Jean Nouvel is often described as an architect without a signature style. His buildings can be decidedly eccentric, whether robustly theatrical or impressionistic and lyrical. Surveying the many notable projects the Pritzker Prize winner has completed over his nearly five-decade career—a dizzying array of cultural buildings, office towers, residential high-rises, hotels and wineries—it is almost hard to believe they were all designed by the same hand.
But make no mistake: Nouvel wears his chameleon-like identity with pride. “I never design the same project twice—never, never,” says the Frenchman in his heavily accented English. “I work on the specifics of the situations. I am a contextual architect.” Nouvel, whose Paris-based studio currently has more than 40 projects underway, from São Paulo to Beijing to New York, has long railed against what he sees as a global scourge of “rootless buildings”—generic, preconceived structures merely dropped into this place or that. “Like a composer, you have to create the music in relationship with the climate, ambience, history, geography,” he says.
Context is particularly important for two highly anticipated Nouvel projects moving toward completion on the shores of the Persian Gulf: the National Museum of Qatar in Doha and the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Though an opening date is not set for the Doha museum, construction largely finished on the building—an abstract cluster of angled, interlocking discs inspired by crystalline formations known as desert roses. The sand-hued structure appears to emerge directly from the landscape, and will house galleries for exhibits about the history and culture of Qatar, as well as shops, restaurants and a research center. It wraps around a courtyard, deliberately evoking the caravansaries once central to desert culture. “The Qataris wanted a symbolic building,” Nouvel says. “This museum had to talk about the identity of the Middle East, and the greatness of the desert.”
Similar, if slightly less literal, allusions permeate the architect’s design for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a much delayed project that is slated to open next year. The museum, whose wide-ranging exhibitions will draw heavily from French national collections, is the first of several planned buildings by Pritzker laureates (the roster includes Tadao Ando, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster) that will anchor an ambitious arts district within the emirate’s massive Saadiyat Island development. Nouvel conceived the museum as a kind of miniature floating city, a medina-like warren of gallery structures and open-air plazas that overlook shimmering pools and canals. Hovering above most of the complex is a 600-foot-diameter cupola with intricately patterned perforations that act as a protective brise-soleil, permitting filtered sunlight to dapple the interior spaces. The result is a literal oasis in the desert, but also an unabashedly romantic architectural gesture that references mosque domes and traditional Islamic latticework screens, while the play of light conjures comparisons to dusky souks. The design is a bravura melding of past and present, poetry and technology—a symbol of an ancient culture that is now enjoying, as Nouvel has often put it, a golden age. “I try to invent something positive,” he remarks. “It’s not to create a wow—I don’t care about the wow. I want to create a deepness, a memory, a question, a little surprise.”
Visible in Nouvel’s Persian Gulf museum projects are threads that run throughout his career, especially his masterful use of light, transparency and reflection, as well as the inventive ways he breaks down rigid geometries. Nouvel shot to prominence with the 1987 opening of his Arab World Institute in Paris, a building that reimagined the Modernist glass box by inserting a façade of light-sensitive mechanical apertures—one of the architect’s early references to Islamic screens. For his 1994 Fondation Cartier across town, he employed overlapping walls of glass to create reflections that bring the trees, city and sky into the building and effectively dissolve the edifice into its surroundings. “Jean Nouvel has used the words ‘haze’ and ‘evanescence’ to describe that building, which is capable of absorbing and reflecting—not just in a literal sense but in a bigger sense—the ambience,” says Terence Riley, architect and former curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “He understands architecture as a kind of phenomenon.”
Over the past decade, many of Nouvel’s buildings have incorporated ever more elaborate green façades, vertical gardens and terraces overflowing with lush plantings. For the architect, it brings nature into urban settings, while taking advantage of eco benefits like energy-saving solar shading. But these green elements are aesthetic, too, softening a building’s form and adding a sense of organic vitality, even a touch of the surreal. Nouvel often works with botanist Patrick Blanc, a pioneer in the field of vertical gardens, and their collaborations range from the 2006 Musée du quai Branly in Paris to the One Central Park residences that opened in Sydney in 2013. That latter award-winning project features a huge, showstopping cantilever, 28 stories up, with gardens, a pool and a heliostat system that directs sunlight onto shaded areas of the complex, while its underside becomes a huge light installation at night.
At least in spirit, One Central Park was a significant precedent for a residential development by Nouvel that has just broken ground in Miami Beach—his first project in a city now awash in buildings by star architects. Called Monad Terrace, it overlooks Biscayne Bay. “There are a lot of 1950s and ’60s drab buildings on that corridor,” says Michael Stern, CEO of the JDS Development Group, which hired Nouvel for the project. “We wanted someone who could come in and do something dynamic and new—sort of a nuclear bomb of design in a positive way.”
Nouvel, who describes the site as “very cinematic,” designed two buildings—one 14 stories high, the other seven stories—separated by lush gardens, a swimming pool and lagoon that appear to merge seamlessly with the bay. This allée of water was devised to serve as a buffer against storm surges and rising seas (a real and growing threat) and also act as a kind of mirror, the architect explains, casting reflections up into the apartments and creating “very poetical, atmospheric effects that are always changing throughout the day and the night.”
The exposures facing neighboring buildings are draped with vertical gardens to provide privacy, while views are channeled toward the bay on one side and the ocean on the other. “It’s totally protected,” says Nouvel, “and you are completely in relationship with the beauty of the site.”
Now 71, Nouvel still keeps a relentless schedule and travels constantly, though he escapes as often as possible to his home in Saint-Paul de Vence, in the South of France. “I work there with a little staff very often,” he says. “In this place I try to be quiet, to think in a better way for inspiration. It’s good for creating.”
As he has throughout much of his career, Nouvel continues to design products and furniture, mostly reductive and minimalist in spirit. Among his latest creations are a sleek desk and storage unit for Unifor, vinyl carpeting for Bolon and wallpaper for Maharam inspired by his 2010 summer pavilion for London’s Serpentine Gallery. The Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris is offering a rare look at this lesser-known side of Nouvel’s oeuvre with a comprehensive survey of his furniture and objects, on view through February 12. Integrated with traditional works from the museum’s permanent collection are more than 200 pieces by Nouvel, from furniture and lighting he devised for Artemide, Cassina, Ligne Roset, Poltrona Frau, Roche Bobois and other companies to tableware for Georg Jensen to limited-edition pieces for his galleries, Patrick Seguin and Gagosian.
Meanwhile, over the next few years, legacy-shaping landmarks by Nouvel will be joining city skylines across the globe, starting with the nearly completed twin Le Nouvel apartment towers in Kuala Lumpur (clad in vertical gardens by Blanc) and residential high-rises for two different developers in Singapore. In New York, his much discussed—and debated—53W53 building, a lithe and gracefully sloping 82-story skyscraper, is rising next to the Museum of Modern Art. In Paris, his strikingly faceted Hekla tower will become a new beacon in the La Défense district. And an arresting hotel-residential building he designed for Rosewood in São Paulo—incorporating the brand’s first six-star property in Latin America—promises to transform a historic site in a bustling area of the city.
As this list of projects shows, Nouvel has never shied away from luxury, but his work is grounded in a minded belief that architecture’s responsibility is to improve its surroundings and to serve a larger social purpose. Or, as he puts it, “With one building you can change the nature of a place.”