Of the many phrases that might be used to describe the career of architect Jean Nouvel, foremost are those that emphasize his courageous pursuit of new ideas and his challenge of accepted norms in order to stretch the boundaries of the field. For over 30 years, Jean Nouvel has pushed architecture’s discourse and praxis to new limits. His inquisitive and agile mind propels him to take risks in each of his projects, which, regardless of varying degrees of success, have greatly expanded the vocabulary of contemporary architecture.
Since establishing his Paris-based practice in the 1970s, Nouvel has pushed himself, as well as those around him, to consider new approaches to conventional architectural problems. He is not interested in a unified approach or accepted typologies. He likes ruptures of scale and form that move the viewer from one aesthetic sensibility to another. “I am glad if a project can be ten thousand projects simultaneously,” Nouvel has said.
The manipulation of light and of layers of transparency and opacity are recurring themes in Nouvel’s work. His Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute), built in Paris 1987, was designed with adjustable metal lenses embedded in its south-facing glass façade to control light to the interior, a modern twist on traditional Arab latticework. His Tour Sans Fins (Endless Tower) was selected as the winning entry of a 1989 competition to construct a skyscraper in the La Defense area near Paris. More important than the height of the proposed 400–meter high structure, intended, at the time, to be the tallest tower in Europe, was the building’s skin, which changed materials as it progressed upward—from granite to aluminum to stainless steel to glass—becoming increasingly diaphanous before disappearing into the sky. Here, as with the KKL Luzern (Cultural and Conference Center) of 2000 in Lucerne and the Fondation Cartier pour l’art Contemporain (Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art) of 1994 in Paris, dematerialization is made palpable.
For Nouvel, in architecture there is no “style” a priori. Rather, context, interpreted in the broadest sense to include culture, location, program, and client, provokes him to develop a different strategy for each project. The iconic Guthrie Theater (2006) in Minneapolis, Minnesota both merges and contrasts with its surroundings. It is responsive to the city and the nearby Mississippi River, and yet, it is also an expression of theatricality and the magical world of performance.