The Contextualizer

Arthur Lubow in the New York Times Magazine:

06nouvel500Every Jean Nouvel building tells a story. Typically, architects begin the design process with a sketch pad or scale models, but Nouvel starts with an idea he can express in words. “Everyone is a product of his epoch,” he told me recently. “For me, I was born in France after the war; I was in the milieu of Structuralist thinkers. If I don’t have a good analysis of something, I am lost.” Once Nouvel examines his given conditions and decides that the best architectural solution is, say, a skyscraper without visible base and summit, or a mechanized geometric facade that casts filigreed shadows, he can get going. But to this cerebral process he appends a counterweight: the sensuous love of the material components of a building. “What I like is the poétique of the situation,” he said, in Gallically accented English. “I am a hedonist, and I want to give pleasure to other people.” That avowal of hedonism gained credibility from the surroundings in which it was made: Le Duc, arguably the best seafood restaurant in Paris, where the waiter knew without instruction to bring Nouvel’s standard order of marinated raw fish followed by poached lobster dressed with olive oil.

Nouvel treats favorite restaurants as his office annexes, where he can develop his creative ideas in stereotypically French fashion — over long, wide-ranging discussions, lubricated by excellent food and wine. From this unchanging routine he achieves a wild variety of results. Most visitors to Paris would probably be surprised to learn that a single architect is responsible for the Fondation Cartier, a light-flooded, rectangular glass building in the Montparnasse district that is sandwiched elegantly between two huge glass screens, and the Musée du Quai Branly, a hodgepodge of vividly colored components with a spooky, tenebrous exhibition hall that veers perilously close to kitsch. “Of course, you can find a lot of contradictions between all my buildings,” Nouvel told me. “I have no global reasons; I have particular reasons.” Other critically praised architectural firms, like Herzog & de Meuron and Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture, make similar claims. Nouvel’s projects, however, lack not only a recurring formal vocabulary but even a readily apparent common sensibility.

Nouvel is, at 62, a bulky man with an enormous shaved head, an intense gaze, bushy black eyebrows and an all-black wardrobe that he often complements with a broad-brimmed black hat. He makes an unmistakable impression, yet despite his powerful personality, he is exceptionally good at allowing a building to take on a personality of its own. With some of his projects, that personality is coolly and irresistibly seductive, and with others, it is brassy, even cheesy.

More here.  Plus, a video: