Magazine | November 17, 2014, Issue

Architect of Himself

Jean Nouvel (Press Association via AP Images)
Jean Nouvel fights against beauty, and wins

Arriving recently in one of those hotels whose bedroom windows do not open by more than two inches in case the guests should immediately precipitate themselves out of them and make a terrible mess in the street below (to say nothing of killing the doorman), I found a glossy magazine on my desk designed for people whose main problem in life seemed to be spending money.

It was a publication called “Wallpaper,” of whose existence I had previously been unaware. The title struck me as odd, for to call something “wallpaper” metaphorically implies its unimportance, superficiality, triviality, inconsequence, etc. But hotel rooms are not places to which people look to find serious literature that they have not brought with them, other than the Gideon Bible in hideous modern English, of course, and I started to flick through Wallpaper much as passengers flick through airline magazines while waiting for takeoff. The magazine’s motto, incidentally, is “The Stuff That Refines You.”

Suddenly I received through the medium of its pages something akin to an electric shock. There was an article devoted to Jean Nouvel, the most famous French modern architect and now one of the most famous architects in the world. He won the Pritzker Prize, which is roughly the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for architecture, in 2008, the citation stating that “Jean Nouvel has pushed architecture’s discourse and praxis to new limits” (words that in themselves should ring alarm bells in the minds of the intelligent). He designed the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, a mixture of grain silo, gas turbine, atomic-power station, and tower crane, the work of a man desperate for originality at the inevitable expense of aesthetic coherence; and he managed the considerable feat of creating in Paris a museum that is as hideous, cheap-looking (though expensive in fact), vulgar, and inappropriate to its surroundings as the Centre Pompidou (designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano). This indeed took talent.   

Fame, alas, does not necessarily attach itself to merit in a world in which a very expensive publication calls itself “Wallpaper”; and a trip from Charles de Gaulle Airport to the center of Paris should be sufficient to persuade anyone that the latter part of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st have not been a golden age of French architecture, to put it kindly. French architects since the end of World War II have fought against beauty and triumphed in the struggle. Extra muros Paris makes Akron look like Venice, and Jean Nouvel wants to re-create intra muros Paris in his own image.

No one can be blamed for the fact that nature did not make him handsome, but blame attaches to the insistent pursuit of personal ugliness, and M. Nouvel’s shaven head and adoption practically always of jet-black casual clothes make him look like an informal SS man, or perhaps a villain from a bad remake of a James Bond film who wants to dominate the world by his evil. A man who self-consciously presents himself thus to the world is not to be entrusted with a task, such as architecture, that requires taste; his appearance is a deliberate slap in the face to others, more appropriate to the doorman of a nightclub with a reputation for violence than to a man practicing a public art that, like stuff, refines — or coarsens — you. This is not a small or unimportant matter: No less an authority than Wallpaper itself calls M. Nouvel’s mode of dress his “uniform.” If so, it is the uniform of someone who wants to inspire fear or revulsion rather than warmth, affection, or even admiration. It is the uniform of a man obsessed with himself.

Neither is this unconnected to his architectural practice and theories. The Wallpaper article consists of his reflections upon various of the buildings that he has designed — for example, the Fondation Cartier on the Boulevard Raspail in Paris (a street that was Le Corbusier’s particular bête noire, though it is incomparably better than anything he himself constructed). The interviewer asked Nouvel what the project “represented” for him. It is worth quoting Nouvel’s answer in extenso to capture the nature and quality of his thought:

Quite simply, it is the answer to a very particular question, and one that was very ambitious at the time. Alain Dominique Perrin, its founder and [the] president of Cartier, wanted to create a Parisian monument, and I wanted to create a building that paid tribute to the architecture of the time. I was involved in the planning of the tallest skyscraper in Europe, the so-called Tour Sans Fin in the Défense district, and it explored the idea of rising dematerialisation — you couldn’t understand where the tower started or where it ended.

What exactly was the particular question to which the Fondation was the answer? From the answer given, it can only be that of how to reconcile the wishes of two giant egos. Ego and architecture are never far apart, of course, but whether the resultant architecture is any good does not depend on whether the egos have been satisfied. As for architecture exploring ideas, Nouvel makes architecture sound like a cross between a paper in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society and one from the Society for Psychical Research. One can make a mistake in a publication, however, without disfiguring a city forever, or at least for centuries to come: and that seems to me a difference worthy of some consideration.

#page#Nouvel continues:

These questions of materiality and light that I was asking with the Tour Sans Fin I was also exploring with the Fondation Cartier. The ambiguity of perception that makes us wonder if the building is there, if it’s not there, and how it is there at all. [Why is there something rather than nothing, perhaps?] . . . For me, the Fondation building represents a cultural position of a certain time. And this building is unique because of this, because it puts [in] movement, in action and [in] construction, principles that were underlying or implicit but had never been implemented.

This is intellection without intellect, manipulation of words without meaning, philosophizing without content, conceptualizing without concepts: all in the service of egotism and grandiosity. How could a building not express its time, since a time is in part defined by its buildings? “I wanted . . . I was asking . . . for me . . .”

Almost everything that Nouvel says is stupid, meaningless, or a lie. This is him on hotels:

I have a theory about hotels. The city is like a prostitute while the hotels are the pimps. They give the minimum they can and take all the money.

Well, I have a theory about hotels, too. The city is like a crème brûlée, and the hotels are the layer of hard caramel. As for architects . . .  

Here is his description of the Philharmonie de Paris, a new concert hall for the city:

The Philharmonie de Paris exists like a prestigious event that plays in successive harmonies, in urban harmonies. An architecture of measured and composed reflections created by a subtle relief of cast aluminium. It is a new Paris hill, a walkable mineral relief, a truly open space evoking immaterial sheets of music and light.

That a concert hall should “evoke sheets of music” is a kind of pathetic fallacy of architecture. I am reminded of the airline-headquarters building that I once saw in a South American city: It was shaped like an airplane (a Lockheed Constellation, I think it was). Only a man with a mind of kitsch could have such an idea, and not coincidentally, Nouvel is fond of bright primary colors in his buildings, as if he had been raised in a McDonald’s restaurant and played only with plastic toys.

Nouvel also admits in the interview that he is party to financial fraud perpetrated on the French public. Replying to a question about the cost overrun of the Philharmonie by 300 percent, he says:

As for the costs, the initial figure was a lie. I have built a few music auditoria in my career . . . and I am aware of how much they can cost. The day after the Paris Philharmonic was announced, I told the client that the real price was much higher, but they conceal the truth about the cost to get such projects approved. It’s the French way.

Nouvel rather delicately skirts the question of whose lie the initial cost estimate was. But even if it was not his, he surely had a duty to inform the public or resign from the project once he knew — and he knew immediately — that the cost projection was not a mistake, but a fraud. It is fair to assume that he is clearer about his own personal interests than he is in his speech; and the alleged fact that it is “the French way” is not a defense any more than it would be a defense against murder that this is the way we do things here.

What a relief it is to turn from Nouvel to the building in Paris where I have taken a flat! Built not long before World War I, it is neither original nor wholly derivative. It blends perfectly with the urban environment around it. It is graceful and grand without being overweening. It does not scream “Look at me! I am the work of such-and-such a great name, an Ozymandias of architecture!” True, as with other such buildings in Paris, the name of the architect is carved on a small stone plaque, but he was an architect of civilization, not of gimcrack, sixth-rate ideas, or himself. He is forgotten, no one looks at such plaques, but it probably never occurred to him that he should be remembered. For me, he and many others like him are as forgotten heroes, the architects of the kind of urban civilization that we no longer know how to create.

In 1924, an architectural writer named A. Trystan Edwards published a book with the title “Good and Bad Manners in Architecture.” “There are several obvious ways in which buildings can show courtesy or discourtesy towards one another,” Edwards observed. This is not a question (to use Nouvel’s favorite word) that would occur to, much less worry or preoccupy, architects of Nouvel’s ilk. As our characters become individualistic without individuality, so do our buildings.

– Mr. Daniels is the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal.

Anthony Daniels — Mr. Daniels is a long-time contributor to National Review.

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