Jean Nouvel Has Arrived

Jean Nouvel Has Arrived

Arab World Institute (1987), Paris

On Monday, the chairman of the Hyatt Foundation, Thomas J. Pritzker, will announce that the 31st winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize is Jean Nouvel. The award comes with a $100,000 purse that will be presented at an awards ceremony on June 2 at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

The French architect’s career started in the early 1970s with the design of various houses and a kindergarten in provincial France, came roaring to public notice with the blinking steel facade of the Arab World Institute in Paris in 1981, and has continued to hit high marks over the past two decades with the Lyon Opera House (1993); the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art (Paris, 1994); the Agbar Tower (Barcelona, 2005); and the Guthrie Theater (Minneapolis, 2006). Over the past 12 months, Ateliers Jean Nouvel has announced a wide range of notable new projects, many in the United States, including a 23-story condominium called the “Vision Machine” on 19th Street across from Frank Gehry’s IAC headquarters on the West Side Highway; a new philharmonic hall for the Parc de la Villette in Paris; a satellite Louvre for the Saaydiyat Island Cultural District in Abu Dhabi; the 75-story “Tour de Verre” adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown; and, most recently, a 45-story tower, another luxury condominium, in Los Angeles that Nouvel described as a “green blade.” And while it is perhaps not as grand, Nouvel’s latest project cannot be entirely overlooked: a limited edition perfume bottle shaped like a test-tube phallus for Yves Saint Laurent’s new fragrance L’Homme.

Many will be surprised at the announcement, most likely because they thought that Nouvel had already received the Pritzker in 2006. That year, rumors ran high that he was favored to win due to the opening of both the Guthrie Theater and the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, but the prize actually went to the less familiar Paulo Mendes da Rocha of Brazil. But at age 63, Nouvel is right on course to be winning the profession’s most prestigious prize. Renzo Piano and Thomas Mayne were each 61 when they won Pritzkers in 1998 and 2005, respectively; Zaha Hadid was 54 when she got hers in 2004 and Rem Koolhaas, 56, when he won in 2000; Richard Rogers was a ripe 74 when he won last year. 

Nouvel has carved out a body of work known for its technological bravura shaded by a range of more sensory expressions, from the extruding red blocks of the Musée du Quai Branly to the geometric complexities of the cylindrical steel Doha tower underway in Qatar. “My work deals with what is happening now—our techniques and materials, what we are capable of doing today,” he told one interviewer. And while many architects may say they work with light and dark, few are as bold as Nouvel in creating an architecture where the experience of darkness is as central as the emergence into light. 

Nouvel often invokes the world of filmmaking when addressing how he likes to work collaboratively as well as how he likes to narrate his space-making. Not surprising from one who spent a year in the office of architect/theorists Claude Parent and Paul Virilio, and many more as an exhibition designer, he seems to prefer words and visual sequencing as his tools over models and drawings that he says he mistrusts because they “fix things too early in the creative process.” In 1994 he established Ateliers Jean Nouvel with Michael Pelissie; the office in Paris has since grown to include 140 people and is one of the largest architecture practices in France. Nouvel, who has two sons and a daughter, is currently living in Paris with Swedish architect Mia Hagg. In a 2006 A+U special issue on his work, Nouvel said his motto was “When you’re young, it’s for your whole life,” and added that he’d like to end his days “being killed by a jealous husband at age 99.”