AN ARCHITECT IS LIKE A FILMMAKER. The Paris based architect Jean Nouvel injects a sense of originality into the projects he undertakes all over the world. He creates a unique concept for each particular combination of people, place and time, yielding buildings that transform their environments and indelibly mark the cities in which they are built. Jean Nouvel has won the highest international awards, including the coveted Pritzker Prize in 2008.

Jean Nouvel, you studied architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris?

I arrived at the school in the 60’s when the École des Beaux-Arts wasn’t working very well, and after May ‘68 it worked even worse. I was very shocked to find that the great fashion of the time was avoiding thinking, and an international style which meant we were given projects to do that were never located. We didn’t know where they were, which was very traumatic for me, because I have always thought that architecture was linked to a geographical and typological meaning, and to a culture and inherited memory, and that each piece of architecture was a testimony of the time and had to be invented in connection with these parameters.

Fortunately I came across Claude Parent and Paul Virilio, my real teachers. For health reasons Claude Parent stopped working for a while in 1970 and I then took the opportunity to create my own agency. I was 25 years old and hadn’t yet graduated.

What can you tell us about Claude Parent?

My master was a utopian architect from the ‘60s and ‘70s who, together with Paul Virilio, invented the oblique function. This is the idea that we could create a real category of architecture, a real type of architecture, based on the continuity of space without rupture. With oblique architecture you go from one floor to the other by slopes. He also created a lot of hypotheses about cities, especially what he called the “Inclisites”, new cities that were being created in nature, in the mountains, that left all nature untouched. With the philosopher and thinker Paul Virilio he created the Church of Sainte-Bernadette in Nevers, a classified historical monument. It is bunker architecture, made of concrete. He’s the king of concrete.

Were you interested in Bauhaus?

Yes, but it was a time when we believed that in the future everything was possible and that we could do without everything around us and take pleasure in denying absolutely any reference to the past. Today, when you look at Le Corbusier’s “Plan Voisin” for Paris you can only be a little bit terrified that he was planning to demolish half of Paris, near Notre Dame and all around, and put big tower blocks everywhere. Le Corbusier was an extraordinary creator of buildings as architectural objects and a great visual artist. However, on a theoretical level he is still easy to criticize.

Was Jean Prouvé a great architect?

Undoubtedly. Working very closely with the most modest programs he invented a vocabulary, a way of constructing. He established another relationship between the elements of a house, or the furniture in a house, between steel and wood. He’s someone fundamental.

Is that why he liked the Beaubourg project for the Pompidou Centre?

He wasn’t the only one to choose it, but he was on the jury. Prouvé was a modern man and understood the elementarity in Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’s project and the completely urban dimension. The Pompidou Centre is an architecture of construction, as much so as any Gothic cathedral, and that would affect and touch a builder like Prouvé.

You are the son of a professor, are you an intellectual?

You don’t call yourself an intellectual. I’m the son of a teacher, which is why I’ve always refused to teach. It’s a paradox, but for me a teacher is not someone who instills something in someone else, but someone who awakens his student to himself. When Paul Virilio was director of the École Spéciale d’architecture I agreed to teach, but only for six months. I have done a lot of lecturing in my life.

“With architecture, everyone should live in an artistic world, in an object that is related to art, including even the art of living.”

Aerial view of the new National Museum of Qatar designed by Ateliers Jan Nouvel and inspired by desert rose crystal clusters. Photo: Iwan Baan

Jean Nouvel, you built the Arab World Institute, the Cartier Foundation, and the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, and other museums elsewhere, particularly in the Middle East. Is the space and light of a place very important to your architecture?

The Arab World Institute can only be made there. It cannot be moved by 10 centimetres. It’s a Parisian building, but it’s a tribute to Arab culture that becomes a game of geometry and light.

In this modern era architecture has often denied the place, but you still won the competition to build it?

There was such a fear of modern architecture that they wanted the building to be placed on a plot of land near the university, so that it would not be visible from historic Paris. They didn’t want these buildings to be seen. I put myself opposite Notre Dame on the edge of the Docks. I built higher than expected on a bus lane that Jacques Chirac wanted to finish. It seemed I had all the elements to be eliminated, but when you see the urban play that it represents you realize it doesn’t take anything away from anyone. There was a very architectural and intellectual jury, and it was clear that the building was meant to be there.

What about the Quai Branly Museum?

If I followed the Parisian urban rules I would have had to make a building all around the Quai Branly site. I did the opposite. I made a building in the middle, like the Quai d’Orsay. I try to manage all elements of a site, and integrate all the cultural or personal desires into the program. The horizontal blade of the Culture and Congress Centre in Lucerne is an absolute contrast against the mountains and creates the sharpest and cleanest covered square. Every time there is something that says: It’s meant to be there, you can’t move it, you can’t make this building somewhere else. All my architectures look more like this or more like that because they belong to a place, to a time, to the people who wanted them and who commissioned them. The drama today is cloning.

What do you mean?

The repetition of all these objects that are manufactured beforehand. Everyone has in their computers all types of buildings such as offices, shopping centers, housing and so on. You see them everywhere. When you arrive in a city today, in the first half hour you never know where you are. The catastrophe of architectural globalization is happening on every continent and in every city. I’m an anti-clone of the first kind.

Are you like an artist, always doing something different?

A filmmaker is more appropriate than an artist. Take Kubrick’s movies. If you didn’t know it was Kubrick every time, you’d never know it was Kubrick. Style is fidelity to a way of expressing oneself and creating a building that goes very well there, that is an echo of what’s around, and that manages the references of the time. The first parameter of contextuality is still the time.

Do you think a lot about the well-being of people?

Architecture is made for the well-being of people, to give pleasure, and it’s the art closest to people. When I came into this profession I believed that the field of architecture was going to expand, while the field of construction was going to shrink. Exactly the opposite has happened. The vocation of architecture is to give pleasure through the art that is architecture to all those who live in it. With architecture, everyone should live in an artistic world, in an object that is related to art, including even the art of living.

Are ecology and security very important?

Yes, but we have to go through them anyway, and the most ridiculous thing about architecture competitions now is that we’re judged on fire escapes, on safety, on constructability. They make you draw details of floors, windows, toilets, and so on. It’s absolutely pointless and totally ridiculous! The only question that matters is: What is the soul of what you are going to create? What are you going to give to the people who are going to live in it? The right to architect is in danger.

In your youth weren’t you in charge of the architectural union?

I started the architectural union with some of my friends. It was the first anti-corporatist union, with the premise that architecture and architects should be defended, not the opposite.

“What is done in all the office districts is no longer towers, it’s just high cages.”

Jean Nouvel which of your contemporaries are you are interested by?

I’m a big fan of and have become friends with Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano, Peter Zumthor and Jacques Herzog. Each time they do something related to the love of architecture, with serious characteristics and singularities and identities, without doing the same thing over and over again.

How do you set about a project?

I meet the person and there must be a real spark, it’s got to be interesting. If there is not a person, if it’s a contest, it has to be really inspiring. The conditions have to allow me to be ambitious in my architecture. Not ambitious for me – ambitious for the city, for the program, for my client. I believe in sentimental architecture where there is the possibility to surpass oneself.

How do you operate?

First I gather and synthesize all the possible elements related to the the people who I am going to work with and the history of the place. That’s my structuralist background. Then I get into bed, put on my mask and put in my earplugs and wait in the silence and the dark for it to come. There is a kind of concentration. I put a subject in my head, and things start to go around in my mind. At some point something happens, and at that moment I catch it.

How long does this take?

It depends. Several hours anyway, but sometimes several sessions as well. Sometimes I do it over and over again.

Is this the main work?

That’s right, yes. And the real job afterwards is to communicate the idea, because you don’t architect alone, you work with your team. You have to deepen it, you have to steer it, and projects are generated within the project.

How do you communicate your ideas?

I draw. It goes faster than words. If I need to make a sketch, I do, but I don’t sit behind a computer or a drawing table for days. I spend a lot of time with my collaborators to refine the projects, to be precise.

How many people do you work with now?

120 people here in Paris, 20 in China, some others elsewhere. In total about 150 at the moment. There were times when there were more.

Do you have any students?

A lot of people want to work here and come and stay for six months, a year, or two or three. There are about twenty nationalities here.

How many projects do you have on at the same time?

Projects take a long time. Most projects last 6-7-8, sometimes 10 years. So, in parallel, there could be 30 or 40 projects over 10 years.

How do you follow them all?

I follow them, and I even precede them!

Should architecture be horizontal or vertical?

All the generalities are wrong. In architecture, all of them are fake. Being for skyscrapers is stupid. I’m for towers and I’m against towers. I’m for detached houses, but I’m against detached houses. If you make a town with only detached house, it’s silly. If towers are no longer proud and no longer signals and ways of life then there’s no need to do them anymore. What is done in all the office districts is no longer towers, it’s just high cages.

What is the highest tower you have done?

The MoMA Expansion Tower in New York, 53 West 53rd Street.

How high is it?

320 meters. New York is a city of verticality, so I have no problem doing a vertical in New York.

Skyscrapers seem to get ever higher and one wonders how they manage to hold up?

A skyscraper can be built very high up, it’s all about money, that’s all. The contrary forces, the wind and the weight, all have to be calculated and the more money you have, the higher you get. With a lot of money you can go for a 10 kilometre tower if you want. I have done towers of 200 metres all over the place.

You did a special one in Sydney, Australia, One Central Park?

It’s not very high, 100 metres. We had to make a very strong, very heavy program with a shopping center and a lot of housing on a site that was actually a park, on which there were more or less industrial premises as well. They criticized us for having a program that overshadowed the park, and I said to them: “But I can put sunshine in the shade for you.” I invented a heliostat, which captures sunlight and reflects it down into the area of the park overshadowed by the tower.

View from the restored historic palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani into the courtyard of the new National Museum of Qatar designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel. Photo: Iwan Baan.

The new National Museum of Qatar designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel. Photo: Iwan Baan.

53W53 tower, New York. Ateliers Jean Nouvel – collaborating architects: AAI Architects, SLCE Architects.

Louvre Abu Dhabi – Germination by Giuseppe Penone © Photography Roland Halbe – Louvre Abu Dhabi – Architecte Jean Nouvel

Louvre Abu Dhabi – Exterior view © Photography Roland Halbe – Louvre Abu Dhabi – Architecte Jean Nouvel

Jean Nouvel in conversation with Alain Elkann, 9th December 2019

“Monstrous buildings are everywhere now.”

Jean Nouvel, an architect has to deal with presidents and people of power. Is it complicated when you make great projects?

It’s only complicated when things go wrong. Presidents trust their advisers, and some are very attentive, because this is often their great work too. Like the Quai Branly museum was for Jacques Chirac. Rulers often think that they should make an impression during their era for the sake of their image.

Because architecture is public art?

Architecture should be everyone’s art. The problem is that if you do architecture without knowing how to build, and without considering that architecture is an art of building, you can do wrong and take great pleasure away from people. That’s what’s happening right now, and it’s a disaster. A three-room apartment in France is now 50 and a few square meters. It used to be 70-80. All the time, everything is getting smaller and smaller. Builders have the power, and they’re not interested in doing architecture, they want to repeat the same thing all the time, they always want us to leave them the widest profit margins. Monstrous buildings are everywhere now, whereas it should be about doing something that has depth, with intentions in regard to the climate, to behavior, to the landscape, to what a city is.

What about gardens and interiors, furniture and design?

All of that is architecture. Interior design is architecture. Architecture is inside and outside and the landscape is architecture. We forgot about that. Le Nôtre is an architect.

Do you do gardens?

Some. In Barcelona I did the Poblenou Park on 4 or 5 hectares. I never delegate the landscape completely, even working with great landscape designers like Gilles Clément who made the park at the Branly Museum.

Do you also do furniture?

I make small architectures or big ones. I started making furniture because in a hotel I was told: “You make the furniture, you make the bed, you make the chairs, you make…” I do design too, because it came with my job.

How long have you been doing design?

40 years! But not as my profession in the full meaning of the word. I’m more interested in creating a little universe that suits me, and maybe even a brand. Up until now, I’ve done what I had to do. I didn’t do things just to conquer the market.

Do you have a lot of projects in the drawer?

Oahu! As the cry of the wolf to the grandmother, when asked how long it had been since she had made love with grandfather. There is one tower that I regret, the Tour Sans Fins. The Endless Tower was supposed to be on La Défense and I won the contest in the late ’80s. It was to be 425 meters high, a tower that started in a crater in the ground which gradually dematerialized in color, material, and so on, ending up in a cylinder of glass, disappearing into the sky. I worked on it for three years but then the director of Caisse des Dépôts changed and he sold the site.

Are you still very unhappy about that?

Yes. Very unhappy. It’s a project that I’ve put a lot of effort into, and it’s a very important urban project for Paris.

But you have plans…?

I always have plans; I always will have plans.



Image of Jean Nouvel from a portrait by Gaston Bergeret