Architecture: The man in black who despises uniformity

IT IS dark and raining in the Paris backstreet outside the offices of Jean Nouvel and Associates, the headquarters of one of France's most influential architects. But inside, on the first floor of the converted warehouse, it could be any time of day or night.

Heads are bent over drawing boards, under Anglepoise lamps, studying plans and models; and the master himself is much in demand. Colleagues loiter outside his office, waiting for a chance to catch him. A Japanese-style glass and wooden door the size of a wall slides open and he emerges, tall, balding, all in black.

The man famous for his creation in 1987 of the Institut du Monde Arabe, on the left bank of the Seine, and soon for La Tour Sans Fin, fascinates both his fans and his critics. There are those who judge him a megalomaniac, imposing what has been described as an excess of his own personality on his work. He is passionately creative and hates uniformity. His talent, however, is not in question.

Nouvel, 46, trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, first as a painter and only later as an architect. He dismisses his time there as 'more of a deformation than a formation'; however, while still at the school he won a national architecture competition. All the doors opened. At 21 he was in charge of a project for 70 homes; four years later he set up his own agency.

He protested against the French government's policy of 'zoning' urban centres and set up a movement of architects to resist separate sectors for housing, industry, shops and businesses. Nouvel argued that towns could be built only by successive modifications to existing structures; they could not be designed according to a set of rules.

Nouvel boasts that it is impossible to reduce his work to a set of common architectural principles: 'I don't function like an artist with an easily identifiable style. I don't stick to the same vocabulary in each situation; the same formula, technique or aesthetics.'

His most important building to date is the Institut du Monde Arabe, for which he won France's Grand Prix d'Architecture, usually reserved for a lifetime's work. The vast curved glass and metal building has an extraordinary facade with light-sensitive metallic shutters that open and close, like the pupil of an eye, according to the intensity of sunlight.

In a subsidised housing project in the southern town of Nmes, Nouvel challenged the Fifties and Sixties norms of conglomerations of tower blocks on the outskirts of cities. 'Nemausus' consists of two space-age boat-shaped buildings in metal and glass, with maximum space and light inside. The site is a distinctive landmark.

'What's amazing about architecture is that, when you see it several generations later, you know the aesthetic motivations of the people who built it,' he says. Those who shy away from the reality of the 20th century are mistaken: 'If you want to make an economical building today, it has to make use of the industrial system. But you can create architectural beauty out of industrial materials in the same way as you can out of old stone.'

Nouvel believes that contemporary architects 'should put the means of today at the service of nature'. He is putting principle into practice in an pounds 11m headquarters project for the international jewellers Cartier, on a sensitive Paris site - a park that boasts a cedar planted by the 19th-century political and literary figure, Chateaubriand.

Nouvel's plan shows a seven-storey glass building, with another eight floors underground. The transparent facades are wider than the building itself, so that the trees of the park appear to be seen through the building. Work should start this year.

His most audacious project - the Tour Sans Fin (Tower Without End) - is scheduled to start soon afterwards. Three years ago, Nouvel's design won an architectural competition for offices close to the Grande Arche at La Defense, but construction has been delayed by planning regulations.

It represents an idea that Nouvel believes fascinates people: infinity. The tower will be the highest in Europe, built in glass that is black at the base, but lightens to grey higher up, then turns white and finally transparent as it seems to disappear at the top.

The dream of a megalomaniac? One member of the panel that chose Nouvel's design described it as 'a pure object of capitalism'. If, as Nouvel says, the purpose of architecture is to record our times, that is quite a compliment.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?