courtesy Taschen

Get in, make your move, get out fast. That was one of the first lessons I learned in architecture school. The master of this strategy is without a doubt the French architect Jean Nouvel, Hon. FAIA. Whether it is an overhanging roof, a pixelated façade, an atrium covered with mirrors, or an office building shaped like a sex toy, Nouvel’s buildings all have one signature move. The rest of the structure is usually elegant enough, but forgettable both in terms of its spaces and its materiality. Now the architect’s quick takes have been entombed in a book from Taschen that takes its place among the publisher’s monuments to the likes of Muhammed Ali, David Hockney, and Kengo Kuma to commemorate the Pritzker Prize winner’s achievements. Unfortunately, even those strokes of genius that have made Nouvel so successful are buried here in a book you cannot peruse without some muscular effort (the book weighs in at almost 13 pounds); that is filled with murky images, often printed with so much black ink that they are hard to decipher; and where any information that might help you decipher what is going on is raffled off in the back.

Nouvel has produced some of the most striking and memorable images to have circulated around the architecture world in the last few decades. The first of these arrived in 1987: the façade of the Arab Institute in Paris, where each square in the wall is a version of the device that operates shutters in conventional cameras. Originally triggered by sunshine, these apertures were each meant to open and close according to the amount of sun on the façade, thus producing a high-tech version of the kind of sun screen so prevalent in Arab countries with hot, dry climates. The collection of these gizmos on the curved building face managed to combine the display of technology with a reference to the culture the institute studied and celebrated without being directly representational.

Arab World Institute
imagoDens/Adobe Stock Arab World Institute

Since then, Nouvel has produced quite a few façades that draw your attention, though none have the subtlety of the Arab World Institute. In New York, one apartment building faces the Hudson River with a carpet of windows of different sizes set in a dominant grid, while a high-rise residence displays its structure as twists and turns up to its supertall height. The Parisian follow-up to the Arab World Institute, the Cartier Foundation, is perhaps the most refined, contenting itself to being not much more than a grid partially filled with clear glass and held by an elaborate and articulate structure in front of the actual building.

The other move Nouvel favors is a strong, overhanging and cantilevered roof, such as the one that defines the Lucerne concert hall in Switzerland. Recently, he has also developed large horizontal planes that hover over otherwise self-sufficient buildings, such as the latticed dome of the National Museum of Qatar. His roofs soar and come out to knife’s edges, or dissolve into the horizontal versions of his complex façades, but they remain separate from the function and enclosure they signal more than shelter. For Nouvel, it seems that architecture is a separate object—façade, roof, or other eye-catching feature—that is independent from enclosure, function, or any other elements that shape buildings. When he does try to integrate it all, as in the Quai Branly, Paris’s anthropological museum, the results are, in my opinion, disastrous: colored boxes cantilevered from a giant, curved metal façade, a green wall, and an interior that is such a mess it is hard to admire any of the hodgepodge assembly masquerading as a building, let alone find your way through it.

National Museum of Qatar
Joshua Davenport/Adobe Stock National Museum of Qatar

Even when Nouvel tries to keep to a more focused form-making at a large scale, the results are usually less than fully developed. The aforementioned dildo-like skyscraper, the Torre Agbar in Barcelona, is not only impractical, but also so lumpen in its proportions and siting—let alone that it is covered with the kind of overly busy, multicolored façade Nouvel favors—that it stands as the counterexample to Foster + Partner’s 30 St. Mary’s Axe Building in London of how not to do such a shape. Nouvel’s recent concert hall in Paris, a messy mass of metallic cast-offs piled around an auditorium, makes you wish that Coop Himmelb(l)au or another firm adept at creating such semi-chaotic accretions had received the commission instead.

There are plenty of pleasures to be found in Nouvel’s work—at least one per building, as I have indicated. Unfortunately, it seems the architect does not like to show them off or explain them. After finding myself hunched over this giant volume trying to decipher many of the blurry, out-of-focus, or very dark images, I went over to my bookshelf, only to realize that other monographs exhibit the same obfuscation the architect seems to prefer in publishing his work. Perhaps this is a continuation of his predilection for translucency and mirrors, as well as for covering the interiors of his spaces with projections, art works, or one color (the concert venues especially seem bathed in nothing but red), but why he does so remains a mystery to me. Neither Philip Jodidio’s purely laudatory text nor his interview with Nouvel in the book is much help.

Torre Agbar
Herraez/Adobe Stock Torre Agbar

Perhaps that is because, in the end there is no there there. Every time I have visited one of the buildings Nouvel has designed, and I have visited quite a few of them, I have come away disappointed. The photographs, often exactly because of their vague quality, inevitably promised me much more than the building delivered. The lack of spaces developed in a clear sequence to produce frameworks for the activities they housed, and the banality of the walls I found both on the inside and outside of the structure around or after the first move, conspired to make me wish I had just contemplated the structure comfortably at home, imagining what it could be.

Which means that the current volume is probably not so much a guide to or celebration of the buildings, as it is a substitute. Almost as big as a building, it serves to construct an alternative version of a built oeuvre. In this Taschen-compiled Nouvel universe, you can find yourself attracted to those hovering shards and scintillating glass planes, and then wander through hot crimson interiors and layers of glass without ever going to or arriving at anywhere. Instead, you can imagine that Jean Nouvel is a good architect.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

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