every case. It’s not the right attitude for architecture. For me, architecture is a modification. A little modification of a landscape, a part of a city, a complement to other buildings, a testimony of an epoch and so on. It’s not a kind of sculpture.”
His recent book with Baudrillard, Les Objets Singuliers, dealt with this issue. “We talked about the dangers of clonage, about having the same buildings done by computer. Now it is very easy. You change only two or three parameters and you can do exactly the same. I think the main question of the coming years is that: the question of generic architecture and specific architecture. It is a uniquely interesting question, the main question: the question of the identity of the world. We have every day a smaller world. If you do the same thing in every city, every city becomes the same.”
Nouvel himself is not averse to designing icons – Torre Agbar is most definitely one. And his commitment to specificity and singularity were tested recently when a wealthy client from Qatar saw Torre Agbar and asked Nouvel to design an identical building for a site in Doha.
“I said it’s not possible. But I said we can discuss.” The result, which has yet to go on site, is clearly an Islamicised Torre Agbar, with a geometric brise-soleil and a top like a Saracen helmet.
Yet Nouvel rejects the suggestion that he has broken his own rules. “It is an adaptation, but it’s not at all [the same], even if the shape is kind of a cylinder. Qatar has a brise soleil and is completely glass inside. Barcelona is the opposite – 70% or 80% concrete, only the cupola is glass. The pattern of the brise soleil is linked to their own story. It’s metal, an abstract geometric pattern, with light inside. It’s a reinterpretation of eternal themes, eternal stories.”
Yet whatever he says, the Qatar building bears a clear resemblance to Torre Agbar – it is not a singularity. Nouvel claims his methodology does not always lead to hard-edged symbolism: it could equally result in something “very soft, very quiet” – such as the Quai Branly museum. Designed to house a collection of artifacts from cultures around the world, its curving, elevated gallery will be almost completely obscured by a forest planted around and beneath it. The building, occupying the last undeveloped riverside plot in central Paris, is so soft and quiet that you cannot tell what it looks like from the computer renderings.
What is the singularity here? “A lot of things. The first context is the programme, which is the indigenous civilisations in America, Australia and Africa, the situation in the mountains, in the forest, along the river. A lot of the objects inside are linked to their beliefs in gods. Their civilisations are alive. The building takes the curve of the Seine. You cannot imagine that I could put this building in another place. It would make no sense.”
By now the car has been idling outside Gare du Nord for a couple of minutes and reluctantly we have to go. “That’s it?!” he exclaims. He sounds disappointed.