'This is an anti-design building,' says Jean Nouvel, its architect. 'There is no seeking of detailed effect, rather an abstract and minimalist use of materials to create a feeling of calm and serenity.' The crystalline building is 'like a diamond . . . both transparent and reflective', says Alain Dominique Perrin, chairman and managing director of Cartier.
Cartier wanted a building to frame its collection of contemporary artworks. Over the past 10 years, it has invested heavily in sponsorship of contemporary art. The Nouvel building had to be a match for these artistic ambitions.
The site, formerly occupied by the American Center, which has now moved to an outlandish new building in the suburb of Bercy designed by the American architect Frank Gehry, is a part of Paris's historical and natural heritage. It boasts an acre of garden and a magnificent cedar of Lebanon, which was jealously guarded by vigilant neighbourhood associations and local government representatives. The tree and the city garden are now at the heart of Nouvel's new building.
Along the Boulevard Raspail, the Fondation Cartier is fronted by a glass screen backed by a curtain of trees. The building stands behind this screen and is glazed right down to the ground, so that the garden at the back is seen from the street.
At the centre of this extraordinary meeting of nature and artifice, the cedar cuts a majestic figure and breaks up Nouvel's complex geometry. Sandwiched between successive facades of glass, the trees appear and disappear in a maze of reflections that mesmerise passers-by.
Beyond delighting pedestrians, the building has two main functions. The areas for temporary art exhibitions are on the ground floor and basement, while the seven upper floors are dedicated to offices. On ground level, the glass walls of the exhibition space slide back to make a sort of patio on stilts, a multi-purpose reception area that can be adapted to every possible form of display. In this vast glass cage, artists have been provided with space and freedom to indulge their creativity.
In the basement is a second, more conventional, white-walled exhibition area. With the exception of the top floor, which gives out on to a terrace with a panoramic view, and houses senior management offices, the other six floors are identical in layout.
The problem of light and luminosity in an entirely glazed building is solved through a system of external blinds, unfolding to control the level of light entering the building. They are electrically powered and when fully deployed, cover the facade in great squares of canvas, altering the appearance of the building. These constant changes, which vary with time and season are, in the eyes of Jean Nouvel, one of the major attractions of this chameleon-like building. It sparkles in the sun, shimmers under the rain and virtually disappears in the mist.
As with the 'Tour Sans Finis', one of his last projects (sadly put off for lack of finance), Nouvel is deliberately aiming at an aesthetics of disappearance, blurring the points at which the Cartier building starts and finishes, attempting to make it less tangibly visible than conventional buildings and, as far as possible, merging into the sky. With the efficient use of new material and techniques, his unstinting search for translucency and abstraction makes him work towards a structure of maximum airiness: less metal, less matter, less density, because, as Mies van der Rohe once said: 'Less is more.'
Fondation Cartier, 261 bld Raspail, 75014 Paris; tel (010 331) 42 18 56 50. Exhibitions open to the public.
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