The Lord Palumbo
Chairman of the Jury
The Pritzker Architecture Prize
Monday, the second of June 2008 will be remembered as a major landmark event in the annals of the Pritzker Prize for Architecture, whose 30th Anniversary we celebrate this evening with the Award of this year’s Prize to Jean Nouvel, against the historic and stunningly beautiful backdrop of the Library of Congress in this great nation’s capital City. In itself, this is a signal tribute to the Pritzker family and the Prize; and a measure of the esteem in which they are held. The Pritzker, as it is universally and affectionately known, was the brainchild of Cindy Pritzker, and her late husband, Jay, to whom the architectural community the world over owes a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid, as it does to Cindy’s son, Tom, who assumed his late father’s mantle, with such distinction, at all times, and in all places.
Now then, many years ago, a grand Panjandrum of the British Broadcasting Corporation, Stephen Hearst, undertook a lecture tour of the United States; and upon his return to London, he was asked to identify, in a single sentence—which is a tough assignment—his overriding impression of America. After a pause, he replied ‘It is the vitality of a nation, sparking across a country, like unearthed electric current’. The same words might be used to describe Jean Nouvel, for he is, quite simply, a force of nature, a phenomenon, as dazzling, as unpredictable, and as impossible to tether, as a whirlwind!
As a child, he demonstrated his independence of mind, his determination, resourcefulness and ingenuity, by running the gauntlet of his parents strict veto on the reading of comic books, and attending the local movie house in Sarlat in south-western France, where they lived, by smuggling the former into the house, and then hiding them under his bed; and by sneaking into the latter just after the film had begun, and leaving just before it finished! Who knows what influences were at play with this early staple diet of banned substances; or what impact they made on an imagination that was able, subsequently, to juggle many disparate strands of the creative processes of our times, by incorporating into his architecture such diverse and unlikely elements as medical research, television, cinema, advertising, shoes, and arms—as in armaments. We may guess, but we will never know for certain, the answers to these questions.
Two facts, however, are beyond dispute: The first is that the inspiration of his restless, inventive, and endlessly curious mind, knows no bounds: The second, that Jean Nouvel is a singular, highly unconventional, free spirit, who is fascinated by experimentation, and the challenge presented by dogma and accepted norms, which bring him to places that other architects do not visit.
Jean Nouvel summarized his philosophy, and his particular creative process in a remarkable interview published in 1984 in the magazine Architecture d’Aujourd’hui. This is an excerpt of what he said.
“One must be talkative, solitary, and a good sleeper, to create architecture. I begin with the dream. My preferred workplace—the most efficient one—is the bed. There, the jumble of images that I have accumulated, is constantly subjected to a conscious, or unconscious, sorting process. I am always gathering images: My work as an architect will never leave me in peace. I try to detach myself—to talk about other things, to go to a film, to read a book, to listen to my friends talking about their interests—but soon, I am trapped by the atmosphere of the film set, the theme of the book, or my friends ideas, and immediately start to envisage the transposition into architecture. I lie awake in bed, dreaming drawing in the dark, a spectator of the film in my mind. This is the ideal moment for me to let my imagination run riot. I gather together my creative instincts, and off we go. Every now and then, a chord is struck, and suggestions come bubbling forth, most are either silly, unrealistic, or obscene: But as no one else shares my architectural contemplations, I pay attention, and occasionally, I follow my confidant’s counsel.’ With Jean Nouvel, though, one rule is sacrosanct: He is always involved with the present rather than the past. His architecture is not aligned with the continuity of historical reference. ‘I am not a ‘paper’ architect’ he has said, ‘I mistrust drawings as fixing things too early in the creative process, whilst words liberate’. And again, ‘I am interested in glass, projected images, transparency, and the opaque. I think that the colored lights and signs of commercial streets are one of the most astonishing architectural spectacles. Every image makes an impression on my brain in the photographic sense of the term. On the basis of this material, I can begin to imagine. I can do things now I could not have dreamed of doing 30 years ago. For that reason, I am not going to create something using things that were themselves invented 30 years ago’ ...