The shock of the Nouvel

All modern buildings look the same, the critics claim. Not so, say the judges of the prestigious Pritzker prize who this year have honoured the eclectic work of Jean Nouvel
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Jean Nouvel looks like a villain from a James Bond movie. He is large. He is completely bald. He always wears black, except in the summer, when he always wears white. He is celebrated for his rages but also for his generosity and his long friendships, even with his rivals.

Yesterday, Nouvel, 62, the French architect who has designed some of the most memorable buildings in the world in the past 20 years, won the Pritzker prize – the Nobel of architecture. It was a poke in the eye for his many critics. It was a riposte to those who believe that all modern buildings look the same. Famously, no two Jean Nouvel buildings look alike.

Given that the Pritzker is an American prize, it was also a timely reply to Time magazine, which said late last year that the land of Monet and Proust was no longer a creative country.

It could be pointed out that Jean Nouvel was, for many years, rather neglected and criticised by the French themselves. It could also be pointed out that France is a country, celebrated for its beautiful old buildings, which often erects dull or ugly or repetitive new buildings.

All the more reason to prize and honour Jean Nouvel. No one has ever accused a Nouvel building of being dull or ugly or repetitive. Impractical, sometimes. Over budget, occasionally. But never dull or ugly.

His work includes the curvaceous, and angular mélange of western and Moorish styles in the Institut du Monde Arabe (1987) on the left bank of the Seine, east of Notre Dame, and the extraordinary Musée du Quai Branly (2006), a witty jumble of coloured boxes and exotic foliage beside the Eiffel Tower. He is also celebrated for the Mercer building (2007) in New York, a 15-storey red and blue, glass, wood and steel luxury block in the SoHo district and the Agbar tower (2005), a giant, candy-coloured bullet in Barcelona.

Three Nouvel projects now under way may come to overshadow all the rest: an immense flying saucer for a Louvre branch museum in Abu Dhabi; a75-storey, pointed steel and glass skyscraper in Manhattan; and an aluminium "artificial hill" for a new philharmonic concert hall in the north-east corner of Paris.

"For over 30 years Jean Nouvel has pushed architecture's discourse and praxis to new limits," the Pritzker prize jury said yesterday. "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."

Note that rather catty phrase – especially for a prize citation - "varying degrees of success". Even Nouvel's best friends would not claim that he always gets it right. It is to his enormous credit, however, that his friends include some great names in a notoriously spiteful profession.

The US architect, Frank Gehry, a close friend of Jean Nouvel, says that the recognition of the Pritzker jury is "long overdue". He would have won it long ago if he had been more consistent, he told The New York Times.

Gehry said: "There's a mixture of things that are extraordinary, things that are experiments, things that don't come off aesthetically. But Jean is willing to jump in and take on things and try. That's a great quality."

Nouvel says that his buildings are always different because he never imposes a pre-conceived design on its location. He starts with what already exists and designs a building either to complement, or deliberately jar with, its immediate landscape.

He says that he believes in a "structuralist" approach to architecture – nothing to do with the structure of buildings but a reference to the French intellectual tradition of the 1960s which demanded deep analysis and "de-construction" of the meaning of works of art and literature.

"I don't like to repeat the same vocabulary or to do the same architecture on every spot on the earth," he said. "I always research good reasons to do one thing in a specific place ... to create something unique."

Nouvel says that much of 20th century architecture was hurried and misconceived, because it was imposed on its location, rather than evolved from it. He despairs of many of the new buildings being thrown up in China and the Gulf states, which, he says, "repeat all the worst mistakes of the West in the 20th century".

As if to distance himself from such a hurried, banal approach, the French architect is famous for his apparently leisurely way of working. He claims to design many of his buildings in bed or around the table at a restaurant.

For many years, Nouvel was regarded in France as more of an impractical dreamer than a master builder. That reputation was reinforced by his visionary scheme in the early 1990s to build a vast skyscraper in the La Défense office ghetto west of Paris. The structure was known as the "tour sans fin" (tower without end). It was supposed to taper to a point, changing its materials as it rose, giving the impression of vanishing into the sky.

The bottom fell out of the Paris office market. The project was abandoned. Nouvel's practice went bankrupt. He is still paying off some of the debts.

With his trademark black uniform (white for his second strip in the summer) and broad-brimmed black hats, Nouvel has created an image as a kind of rock-star or fashion-designer architect. This is not to everyone's taste, even in a country which puts up with the caprices of, say, Karl Lagerfeld.

Nouvel has, occasionally, been known to describe himself as arrogant but he is in one respect rather modest. He makes no claim that his buildings will last forever.

"Architecture is always a temporary modification of the space, of the city, of the landscape," he said. "We think that it's permanent. But we never know."