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)

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