Landmarks: Institut du Monde Arabe

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The Independent Culture
I first came across the Institut du Monde Arabe about five years ago. It was designed by Jean Nouvel in 1987 and although it had been widely illustrated, what surprised me was that it was much smaller than in the photographs I had seen. This reduction in scale between the printed image and physical reality is the sure sign of an architectural winner.

From the outside it has a very strong sculptural composition, looking absolutely right in terms of its site on the Seine. It is designed as two quite different buildings separated by a very narrow slot, almost like a crevasse, aligned towards Notre Dame. To the south there is a rectangular block which is highly glazed with a circular book tower. On the north side, facing the Seine, is a very beautiful curved wall which terminates in an incredibly sharp prow.

It would have been easy to have fallen into the trap of using Arab devices almost literally, whereas this building is extremely subtle. There are allusions to Arab culture but they're not totally obvious. The entire south wall is made up of a grid of iris mechanisms, controlled by photo-electric cells, which filter and limit the daylight entering the building, so that from the inside it's as if you're looking out through something like a Swiss watch. This sense of being inside something mechanical is enhanced by the deliberately low floor-to-ceiling heights. You're drawn on as you proceed because there's more and more to see. You never know what you're going to see round the corner.

Raymond Gill is a partner with Frederick Gibberd Partnership, London EC2

(Photograph omitted)

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