The risk of being modern. Interview with Jean Nouvel

Jean Nouvel, the intellectual who has best survived the crisis in modernity, speaks of his initiation into emotion-based architecture, proposes a manifesto of contextualisation, and discusses the need for and difficulty of depicting the spirit of the times – without forgetting politics.

Stefano Casciani: Dear Jean, may we start on a biographical note? Please tell us about "Architecture Principe".
Jean Nouvel: Well, among the events in honour of Claude Parent, there is an exhibition at the Cité de l'architecture. Have you seen it?

I'm going tomorrow. Did you design the exhibits as a homage to your first maestro?
"Architecture Principe" represents an essential part of my youth. When I arrived at Claude Parent's practice in 1966, he and Paul Virilio were laying the foundations for a new view of architecture – through their work and Architecture Principe magazine. I was profoundly influenced and it became part of my vocational training in a natural way.

How did that come about?
I wanted to work at Parent's because it was the most stimulating office in France at the time – on account of its visionary outlook and provocative stance. The office was small, but it collaborated with André Bloc (and his magazine L'Architecture d'Aujourd'hui) who was already acutely aware of the mediascape. I went to Parent, but he didn't have any work. That worried me a little. But then, a project came in and he called me back a few months later. From that moment, I worked with him and Virilio and I began to gain an understanding of how things worked. The experience really opened my eyes as to what the architecture trade was all about. They gave me a lot of responsibility right off the bat, which was surprising considering the fact that I was only 22 years old. First I supervised the construction of a residential building, then I oversaw works on a shopping centre. In the meantime the events of 1968 were unfolding.

Had you abandoned your desire to become a painter?
Yes, although as I was exposed to architecture, I did hope that I might be able to return to "pure" art eventually. But I soon understood that architecture was a form of expression, too. On a different level, perhaps, but it's just as rich as the world of fine arts.

Do you think architecture is a form of art? Does it belong to the art world?
I wouldn't say that it is art as such. There is always the factor of multiplication, or at least duplication: from the idea and the design to the built result. That's why so much of modern architecture has become a form of automatic writing. But if an architect does his job well, a building can testify to In this sense, architecture can be a way of channelling sensations just like writing, painting and sculpture. As I always say, you just need to "answer a question that is never asked". What do we transmit beyond the project itself? All that lies in the realm of emotions, the transferral of important contemporary issues by means of expressive sensitivity. Our work generates a kind of container, a womb of feelings and emotions, a mother of arts that can contain other artistic disciplines. In this respect architecture can be considered an art.

Is it philosophy? Can architecture be a philosophy?
I don't think so. Architecture per se is not philosophy. On the contrary, I'm sure you know my expression in this respect: it amounts to the "petrifaction of a living culture", with an interpretation that often passes through the undermining of certain intellectual viewpoints. It is obvious that architecture is influenced by the world of ideas, which includes philosophy. Be that as it may, architecture is not philosophy, even though in the best cases it is something which is receptive to philosophical currents.

When you're thinking of a new building, do you already picture what it will look like when it's completed?
Do you have "visions", or does the form stem from a process of accumulating thoughts? In large, urban-scale projects that have a symbolic impact, there is always a difficult period of time in which you prevent yourself from formalising "it". But that just means you know where you stand and what you want to say. I must admit that with age, you take shortcuts. You say, "Well, I've seen this before somewhere," not only on a formal level, but strategically as well. You take shortcuts to speed things up, making use of five or six projects going on at the same time to find roads that you might not have found so readily, so there is a bit of acceleration. This is a privilege that architects have: becoming faster as they grow older!

It's the same thing with writing.
Yes, I suppose it's something to look forward to in old age... Let's cling to this optimistic prospect! (both laugh)

In what way are you participating in "Le Grand Paris" project?
We recently published a book, Naissances et renaissances de mille et un bonheurs parisiens. At the moment, the city is at a full stop. After 20 years of doing nothing, a neighbourhood, a city has a certain density. Heights are fixed and unchangeable; they're finished, fossilised, or "frozen" as they say, in complete glaciation.

We have already talked about immobilism in the majority of the city's quarters; the impossibility to change. How can you fight this stagnant situation?
The problem is how to develop the means for authentic change. The first thing to do is revise the zoning laws, the ones that say in certain areas you can only open shops, or in other areas you can only build factories, or in some zones you can only have offices, and in still others you can only put up housing. A revision would mean new possibilities for real estate, and in the end everything would be mixed, with neighbourhoods that are not dead at night. Look at the Défense, an office district that is defunct at night, abandoned and deserted. Or look at the dormitory towns, where nothing happens during the day. It is necessary to focus on the outer limits of the metropolis, where there is porosity between the city and nature, farmland and woods. Paris is shaped this way, with strong geographic characteristics, lots of agriculture and woods.

Are you planning any micro-designs within this huge project?
I am thinking of artistic projects on different scales. On the architectural level, all multidisciplinary operations are micro-designs. The muchloved macro-designs, meanwhile, are new poles of activity, transportation, and the development of economic potential by means of so-called "clusters" so that students, universities, researchers and leading companies are found in different areas of "Le Grand Paris".

Will your office be involved? How do you see your role as an architect of this great project?
As an architect it's different. I'm working on other projects connected to "Le Grand Paris", but not on the current strategic vision. We are lobbying in work groups to offer proposals to politicians, who will then have to make a decision. There isn't even agreement between regional and national representatives – almost the entire region is left-wing, but the government is right-wing.

Hasn't there been any change in the political balance since the regional elections?
No, it's still the same. So the politicians need to find an accord, otherwise Le Grand Paris will not come about. Parisian politicians have an association called Paris Métropole. Initially it was affiliated with the socialist party, but now it is receiving endorsements from all ideological directions. It's a positive sign, and Paris Métropole will surely be the main interlocutor with the Region and the State. Without the government, nothing will get done, because it is financing the lion's share of the project.

What is the timetable for this big project? Does it have a reasonable schedule?
The timetable always depends on politics, which is why we had to wait until the regional elections were over. Now that they're finished, studies of Le Grand Paris have been taken up once again. In a few months, proposals will have been made to the politicians. Then we'll see what happens.

Are you more optimistic or pessimistic?
I am determined. I am pushing for the success of this exceptional request to multidisciplinary groups of professionals, who are working outside of the current system. I have never done anything like this before, but it would be an extremely important thing to achieve. It's all about negotiating very politically with the left and the right.

Which are your most important projects now?
I must specify that I am working on "Le Grand Paris" project with Jean-Marie Duthilleul, France's greatest infrastructure expert, especially regarding railroads, and Michel Cantal-Dupart, an exponent of Banlieu 89 along with Roland Castro. Cantal- Dupart was already moving in this direction when Mitterrand was still in office. Both of them know the region well, the reality of the field of action. I became a partner of theirs, but there are many other people who have worked in the team, as you can read in the book. On a more personal level, after I took up a position against the complete change of Île Seguin, the new mayor organised a competition to select the new urban planner and asked me if I was interested in participating. Now I have to redefine what the island should be like after a tabula rasa.

Give me the good news. Did you win the competition?
Yes. I received the commission to make a plan for Île Seguin. It is over one kilometre long. The project will be around 300,000 square metres with large structures. In particular, there will be large concert halls for popular music, the Cartier Foundation is going to move there, as well as a centre for contemporary art...

Will the Cartier Foundation have a new building?
Yes. Then there will be a whole series of culture and economy-related projects that are entirely extraordinary. The new Maison de l'Histoire de France might come there, but it hasn't been decided yet. The idea is to make a kind of ecological district, a new Île de la Cité. All Paris originates on islands – Île Saint-Louis, Île de la Cité. There are new living conditions that we hope to see in the coming decades: an inhabited territory that is clean by vocation, with a lot of public space for pedestrians, clean automobiles and much ethnic mixing.

For a while now you have also been working far from Paris, close to Nice. Could you tell us about that situation and how things are developing?
I would like to set up a foundation in an ancient military fort that was built when Nice became French. It looks out over the whole city and it's the highest point between Nice and the bay of Villefranche. Inside there are the soldiers' barracks and the magazines where they stored ammunition. It was a fort built to protect the bay, controlling the port and the boats arriving. It's not particularly big, only 700 square metres inside, but the location is great and the countryside is gorgeous, in the middle of a 30-hectare public park. What's more, it is all protected by bastions, which is ideal for working and living, and that's what interests me. Because I was a bit tired of the grey in Paris, that's all.

Does the light down there help to find inspiration?
Ah yes, it's magnificent. But I like the light in Paris, too. The rays of light bouncing off a white facade towards the north, that's not bad at all. Of course the light is beautiful in the south, but I especially want to distance myself at last from the stress and work in an easy kind of way. I'd like to travel less. I want the foundation to receive dozens of architects per year in residence. They will not work in my office, but on problems that have to do with the Mediterranean. Once a year, one month will be dedicated to architecture, with a large exhibition.

What about your office? How do you divide your time between Paris and Nice?
I took some office space in Nice and I also found a place to stay in Saint-Paul de Vence. I am in Paris much more than there, but I go down often to work. For example, it's where I conceived the "Grand Paris" project. Often, when I work on large projects, I use these other places for concentration. My collaborators come, too. There are flights to Paris every hour, flights to all the European capitals, to New York, and the Middle East. For my clients, there's not much difference between coming to Paris or Nice.

As for international projects, what are you building next?
We have a number of international projects, but the recession has crimped them noticeably. Many have been put on hold, while others were cancelled, but the projects in the Middle East are proceeding, in Abu Dhabi or Doha or Qatar, as one would expect.

I saw some recent photos of you with a Sheikh and a large model. What was that?
It's the prototype for an element of the cupola in the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi.

Is it going ahead?
Certainly. As I said, generally the more advanced projects continue, particularly in the Middle East: the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, which I presented recently, and the National Museum of Qatar, which I have been working on for four or five years and presented in New York.

That's more good news.
We're marching on, I guess. As for projects in the US, there was one for Lehman Brothers... which doesn't seem to be such a good idea at the moment. I wasted almost a whole year on losing the competition, which made me feel like being back in the old days... In London, the One New Change project is continuing. It's a big centre for shops and offices across the way from Saint Paul's Cathedral. Prince Charles didn't even want me to participate in that competition. He thinks I am too modern an architect for that city.

Did he try to ostracise you?
Yes, but luckily he didn't succeed. The building will probably be finished by the end of the year. This summer, also in London, I'll be doing the temporary pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery.

What about Italy?
In Colle Val d'Elsa I designed the big Piazza Arnolfo di Cambio with the artists Daniel Buren, Bertrand Lavier, Alessandra Tesi and Lewis Baltz. That should be completed by the end of the year as well. What else is there... I'm finishing a building between 11th Avenue and 19th Street in New York. A few weeks ago, the architecture critic of The New York Times, Nicolai Ouroussoff, wrote about it.

What was his opinion?
He likes it!

Great, then you're a real superstar. After all, "If you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere..."
Okay, but the project has suffered from the recession. There are some problems with the finishings and it hasn't been completed yet, but it was well received. The building refracts the light from the Hudson, sending it over the compacted city and reflecting it off Frank Gehry's building. It has a second facade that is not glass, which works quite well with the brick buildings of Chelsea.

Coming back to the prospect of international projects, do you think the situation will improve? What about the recession in the USA?
Everything is still on hold in the US. The MoMA high-rise is blocked. I was building a 380-metre skyscraper that stretched into the galleries of the MoMA, between 53rd and 54th Street. They lopped 60 metres off the top. Now things are a bit complicated, but we are re-doing the project and I think it will work out all the same, if the recession allows us to start up again.

Has the recession influenced your design vision? Has it made you change your mind about important issues?
I don't know what conclusions we can draw from such a difficult situation, but we will probably see another kind of "post-crisis" architecture. I can already see it coming. It will be architecture with less means, obviously, but the growth in the world is not going to stop. This recession is especially felt in the West, but in countries that are experiencing a boom, millions of people will still need to be absorbed by the cities, continuously. The Earth will not stop turning, but we will need to work under different conditions and above all open our eyes to the mistakes we have made, in order to quit making stereotyped buildings and plunking down identical buildings everywhere. Just like we also need to stop creating gigantic killer financial bubbles. If we could build less and better, it would certainly be a good thing.

What type of architecture do you enjoy making most? Museums? Theatres?
I can't say I have a favourite genre. It seems to me that references create specialisations. Having said that, clients now come to me above all for projects that concern the industry of culture.

You are fortunate to have never specialised. There are architects who seem to succeed only in designing museums.
I design housing, offices, pavilions for trade shows, factories, a little bit of everything, and hope to continue doing so. I don't think it's a good idea to specialise. Each project is a particular case in its own right. A residential project that works in a certain area might not work in another context. My real specialisation lies in making a separate consideration for each place, project and group of people for whom I am building. I remain anchored to the notions of specificity, singularity and contextualisation. In this sense, my work has not changed and never will.

I was looking at your books, especially the giant one for Taschen, Jean Nouvel by Jean Nouvel, which Benedikt gave me when I was asked to write about you for the Pritzker Prize. What you just said is clear: the two volumes depict a coherence that is rare among architects. Tell me about the process. It always takes years to make a significant book with Taschen.
It's true, my dialogue with Taschen began a long time ago. They opened the door for me to make a book that would not just be a catalogue of my work – which was not something I was interested in doing at all. I wanted to take advantage of the large format to transmit some of the main emotions connected to each project. I didn't want it to be scholarly, and the large format was not suited for that anyway.

It would be impossible to carry to school! It weighs almost nine kilos.
It's not even my complete works... But I needed a book that I could recognise as my own. You know, I always quarrel with magazines to find out if the type of pictures they will publish is to my liking. Yet most of the time, the buildings come across as stale stereotypes. But if I am the one making the book, the illustrations transmit my way of seeing the buildings, of expressing what I recognise in them: not a bad photo of a piece of real estate at a nondescript time of day, only seen from the rear or on a slant.

My impression is that it is a real concentrate of your work, of your vision.
Absolutely. For the sake of being complete, I included my Louisiana Manifesto.

You did send it to me, but it sadly went astray. I'd be very happy if I could have another copy. How did the idea of a manifesto come to you?
It came to me when the moment was right: when I had my exhibition at the Louisiana Museum outside of Copenhagen. At the time I was there to make the Auditorium, the big concert hall for the Danish radio and television. It must have taken me at least six months to write; it didn't exactly flow out of the pen. But it was the right moment for me. I wanted to clarify my position with respect to the problem of architecture as the "plunking down of objects". The evolution of computers allows for the manipulation of any context – there is no difference between them. The architectural forms are manipulated quickly and voilà! All done, thank you and goodbye. Moreover, the velocity of urban development in India, China and Latin America has led to the disappearance of the reasons for architecture's relationship to a place. This is why I thought of a manifesto to defend situational architecture. Most of today's architecture is decontextualised. It is there, but could just as well be somewhere else. Can a piece of architecture be great if it is decontextualised?

Do you think that some works can be exceptions, lying perhaps out of context but nonetheless remaining architectural masterpieces?
That's a good question. There must be exceptions that allow us to answer affirmatively, but for me, in general, the answer is no. Architecture responds to a situation, there is no architecture per se. It needs to be clearly and historically situated. I always try to establish a relationship between history and geography, which means involving the people who will eventually use the building. The pleasure of being able to respond with a precise piece of architecture that satisfies someone produces a unique situation, especially on an emotional level. Without emotion, there is no architecture.

Do you think the Louisiana Manifesto contains a good part of what you stand for?
Yes. It does not illustrate all my thoughts on architecture. At a certain point, it describes the dangers of architecture, and what the profound essence of constructing is to me. Sometimes it's a little vehement, but a manifesto is supposed to be agitational.

Then allow me a small provocation.
Go ahead. Usually that's my role.

I have the impression that you are the best contemporary architect, meaning the one who has best survived the crisis in modernity.
Well, this sounds like fun!

It's something I've written on several occasions, but I thought it would be interesting to hear if you have anything to say against my impression?
Yes, I really do. I often ask myself what my best building is. And I am often asked what the best building is that I have seen in recent years, who the best writer is, or the best musician. However, I believe that in the fields where the creator's individual sensitivity is important, this question has no answer. For me there is no "best painter" or "best sculptor". There are about twenty who interest me a great deal, seven or eight whom I adore, and thirty whom I find brilliant. I could not choose, and I do not like this critical register. This is the reason why competitions are often stupid: they have to proclaim who is best. How can you do that?

Competitions might be stupid, but they are also necessary.
I think the same way about literary prizes: why is one novel better than the other? It depends on the reader's sensitivity. So I always get agitated when people ask me which building in the history of architecture I prefer: there are so many that have touched me profoundly that I really could not say!

Regarding the different scales of projects, you have also made some beautiful objects, but decidedly few. Your architectural output has been far more prolific. Why is that? Did you not want to become a designer? Is it too time-consuming?
No, I think objects are tied to situations and emotions. I am not a designer "at your command"; I really have to want to make an object. That's why many of my objects and furnishings are connected to client circumstances. I began to design something because I was building a hotel, or offices, or because I had contact with a brilliant manufacturer – such as Piero Molteni, for example.

I agree, Molteni is a brilliant manufacturer.
He is able to motivate me and works with me on the details. That's the kind of rapport I need in order to be stimulated to design something. I am convinced that things go too fast in the design world. You shouldn't need to redesign everything all the time, it's design hysteria. When industrial design is directed towards so-called "style", in the sense of fashion styling, it doesn't interest me in the slightest. What's interesting, instead, is the search for the essence, or the elementary nature of things.

Which are the objects you would like to design?
I am trying to exit the "design to order" routine. When something doesn't move me enough, there's no inspiration. So I'm trying to turn the situation around. I might be able to develop a small series of products that could come out again as soon as they are out of production. I could add to them from ideas I haven't expressed yet, or ones that could come to me in the future. Then I'd feel free. It's strange, because objects are so different from architecture, which I am attracted to despite its many powerful constraints. In design, I am a modern-day user, like everyone else. I sit on a chair and use a table like everyone else, I want to make objects that represent a personal satisfaction. Maybe that's an egotistic approach, but I think that's the way design should be.

How are things going with the attempt to save L'Architecture d'Aujourd'hui?
The magazine was in dire straits. It was important for it to get back in touch with its history and find a way to distinguish it from the many other publications out there. So when I saw it was up for sale, I thought I could try to find the right people to reconstruct the magazine's ambitions and not use it just to make money. We are trying to go beyond a strictly architectural orientation and cover phenomena that could provoke architecture and its feelings. We want to find links between different means of expression and ponder small questions or sparks that are lit by illuminations originating from outside the architectural field.

Is there still a future for architecture magazines?
It's difficult to say. Every magazine needs a welldefined position. What I find most dreary are compilation-type magazines. They show Building A with the design, sections, facades, small photographs, small captions, then Building B, Building C, then another and another, without ever transmitting the significance of the individual projects. Coming back to my book for Taschen, I fought against an unnatural way of showing architecture, against stereotyped photographs. Photos are necessary, but we need to get away from the old-fashioned idea of the magazine as a catalogue, with small illustrations littering up every page. In order to show buildings properly, it is counterproductive to publish an enormous quantity of useless photos. This is what we want to change. Even Domus has stopped doing it, so that's good. Domus is highly flexible. We cover many different issues – not only architecture, but also a variety of mixtures between design and other worlds, both emotional and psychological.
Mixtures are fundamental. Each magazine has to create them in their own way, but they really are an essential element.

Good. Now it's time to strike a pose and try for a nice portrait.
A pose? By nature, I am anything but composed, but let's give it a try anyway, no problem!

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