Features

Light fantastic: Jean Nouvel

April 7, 2009

Pritzker Prize-winner Jean Nouvel was recently in Melbourne as a guest of the Architectural Association of Australia. In this interview he discusses light, materiality and the loss of meaning in contemporary architecture.

SH: Thanks for joining us today, Jean, here in Melbourne. Simon, do you want to kick off?
SK: I was interested to know how much theory and writing is relevant to your architecture?
JN: I do my architecture with ideas. I do my architecture with my personal culture, so of course architecture is interdependent of the picture of today, of my personal knowledge, and in every situation I try to use all the potential, my potential, at this moment to answer one question. I know that for every program, every situation in different cities or different countries, I cannot understand myself. So generally to do a project, we create a team with a lot of consultants, and I explain that when you have to build an architecture in a country or a city you don’t know, it’s very important to cross the views, to cross two knowledges, to cross two kinds of information, one from inside, the other one from outside.

I am very interested when I arrive to discover a new city, to discover a new site, because I am aware about what is the meaning of everything, what I never saw, what is the character? Because when you are in a city for a very long time, like I am for example in Paris in my native country, you don’t see really the difference of this country to another one, and the beauty of a lot of things for you is completely normal. And of course also you have to understand the meanings of a lot of things, the level of the constraints, why is this story created? So you need to cross all of this information. So I think we have to build with a lot of information. You have to also participate in the permanent identification of the territory, of the city. Identification is an alive process, but to create the right identification, you have to understand the history, the geography, all the habits and the desires of the people living there.

So I guess we just link it to culture, but it’s not automatically a theory. I always explain that in architecture analysis is so important… I say that Michel Foucault has a very strong influence on my work because his attitude was exactly this one, that was to say general ideas generally are not so interesting, because they are very flat, they are very without clear meanings and they are close to ideology. So you want to give the same answers for all people and so on. So it’s very important to analyse every natural problem, and after you can give an alive answer. So what you said in the philosophical field could have also a meaning in the architectural field.

SH: Jean, I was in Paris recently, and I went to two of your buildings, the Arab Institute, which I went to many years ago, and the new museum, the Musée du Quai Branly. What’s changed for you in that time between the Arab Institute and the Musée du Quai Branly? [The Musée du Quai Branly brings together France’s collection of 300,000 artistic and cultural artefacts from Asia, Africa and Oceania – ed.]
JN: I have 20 years more. But that was not the same question before, not at all. In Branly is a museum of civilisations and special civilisations, the civilisations are very often alive, but they are civilisations of the forests, of the islands, of the mountains. They are rural, and that was very difficult to find the territory to show this kind of object. For Branly, really, I didn’t want to create a very flashy and high tech building of the Western world to showcase objects like this, because it’s ridiculous. If you imagine the opposite, you take a painting of the Quattrocento and you put that in architecture of the forest in Africa, it’s ridiculous also. But the creators, they want the first solution; they said to me that I am ideal because I create specialist spaces for them, and they would give the square spaces with white walls and three showcases in symmetrical axis to show every piece, that is what they want, and with a long text behind to explain.
So that was a problem of Branly, and for this reason I create before the territory, I created before this building in the middle of the paseo with a forest on each side – symbol of the forest, because it’s trees of course, but at the end, you will not see a building, and it’s a kind of garden, and you go through this garden to discover another world, all the colours, all the feeling, and you take a slope 160 metres long, like an initiation and you go through a tunnel without light, and you arrive in the gallery, and in this gallery on one side is stained glass, and you see the trees through stained glass with the landscape of Africa and Asia. On the other side is a brise-soleil with some spots of light through, and the colours are brown, are red, are beige and so on; they are not white… approximately common colours of the subjects, of the sites where these subjects were.

So for me that was very important to create this home for this common life of all these subjects of different civilisations. The Arabian Institute: that was more a clear homage to Arabian architecture. Arabian architecture is clearly geometry and light, so I could have a more direct transposition and that was also a Parisian building to show clearly the Arabian culture in dialogue with our culture, and to show that is a part of our culture, because a lot of things like geometry, algebra, astronomy are common knowledge, coming from Arabia. So the links were very clear. In Branly these links don’t exist. So that was really two different questions, and it’s mainly the reason for the strong difference between the buildings, even if we can find common points. I am along the river, and I integrate the continuity of this building with other buildings. At the same time, every building belongs to the city, but they don’t say the same thing.

SK: I guess what we’ve been talking about is something you said before about the global and the specific, about those two things in architecture. I wonder how you bring those things to Australia? You’re doing a project in Sydney at the moment. How does your architecture fit in to the city of Sydney?
JN: In the city of Sydney I had a question to create condominiums mainly in a very particular place with an old brewery and bricks, old buildings, with a version of a new urban park. The design was to give something to the future inhabitants, and I always felt that the vegetation in Sydney is very interesting, not the same at all as the vegetation you have here, drier. And I saw also that all buildings in Sydney were very dry, and they never put vegetation on terraces, they have some pots sometimes, very small. And I think that it’s not because you are living in a city that you have to lose the advantages you have in the suburbs, in the country and so on. So I try to give to them the feeling to belong to this landscape or to this characteristic of this climate, and I work a lot on this question of relationship between vegetation and architecture, and, for me, vegetation is part of the vocabulary of architecture. Landscape is architecture. So the idea is also to create a kind of continuity between the park and the buildings; the building like an extension of the park.

I played a lot of games with light and so, for this reason, I asked Patrick Blanc who is a French scientist, to work with me and we invented a special hydroponic system for vertical gardens. But with many scientists, you learn a lot of things about plants growing in very special situations without soil, totally in shadows, growing in the rocks, growing in the wind and so on. We will try to show that it is possible, and a kind of extension of the possibilities of the pleasures of the condominiums in the middle of the city, and even in a tower at 10 or 20 levels.

Interviewer: Can I ask you a bit about glass – the material of glass seems to be something you’ve used incredibly well in your buildings, back to the Cartier Foundation and recently the Torre Agbar, and unbuilt projects such as the Tour Sans Fin. Does glass have a special kind of modernity that you think makes it the best building material?
JN: I’ve been building in glass, in concrete, in wood, in steel, and you have to use glass when you need glass, and steel when you need steel, and so on, and some buildings could be opaque, and others could be transparent. A lot of people talk about the transparency of my architecture. I don’t especially like transparency in the direct meaning of the word, because total transparency is pornographic, and I am not really interested by that. I am interested in the effect of the light through the materiality, so I can create some holes like in the Arabian Institute… In the Cartier Foundation you have the reflection of the trees in the glass, and you see the transparency of the trees or the reflection of the clouds; that is what is important. For me, the work with light is one way to talk about the most important questions of the 20th century, about the nature of the human condition, of the understanding of the world that is linked to the essence of materiality. What is a border, what is the nature of this table?

So, how can you talk about this question: what is the meaning of this building? In this space, I always thought that to do architecture is not to build the one space like we learn in schools; it’s to build in continuum in the space, and it’s always a temporary modification of one little fragment of the world. And if you want to talk about this question about relativity, and quantum theory and so on, about what is really the difference between the light and the matter, how do you do that? So you can create a kind of doubt about the materiality of the building, what is the nature of the building? What exists, does not exist, when you see that from very far, what is its essence? So the work is symbolic in this way about the essence of that. A little bit like in the Middle Ages when you created a stained glass that was an evocation.

SH: Symbols are important? Symbolism is important in your work generally?
JN: It’s a kind of general attitude to say, we know that our feet are on the ground and we are in a very material world, but we know also that the main question could be in another field.

SK: I just wanted to finish by asking you, you’ve won the Pritzker Prize, all those awards, you’ve had a distinguished career. Do you still have a passion for architecture? Is it still fun?
JN: I think all these prizes are important because it shows that my ideas are understood more today than 20 years ago, and I think of course that also all the development of architecture in the new territories, in the new cities, without relationship, any meaning and any geography or history and so on, they [now] understand better what I say.

SH: We better finish up. Because we always finish by asking our guest who their favourite architects are, who are some of your favourite architects, living or dead?

JN: I have always this question, and I don’t like this question, not because I like nobody, I like a lot of people – no, probably too many for you but not for me. We do not arrive from blackness, we have a history. It’s important to understand the meaning of every epoch before, what is the meaning to build today, and it’s important also to understand and to feel the main artists of our epoch. Of course, an architectural source, everybody knows that I am very close to Frank Gehry, to Renzo Piano, to Richard Rogers, to Norman Foster, to Toyo Ito, and so on, so I think all these architects try to give a lot of things. High tech architecture was very important in the seventies, eighties, Archigram and so on… So we are in a fantastic epoch with a lot of very important architects today, and a lot of very important artists.
SH: Jean Nouvel, thank you very much.

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