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Reason to be Cheerful

Jean Nouvel

The Pritzker Architecture Prize is commonly described as "the Nobel Prize of architecture." It was indeed modeled on the Nobel, and its winners, like Nobel laureates, receive a bronze medal and a cash award. Yet the imputed equivalence between the two prizes is misleading. Alfred Nobel created his prize to reward specific and identifiable accomplishments that advance knowledge or create new lines of inquiry in a given field. (Leave aside the Peace Prize, which is a more complicated affair.) Nobel's written criteria for the prizes in physics, chemistry, and medicine recognize a person or persons for the most important "discovery or invention ... or improvement" in their field, and in literature for "the most outstanding work in an ideal direction."

The Pritzker Prize, by contrast, rewards an architect who has a significant body of built work, as opposed to theoretical projects (although exceptions to this requirement have been made). This work must demonstrate "talent, vision and commitment," and offer "consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment." The vague mandate that the winner make "significant contributions to humanity" is not the same as substantially advancing existing knowledge or navigating new paths, "ideal" or otherwise, in architecture, let alone making a specific discovery or a genre-bending accomplishment, as the Nobel laureates have done. And so the criteria for the Pritzker Prize (which is the creation of the Hyatt Foundation) can actually discourage the jury from evaluating the work of nominees according to the most important standards by which architecture should be judged. Does a project offer path-breaking design solutions to known problems? Does it make substantive technological, social, or artistic advances to practice? Does it profitably reformulate the boundaries of the discipline? Does it change the way we think about architecture?

Skipping the logical next step of scrutinizing the worthy and unworthy among past Pritzker winners, we can choose instead to dwell on a reason to be cheerful: this year the Pritzker committee got it right. It awarded its prize to Jean Nouvel, a sixty-three-year-old French architect based in Paris, who has more recently made headlines by winning a key approval from New York City's mercurial Landmarks Preservation Commission for a seventy-five-story skyscraper for the Museum of Modern Art, and by winning a major competition for a seventy-one-story mixed-use tower at La Défense, the business district on the outskirts of Paris. Nouvel, one of a handful of contemporary architects to be honored during his lifetime with a comprehensive, multivolume publication of his complete works (to be issued this fall by Taschen), runs a large international practice and has built many buildings: housing, theaters, and opera houses, office buildings and complexes, museums, shopping malls.

Some of these buildings are bad, some are merely fine. One example of the latter, which begins to reveal Nouvel's orientation as a designer and to explain the unevenness of his work, is his winning scheme for the Institut du Monde Arabe, the French government-sponsored institute for Arab culture. In the eyes of the world, it was with this building, which sits on a prominent site on the left bank of the Seine in downtown Paris, that Nouvel found his footing. One of François Mitterrand's grands projets, completed in 1987, the project's best-known feature is its south entrance, a lovely glass façade backed with a perforated metal screen that recalls the ornately geometric sunscreens common in traditional Arab palace architecture. Within a shiny steel grid of small square cells, metal diaphragms were designed to open and close like camera shutters, mechanically controlled by photosensitive machinery: diamonds morphing into octagonal stars, then hexagons, then circles and so on, apertures opening and closing in response to changing light.

This mouchearabiens façade is unique and visually attractive. Yet it is just a façade. Many of the building's rooms and circulation spaces are cramped and overly flashy. Its overall appeal is largely of the boys-with-toys kind--and, since shortly after the building's opening, the mouchearabiens have malfunctioned. No, the importance of the Institute du Monde Arabe lies in how it reveals its designer's strengths and weaknesses, showing them to be the same. Nouvel pursues the new. He experiments. When he was designing it, few of his colleagues talked about the importance of modulating natural light, which is now nearly a mandate for environmentally responsible design. To my knowledge, no one had tried to control daylight through photosensitive mechanical devices. The Institut du Monde Arabe is not a great building, but it does reveal a restless, searching mind.

Nouvel's commitment to experimentation has, in a handful of buildings, produced actual discoveries, inventions that create one of architecture's many possible "ideal directions." Among these are the Cartier Foundation headquarters in Paris, the Cultural and Congress enter in Lucerne, and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. In these three projects, as well as several others, he creates art from architecture, all the while elegantly articulating an original, innovative, and necessary agenda for architecture's future.

To understand Nouvel's contribution, we must begin with the issues that most critically press upon the future of architecture, our cities, and the lives we live in them. They fall, I think, into three categories: political, social, and aesthetic. The political challenges facing architecture are many: the diminishing power of its practitioners to influence public opinion and, consequently, the physical configuration of our public realm; the need to develop new technologies--and to marshal existing ones--to create architecture that has direct political and social value: for disadvantaged people, temporary shelters, prefabricated dwellings, and low-cost housing; and for all people, buildings, urban designs, and infrastructural projects that in one way or another advance the causes of social justice and environmental responsibility. Socially, architecture and urban design must reformulate and contribute to supporting desirable patterns of societal interaction and familial structure. And aesthetically, architecture must move us, as great architecture always has, and make us see the world and its possibilities anew, and change how we think and live, individually and collectively.

Nouvel's contributions to architecture are primarily in the aesthetic and social realms. Aesthetically, for him, architecture constitutes a unique form of knowledge, which he aims to advance. He once remarked that he holds to an "aesthetics of revelation, a way of taking a piece of the world and saying, 'I'm appropriating this, and I'm giving it back to you for your appreciation in a different way.'" His particular aesthetic innovation lies in how he plays with our apprehension of buildings and their immediate surroundings, provoking us to reflect upon the shifting relationship between our optical experience of the world and our thoughts about it.

Nouvel does this by tackling the subject of matter. This is a stark contrast to his many modernist predecessors, who used newly developed materials and technologies to enlarge people's understanding of the dynamics of space. He has said that he is less interested in space than he is in "the relation between matter and light," adding that what especially intrigues him is the possibility of creating optical experiences that convey the empirical fact that light is matter. Unusually for a contemporary architect, Nouvel has been greatly influenced by contemporary art. His appreciation for artistic concerns has inspired him to pursue his aesthetic project by manipulating his users' perception of color, depth of field, transparency and opacity, materiality and apparent dematerialization. "I try to create a space that isn't legible," he once explained, "a space that works as a mental extension of sight." To provoke an architectural experience of productive reflection, he serves up spaces and places that "are there but might not be there."

The first executed project to encapsulate this aesthetic successfully was Nouvel's wonderful headquarters for the Cartier Foundation in Paris, which opened in 1994. Situated on the Boulevard Raspail and containing a historic "Tree of Liberty" planted by Chateaubriand, the Cartier Foundation sought a design that would include the venerated tree and avoid irritating neighbors hostile to the idea of a modern building on their historically important street. Nouvel captured his musings on transparency and perceptual complexity in a brilliantly vitreous solution. At times the building seems hardly to exist. His creation is a eight-story-high panegyric to the simple complexity of rectangular geometry and the responsiveness of glass to light. The often reflective, sometimes transparent facades change all day long, every day. They are gray and opaque when the sky is overcast; brilliant yellow and orange on clear days in the setting sun; a watery, transparent green at night.

Like giant breakable screens, the Cartier Foundation's entrance and rear façades extend to and above both sides of the enclosed building, paradoxically enhancing its monumentality while underscoring its fragility. Ceilings at the entrance level, containing mostly exhibition spaces, are a palatial twenty-six feet high. In the galleries, full-floor glass panels slide open to create a free flow from the sidewalk in front to the garden behind. Air or glass? It is not always clear. Inside the upper stories, Nouvel elaborates upon the theme of the changeable experiences of transparency, translucency, and reflectivity. Moving through this tall slip of a building, one sees its glass planes from multiple oblique and perpendicular angles, layered atop and shifting around one another. The Cartier Foundation embodies a thoroughly contemporary sensibility wrapped in a paradox: a building at once retiring and monumental, it is constantly remade by its immediate built and environmental context, by the time of day or night, the weather, the season, the shifting movements of its users and passersby.

This description of the Cartier Foundation may confer the impression that Nouvel is in the business of de-familiarization, in the old Russian formalist sense of the term. Such a notion might give pause: it is fine if a painting shocks people into seeing the world afresh, but people live in and use buildings. Should they really be unsettled by them? Some prominent contemporary architects, such as Peter Eisenman and Daniel Libeskind, would probably say yes; but Nouvel disagrees. His buildings are emphatically not (to use Eisenman's ridiculous term) "autonomous." His work on perceptual experience inspires people to reconceptualize their relationship to the built object and the surrounding city. His buildings have concrete uses and familiar purposes; they make places for people to individually and collectively live their lives.

In the Cartier Foundation, and even more in two great buildings that followed it, the Cultural and Congress Center in Lucerne and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Nouvel manages to make spaces that "are there but might not be there" without flying into self-indulgent fantasy, because his inquiry into the relationship of perception to cognition is coupled with an inquiry into the architectural use of figuration and allusion. If Nouvel's aesthetic musings on the nature of perception are intended to provoke private revelation, his re-thinking of the problem of architectural figuration emerges from his commitment to socially relevant architecture. In Lucerne and Minneapolis, Nouvel developed a new approach to the way a building should relate to its urban context, which might awkwardly, but accurately, be called transformative contextualism.

Questions of figuration and abstraction are much muddier in architecture than in art. A painting either depicts a figure or it does not; or, as in many abstract artworks since cubism, it suggests figurative elements while not actually depicting them. Yet the question of figuration in architecture is truly labyrinthine. Is a Doric column abstract or figurative? Is a façade composed of a sliding and skewed array of rectangles abstract or figurative? What if it deliberately alludes to compositions by Mondrian? What if those rectangles are actually windows, sometimes with people leaning out of them? That façade is an abstract composition of geometric forms, a figurative allusion to an abstract painting, and it contains actual or provokes imagined thoughts of real people. So is it abstract or figurative?

These questions may seem as relevant to architecture, or to life in the contemporary city, as puzzling out whether architects can dance on the heads of pins. Yet they have appeared prominently in the discourse of architecture for more than forty years. In reaction to the perceived abstraction and conceptual inaccessibility of some canonical early modernist buildings, architects were calling, by the 1960s, for a more "contextual" architecture that so-called ordinary people could grasp--buildings that looked like other buildings people had previously experienced and so would presumably feel comfortable being in and looking at. Historicism and contextualism, which come in many stripes, became the vogue, often under the name postmodernism, with its diverse practitioners arguing that architects should employ allusions (if not direct references) to the forms of familiar buildings, because doing so would give them a better chance of actually reaching their publics.

Nouvel's buildings in Lucerne and Minneapolis start within the parameters of this debate. Unlike some prominent Pritzker winners--Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Thom Mayne, Richard Rogers--Nouvel insists upon the importance of contextualism in architecture. But he rejects the mimicry of existing visual tropes, a practice most famously propounded by Robert Venturi (another Pritzker winner) and his partner, Denise Scott Brown (who was scandalously snubbed by the Pritzker committee). This practice of directly referring, or indirectly alluding, to established architectural styles is now practiced by a host of past winners, including Rem Koolhaas, Sverre Fehn, Raphael Moneo, Glenn Murcutt, and Alvaro Siza, as well as a large swath of prominent contemporary practitioners.

Nouvel has developed a singular approach to contextualizing architectural form that sets the stage for aesthetic and social transformation. To develop his designs, he carefully considers the role that the institution will play in the life of the city. He also studies the circumstances of its site--its history, its surrounding buildings, its topography, its place in the urban realm. In his best buildings, he synthesizes his vision of the particular institution's social role with his observations about its site and then proceeds with his composition. The result is a highly iconic architecture that rarely refers directly to actually existing buildings, past or present. Nouvel keeps his eye trained less on the history of architecture than on the particular cities and sites in which he builds. His buildings emphasize what he calls the "hyper-specificity" of their place. At the same time, he asks, "What good is an architecture that is out of step with contemporary life?" To genuflect before architectural precedents in today's globalizing, media-saturated, climatologically precarious, technology-driven world would be "absolutely ridiculous"; but simply to reflect today's world without trying to better it would be unconscionable.

The block-long lakefront Cultural and Congress Center in Lucerne, which was finished in 2000, brilliantly intertwines Nouvel's aesthetic inquiry into the nature of perception and his aesthetic and social reconceptualization of architectural form in what may be his greatest completed project, and is without doubt one of the most important buildings of our time. This huge complex (its gross area is 350,000 square feet) houses two concert halls, a small "convention hall," a museum, a restaurant, and a bar. Here Nouvel brilliantly amalgamates his manifold lines of architectural exploration. The Cultural and Congress Center encompasses conceptual, material, spatial, and emotional opposites. The building is monumental and inviting; conceptually driven and pragmatic; unique and contextual; figurative and abstract; opaque and transparent; light-absorbing and light-reflecting; compressed and expansive; brooding and celebratory.

Functionally and urbanistically, the Lucerne building encapsulates Nouvel's transformative contextualism. Faced with the prospect of crashing so many square feet into this small, historic, Swissprecious city, Nouvel broke the program into three adjacent, linked, and differently sized components, each housing a public amenity: a large concert-hall-cum-restaurant, a small concert-hall-cum-bar and public gathering place, and a museumcum-"convention hall." These components are housed in distinct rectangular prisms, separated at ground level by water channels that feed into reflecting pools in a front plaza, and above ground level by exterior pedestrian bridges. Ever mindful of how his buildings relate to their urban sites, Nouvel placed the three prisms according to their likely frequency of use: the large concert hall to the east is farthest from the center of the city; the museum and conference center to the west is closest to the city center and next to an entrance to the subway.

On the lakefront side, Nouvel unified this disaggregated composition, responding to the scale of the monumental, mirrored expanse of Lake Lucerne. He capped the building with an astonishing tapered slash of a roof that cantilevers seventy-five feet above the outdoor plaza and in some places stretches 150 feet out from the body of the building. From hundreds of meters away, in the city of Lucerne and outside it, what one sees of the Cultural and Congress Center is that tapered horizon line of a roof: depending upon where you stand, it can even appear to project over and encompass an adjacent historic building or two. Lined on its underside in matte gray aluminum, this roof works functionally and compositionally: in its hovering scope it has become the icon of the city; it helps to spatially define and functionally cover part of the outdoor plaza; and it ratifies the architecture's visual themes of mirroring, transparency, and opacity by reflecting the aqueous movements of the lake and the plaza's shallow pools.

Beneath the unifying element of the roof, Nouvel creates a funky contrapuntal rhythm, visually distinguishing the three prisms from one another but relating them materially and compositionally. Parts pick up on and extend the conceptual project of the Cartier Foundation, as in the main concert hall's ground-level facade of tinted, highly reflective glass, perpendicular to which are set a series of shallow vertical glass planes. This glass wall mirrors the city, but with a twist: visually, the added glass panels thicken the facade plane and increase the complexity of its reflected imagery; conceptually, they further emphasize to the viewer the shifting and fleeting nature of architectural perception. Standing in front of this wall, one despairs of identifying exactly what reflected parts of the city or the lake she beholds.

Further extending the inquiry that he began in the Cartier Foundation, Nouvel pushes his exploration into the nature of architectural perception beyond questions of transparency and reflection. Passages in lacy steel mesh and opaque, deep, reflective colors generate other perceptual and conceptual musings. Long thin corridors hang in blood-red boxes off one façade, playing off reflective glass and bright-blue enameled boxes housing rooms. These variations of texture and color also complicate the viewer's understanding of depth of field, while the differently articulated facade elements provoke him to imagine moving though spaces he cannot, from the outside, see or understand.

Inside, one moves through places that are dramatically dark and compressed (as in the deep red hallways leading to the concert hall), places that are dramatically light and open (as in the glass, steel mesh, skylit museum), and places that are dramatically both. Standing, during intermissions, in the concert hall's dark low-ceilinged foyer, you get the impression that the experience of this building in its site has been distilled to its pungent essence: the room is, on one side, compressed by an exterior portion of the bulbous, red-wood-veneered concert hall, and on the other side it is released into framed views over the lake and the city of Lucerne beyond.

Such moments in the Lucerne building testify to Nouvel's longstanding fascination with theater. This is no surprise from an architect preoccupied with how perceptions shift and transform situationally; and this fascination with perception prompted still more innovation in his enthralling Guthrie Theater, completed in 2006. In the Guthrie, Nouvel amalgamates his inquiries into the relationship between perception and architectural cognition, theatricality, and urban context into a brilliant, deep blue silo of a building perched high on a crest above the roaring St. Anthony Falls of the Mississippi River in an old industrial section of downtown Minneapolis.

In Paris and Lucerne, Nouvel achieved figuration by manipulating, reflecting, and framing his buildings' urban contexts. But both the Cartier Foundation and the Cultural and Congress Center are located in cities and on sites saturated with hundreds of years of history. Minneapolis is different. Compared to Paris or Lucerne, the city's architectural heritage is paltry. And the immediate urban context of the new Guthrie Theater is sorrier still. It is set on a former parking lot at what remains the outer edge of downtown; the neighborhood is filled mainly with abandoned industrial buildings and empty lots. This project demanded that Nouvel find a way to emphasize the historical identities of both Minneapolis and the Guthrie Theater, and so he adopted a more directly figurative approach. Compositionally and spatially, he took his cues from the institutional identity of the theater and from the site: the river, a nearby historic bridge, and a preserved flour mill next door that is a historic monument.

Screen-printed onto midnight-blue-enameled panels near the Guthrie's city-side entrance are huge ghostly images of faces, stills drawn from scenes of past performances. The building's large curved exterior volume, which houses one of the theaters, alludes to the adjacent grain silo and to Minneapolis's past as the "flour milling capital of the world." On the opposite side of the building, a cantilevered amber glass lobby four stories above ground level extends nearly 200 feet over a road toward the Mississippi River to offer variously framed and generally spectacular views of the river, the adjacent city of St. Paul, and the historic mill next door. Inside, as one moves through the various spaces, Nouvel reveals the theater as itself a sort of industrial machine for the production of illusions, of fabulations of personal identity. One catches mediated glimpses of the set building room and other production areas--some of any theater's many backstages.

The Guthrie is more figurative, in the traditional sense of the term, than the Cartier Foundation or the Lucerne buildings, but Nouvel manages to use this figuration to transform this institution in its urban place by creating a richer, more conceptually dense context. This is contextualism without a hint of nostalgia. Indeed, the Guthrie is utterly contemporary--at moments, even achingly cool.

The buildings in Paris, Lucerne, and Minneapolis confound our perceptions and provoke us to question how we process sensory experience, thereby expanding our vision of how personal experience is constructed. In offering a transformative contextualism, at once figurative and abstract, bound to the existing environment and forward-looking, these projects also constitute a cultural and social proposal to deal with another one of the contemporary world's most pressing concerns, namely globalization, by creating civic icons that distill a sense of locality and place. They move architecture beyond its deadening polarization of "context" and figuration on the one hand and "autonomy" and abstraction on the other. Thus these buildings address architecture to some of the most widely discussed questions in contemporary culture. Cerberus-like, Nouvel looks to the past, omnivorously consumes the present, and keeps watch on a future that he knows he is responsible for, and can partly shape.

Nouvel has completed one iconic skyscraper, the Torre Agbar in Barcelona, and is now turning his full attention to the problem of the tall building. He has two commissions in New York City, a condominium tower at 100 Eleventh Avenue and a tower next to the Museum of Modern Art in midtown. He has also begun work on his competition-winning scheme for a mixed-use tower at La Défense. An architect's design for a project is a declaration of intent, and it may vary wildly from what comes out of the ground. The designs for these projects, which are in different stages of development, look promising. Still, what Nouvel will accomplish in these new towers is an open question. The Torre Agbar and the design for 100 Eleventh Avenue, which is currently under construction, suggest that he will continue to explore the most advanced technologies in pursuit of his architectural ideals, and that he will increasingly consider the impact of such large buildings on the environment. It is time for Nouvel, like the great American architect Louis Sullivan before him, to reconsider the tall building.

Sarah Williams Goldhagen reviews architecture for The New Republic.


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By Sarah Williams Goldhagen