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
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
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.

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments