Shock of the Nouvel

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From this year's scarlet Serpentine Pavilion to a disputed tower in New York, controversy follows Jean Nouvel around – that's the secret of the architect's success, says Jay Merrick

Jean Nouvel, the designer of this summer's Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London – and the impending One New Change development just east of St Paul's Cathedral – is the world's most restlessly inventive architect.

He is an Ahab, strapped to his profession's mast on the high seas of the data age, eternally searching for his version of Moby Dick and the redemptions of what he calls "the seductive space, this virtual space of illusion". Even 20 years ago, he was insisting that "the future of architecture is not architectural".

Now 64 years old, has Nouvel lived up to that vividly provocative entrance line? And will his Serpentine Pavilion – aka the Red Sun – add to or detract from the 21st century's pantheon of meaningful architecture? Is he the abjectly creative servant of major clients, or an artful agent provocateur in the world of Big Culture? In New York, they're not sure. The City Council waved through Nouvel's buildings in Mercer Street and 11th Avenue, but has recently ordered him to lop 200 feet off his proposed 1250ft Tower Verre, which neighbours MoMA and is flamboyantly corseted in steel beams.

Let's set the scene with the Red Sun Pavilion. It's not just going to be red, or even very red. It's going to be... well, here are the edited highlights of Nouvel's own description (the capital letters are his). Take a deep breath:

"I immediately felt the Serpentine Gallery's commission for a summer pavilion as a request to unearth little sparks of emotion. For me, each project is preceded by an exciting question: what can I do here that I can't do somewhere else? This is a tantalizing trail, discarding the thousand and one trivial temptations along the way: Too banal! Too vulgar! Too pretentious! Too predictable! Too conventional! Not mysterious enough!

"Then emotion steps in with a word-desire that opens the floodgates: DAZZLING, contrasting, complementary, RED, FLEETING SUMMER, STARE AT THE SUN, a red filter, RED SUN, a red screen, A HAZE OF RED, like closing your eyes against the sun, BLURRED, without end, see green through red, RED EXPLODING AGAINST GREEN, INCORPORATE THE MYTH OF RED, THE RED NIGHT, dense and mysterious like in a photo lab..."

It's immediately clear that, though Nouvel is generally considered to be one of the half-dozen architectural greats of the past two decades, he isn't your common-or-garden "starchitect". His personal and professional aura is unique. Unlike others in his profession, Nouvel is a debater. His architecture is a debate, too – a hall of mirrors in which image and form are never resolved into obvious order. Nor can you necessarily connect Nouvel, the man, with his architecture – at least, not in the same way that you might with Lord Foster, for example, whose person and buildings share an ambience of seamless perfection.

Nouvel's trajectory was unusual from the outset. He was born in the small town of Fumel in south-west France, and after a shaky educational start he won a national competition to enter the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts, France's most prestigious arts academy. The talent of this son of two teachers became obvious very quickly, and by the late 1960s Nouvel was assisting two of the country's most important cultural figures, the architect Claude Parent and the urban theorist Paul Virilio. After one year, he was made project manager for the design of a large office block. The Nouvel mojo had kicked in.

Today, he resembles a benign cross between Kojak and a burly French rugby flanker. He's clever enough to have debated questions of modern meaning with important French philosophers. He's been married twice, and his current partner is the young Swedish architect Mia Hägg. His large hands hold wine glasses with conspicuous gentleness. He wears black, except when in the South of France in the summer, when he switches to white threads. And his manners are almost courtly.

Critics either admire his singularity, or find his architecture loathsomely decadent. Exhibit A, Ellis Woodman of Building Design magazine, who says Nouvel was a "tired and disappointing choice" to design the 2010 Serpentine Pavilion, and adds: "Nouvel is an architect well past his creative prime and is in the process of completing a very substantial and truly rotten building in the City of London." Exhibit B, the commentator and academic Conway Lloyd Morgan, on Nouvel's Culture and Congress Centre in Lucerne: "A masterpiece of synthesis and expression."

Nouvel has no branded design moves. He doesn't do "wow factor" in any obvious way. In an architectural blind tasting, it would be difficult for even the relatively well informed to guess that the same man designed both L'Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, and the Lucerne building, with its deeply cantilevered roof. Nor could one easily deduce that the surreal internal courtyard of the extension to the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, the phallic, apparently geyser-inspired Agbar Tower in Barcelona and the shattered crystalline forms of the forthcoming National Museum of Qatar, erupted from the same mind.

Nouvel takes issue with physical and spatial expectations. Take the design of his controversial Musée du quai Branly in Paris, an assault on the accepted way to display ethnographic artefacts that is almost hallucinatory. It starts with an ascent up a metaphorical river to a leather-clad path as shiny as an anaconda; and then visitors segue into a twilight zone riven with light patterned by external metal meshes, and washes of colour from stained-glass panels on the building's north façade. Nouvel personally set out the positions of the scores of display cases, deliberately creating object-on-object reflections.

Why go to such extraordinary lengths to create a mysterious atmosphere? "The memory of ancestors rests in these objects," Nouvel told me over lunch at the quietly chic Clos des Gourmets, one of his favourite Parisian boltholes. "So for me, the first idea was not to show these objects like classical art and stick them in abstract space like prisoners, but put them in a space like a home."

He fingered his glass of Clos du Marquis. "Some people say it isn't a museum," he mused. "I am so proud of that! It's the most precise work I ever did; it is not art by disorder."

With projects such as Quai Branly, it's tempting to think that Nouvel's architecture merely reflects the cut-and-paste vibe of the Google age. In fact, it's the reverse. There is no "whatever" in his architecture; everything is there for a super-specific but carefully veiled reason. His buildings are like film noir – their design scripts prevent you from grasping the architectural narrative as a whole. Nouvel messes with foregrounds and backgrounds, with reflections and perspectives. Great architecture, he says, is always a response to a question that wasn't originally asked. In other words, it is a response to questions he asks – and then forces us to puzzle over.

In conversation with the philosopher Jean Baudrillard a decade ago, Nouvel argued that we should "no longer wonder about architecture or poetry. You have an object that literally absorbs you, that is perfectly resolved in itself. That's my way of expressing singularity... in other words, the object should be something that can't simply be interpreted, sociologically, politically, spatially, even aesthetically." And he added: "We have to establish relationships among contradictory objects. In short, we have to start thinking."

Or take this, a typically complicated riff. "I think the spirit of everyone is to be alone," Nouvel told the designboom e-zine. "There is something very alive in this contrast between big meetings of brainstorming, and after, alone in the silence. I spend a lot of time in silence." And in contemplating the nature of secrets – which is one of the keys to his architecture. "The secret," he once said, "becomes increasingly difficult in a world like our own, where everything is given to us totally promiscuously, so that there are no gaps, no voids, no nothingness. Nothingness no longer exists, and nothingness is where secrecy happens, the place where things lose their meanings, their identity – not only would they assume all possible meanings here, but they would remain truly intelligible."

It's exactly this kind of thinking that thrilled Marco Goldschmied, the past president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, who was central in selecting Nouvel to be awarded the Riba Gold Medal in 2001. "There are four rooms," he told me. "The first room is great architectural works – students copying the masters. In the second room, it's all about reason and the narrow economy of the minimum, cost-effective solution. Room three is the room of precedent – what I did yesterday. So it's dead, but it's safe – for a while. Now, room four. The fourth room is dark, Socratic. It's the most dangerous and unsettling room. But it's the most rewarding. I think Jean Nouvel is operating in the fourth room."

And Nouvel's Red Sun Pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery? Some will say it bears witness only to his obsession with the unexpected. Others will insist that it's simply following a precedent created by other buildings of startling redness such as the so-called Red Kilometre in Bergamo for the Italian Brembo Corporation, and the crimson façade of the extension to the Reina Sofia Museum.

But these brickbats are too simple. Nouvel is contemporary architecture's most vivid loner, and he knows that the metaphorical white whale he seeks is metaphysical – not quite in the world, and not quite out of it. Which makes his architecture simultaneously phantasmal, an intellectual riddle, a series of filters that could lead anywhere. "Look at the Japanese garden," he once said. "There is always a vanishing point, the point at which we don't know whether the garden stops or continues. I'm trying to provoke that sort of response. We can create more than we see!"

And if Jean Nouvel manages to pull that off in Hyde Park in July, then even the Architects' Journal, so sardonically amused by his verbiage, will have to bow to "RED EXPLODING AGAINST GREEN, INCORPORATE THE MYTH OF RED, THE RED NIGHT, dense and mysterious like in a photo lab..."

The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, designed by Jean Nouvel, opens on 10 July

For further reading:

The Singular Objects of Architecture, by Jean Baudrillard & Jean Nouvel (University of Minnesota Press)

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