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Essay

Jean Nouvel: The Allure of Modernity
By Stefano Casciani
Author, critic and Deputy Editor of Domus

Even a critic who is entirely enamoured with architecture, and the last great modern utopia that it pursued—to truly help its intended users to live a better life—cannot pretend to ignore his beloved’s defects. This social Sleeping Beauty has finally succumbed to the fleeting and superficial dimension that defines all of man’s actions—psychological and concrete—beginning with the most intimate spaces of dwelling and arriving at the unsettling scale of the city, which simultaneously exposes individuals and their associations, positive and negative, for better or worse. Of the many definitions of contemporary civilization, from which the city derives its name, the most appropriate now seems to be that of the liquid modernity defined by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman: a modernity centred on the economy and its fluctuations, where people and spaces are akin to islands in a river. However, these islands are necessarily mobile and neither interpersonal relationships, forms of expression (a sublimated variation of this type of relationship), and perhaps even structures, buildings included, are able to assume stable configurations. In a society where loyalty, the attachment to a person, an ideology or even a genre or “style” of architecture may be seen as dangerously negative, coherence—be it existential, artistic or design-based—has become a serious weakness, capable of undermining the system of power that we are constantly obliged to construct and modify to ensure our own salvation, and perhaps that of those most dear to us. Long gone is the time when modernist architects and designers, not the dreamers, but rather the concrete utopians, sought to configure the space of dwelling as dynamic and mobile, undoubtedly flexible and, at the same time, faithful to the choice of a new architecture as a lifestyle. The future is now and the utopias of the 20th century are capable, at best, of generating nostalgia as we perpetrate a system in which merchandise continuously attempts to surpass expression. This system may have succeeded had it not been for the existence of artists such as Jean Nouvel.

Utopia and Destiny

Nouvel is the most important contemporary architect to have survived the period of modernism, inhaling and becoming slightly intoxicated by the last vapours of the Modern Movement before definitively sublimating them into a new and painful understanding of the objective limits of reality. The latter is much faster and more imposing and pervasive than design, any form of design. This human condition, which we can call post-modern, where real destiny prevails over its ideal utopian counterpart, could not have hoped for a better architect as its present day representative. In the face of the sophisticated intellectualism of many of his peers and colleagues—who often produce bizarre buildings with an “unfinished” nature that results from their uncertain existence as form or meaning—Nouvel appears to move with the natural elegance of an acrobat, walking the unstable tightrope that unites the two extremes of the dilemma faced by any contemporary architect or builder: real or virtual?

Almost obliged by the digital evolution of the tools of the trade (capable of producing images and structures once unthinkable) to generate progressively more unusual forms, architecture is now forced to use its image to compete against the immense universe of new media, where thousands of other parallel worlds—from reality shows to Second Life—condition the existence, culture and lifestyle of millions of people, in many cases, more than any work of architecture.

Similar to a mantra to be recited during this acrobatic competition, Nouvel appears to have captured one of John Lennon’s aphorisms: Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. It is precisely “what happens” outside of any program or plan that Nouvel believes to be the responsibility of architecture: When presenting the enormous complexity of the projects that he has designed and continues to design and the necessity of dealing with the real conditions of the city and its spaces, he does not rail against its unhappy and ungrateful inhabitants or curse the mythological figure of the European or global City and its unavoidable reproach of the ultimatum and opposition between center/periphery, ancient/contemporary, beautiful/ugly, hi/low or sprawl/monument. Nouvel prefers instead to present the image of the built and the buildable based on principles that are more ethical than aesthetical, more pedagogical than economic, making architecture and its mutations “appear” even to those incapable of understanding it, either because they have no need to make the effort or simply because they inhabit it each day as an urban or rural dweller, optimist or pessimist, enthusiastic or worried, perhaps indifferent to what, in many cases, may seem to be simple formal exercises in academic architecture even when concealed behind the mask of contemporary language.

Undoubtedly even this attempt by Nouvel to overcome the division between the intellectual/inventor and the profane/consumer—creating projects that also speak for the observer and the user—is just one of the many unavoidable paradoxes of the work of any artist. The buildings that he designs and builds are also a triumph of form, or better yet, of forms. Nevertheless, for Nouvel this does not seem to be an end in and of itself. Even more paradoxically, notwithstanding the infinite possibilities of materials, treatments, techniques, maquillage and metamorphoses of construction, Nouvel chooses only those solutions that allow him to create buildings in which reality manages to surpass itself, where the final result describes another world that is infinite and without restrictions, obligations or confines: the world of imagination.

More than an architect, Nouvel is perhaps best defined as an experimental philosopher of construction. He is capable of overcoming dichotomies, impossible to resolve for a simple designer, based on the strength of a vision—a visionary approach—that results from a “politically” oriented artistic education marked by the concrete utopian ideal of restoring the twofold nature of architecture as both art and concrete social action ...

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