Interview with Jean Nouvel: “Architecture is resistance against the system”

Jean Nouvel defines his idea of architecture – a unique human act, the answer to concrete societal and individual questions, a means of democratisation. His cultural and non-specialistic approach reveals the kind of explorations he is devising for Domus magazine 2022.

This article was originally published in the monograph dedicated to Jean Nouvel, attached to Domus 1063, December 2021.

In the taxi on the way to dinner at Le Duc on Boulevard Raspail in Paris (“They have great fish, you’ll see”) Jean Nouvel sums up months of images, words and visions in preparation of his stint as the Domus guest editor 2022.

“Spinoza was right. Without emotion there is no reason. Without sentiment there is no object. I think that definition is valid for everything, above all for architecture.” It is certainly valid for Jean Nouvel. Not only is he the living architect with most references on Google. Neither is he just a philosopher who chose architecture as his field of action, while frequenting Claude Parent and Paul Virilio after his teenage years – with their group, they built a new vision of architecture. That’s not enough. Nouvel is not an artist in the full sense of the word, although he has produced many objects on different scales that induced critics to speak of art. “I’d define architecture as an art that invites other arts. It contains the passage from concept to artifact. To me, making architecture is a way to invent sensations and realise generous obsessions, like cinema and literature.”

Above all, architecture is resistance against the system, against physical globalisation that does not respect the genius loci, the spirit of places, the context, the differences between people.

Roland Barthes said, Literature is the question minus the answer. What about architecture?
Barthes was right. To me, architecture means answering a question that is never posed. Above all, architecture is resistance against the system, against physical globalisation that does not respect the genius loci, the spirit of places, the context, the differences between people, wanting them all to live in the same way, in spaces that are too small, in every region of the world.

Is history important in architecture?
It’s fundamental. I enjoy working on projects involving historical buildings, because today it is possible to give them back to the present while maintaining their historical dimension.

That’s the power of technology you know so much about.
Technology is essential nowadays, it’s our destiny. Technology is complementary immaterial waves, a way for old buildings to become ideal places to welcome fugitive images and all kinds of sounds. I like short cuts between millennia. Think of Building Information Modelling. It’s just a tool, though, not an end. It could never be one, because the end is respect for humankind and its spiritual dimension. Emotion and reason, like Spinoza said.

What else is architecture to you?
Above all, it’s the answer to concrete societal and individual questions. It’s the construction of new houses, offices and public space, because the ones we have now are no longer adequate for the new economic scenarios and population growth. We must stop the cloning of the same building all around the world. They are obsolete. Architecture is different from building, because it is not a short-term investment, but a commodity that will be used for decades or centuries.

An investment for the future?
It creates spaces for living, human spaces. Style is not important to me, rather the questions that every era poses to architecture are fundamental. Cultural, economic and social variations that accompany humankind are fundamental, because architecture is a unique human act.

We must produce a vision that avoids creating dead places in the city, fragmented zones where there are only offices or only housing.

Why did you accept the Domus guest editorship?
Domus represented an indispensable reference point to my generation, so I consider the opportunity to be guest editor an honour. After my experience at L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, I believe that the cultural representation of architecture is key. Especially at this point in time.

Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Paris, France. Photo Giovanni del Brenna
Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Paris, France. Photo Giovanni del Brenna

At L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui you attempted to go beyond a strictly architectural view of the word by bringing different worlds together, exiting the traditional narration of architecture magazines. Is this your plan at Domus?
Every magazine needs to take a precise stand. That’s important. At Domus I will focus on the character of buildings and their relationship with art. I will speak of the images, because I am convinced that architecture today finds in imagery a deep, positive kind of inspiration. What makes me sad are compilation magazines that line up one building after the other in increasingly small pictures. This neither transmits the meaning of the building nor the sense of architecture today. My Domus magazine will be different. And you know it will be exciting, because we made it together with the editorial staff.

So the photos will be different in Domus 2022?
Not just the photos. I want to break with an antiquated idea of magazines as catalogues. I wish to give e different, lateral, subjective interpretation of the significance contained in pieces of architecture, always with different fundamental functions and parameters.

You have worked in countries where there is no democratic government. People notice this.
Architecture is a means of democratisation. Sometimes it’s the only means. Many countries where I worked were not democracies, but they were shifting toward democracy with all the difficulties that implies. I think culture and architecture are an important factor in those cases, to introduce a symbolic and material evolution in daily life.

Is architecture still important in Europe? Seeing some projects, it would seem to not be so.
Architecture is crucial, because it is one of the few means for a real, authentic change of society. We must produce a vision that avoids creating dead places in the city, fragmented zones where there are only offices or only housing. Another vision is needed for non-city areas, the fields, woods and deserts that must be respected and not violated. We must recombine architectural functions and respect the places. That’s why an architectural vision is needed, a humane one.

Jean Nouvel has always claimed the right and freedom to make architecture, design and even artistic projects. Are you against specialisation?
I have never had a favourite realm, but architecture is my unique specialisation. I try to extend the field of my architectural references. I’ve done a bit of everything and hope to continue doing so. I think specialisation is not a good idea. because every project is a particular case that works in one place, but not in another. My real specialisation is taking the place, the project and the people into consideration. That might be enough, no?

Opening image: Jean Nouvel interviewed by editorial director Walter Mariotti. Photo by Giovanni del Brenna

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