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Designer of the Carnegie Science Center expansion creates a daring, dazzling architecture

Sunday, April 07, 2002

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

When Jean Nouvel was growing up in the antiquarian village of Sarlat in the southwest of France, his parents, both teachers, laid down laws that must have seemed positively medieval.

No comic books.

(He hid them under the bed.)

No going to the movies.

Jean Nouvel in front of his design for the Carnegie Science Center. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

(He sneaked out, climbing over the garden wall.)

And forget about becoming a painter.

"My parents said no, it was too dangerous. So I went into architecture," Nouvel said. "I entered [the Ecole des Beaux-Arts] with the idea to come back to painting, but I never did."

Thus did he acquire "a taste for forbidden things young," as he once put it.

While he is just now becoming known outside France, he has been a star in his native country for more than a decade, with a celebrity fueled in part by a night-owl lifestyle and the striking looks and burly physique that led one writer to describe him as Kojak and another as Dr. Evil.

If Nouvel, at 56, is not quite the bad boy of French architecture, he has become known for living up to his name, creating a Nouvel architecture that can astonish, provoke, delight and reinvent itself with every building.

In an era when many of architecture's superstars -- Gehry, Graves, Stern, Meier, et al. -- make buildings that have certain brand-identifying elements, Nouvel has no signature style. Each of his buildings is a one-off peculiar to its environmental, cultural and historical contexts and the requirements and budget of its program -- and inevitably reflecting Nouvel's fascination and facility with transparency and light.

He has, along the way, earned the respect of the academy, winning numerous national awards in France. Last year, he was the upstart winner of the RIBA Gold Medal, one of the profession's highest honors.

"Nouvel epitomizes an age where the solution is a certain solution, a problem-solving solution. But he's not classifiable. He's unpredictable -- and that makes him exciting," RIBA president Marco Goldschmeid told London's Independent last spring.

Last month, Nouvel was chosen to design the $90 million Carnegie Science Center expansion in a limited competition that included Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind, Bernard Tschumi and Ben Van Berkel/Caroline Bos of UN Studio.

Nouvel was selected, said science center director Seddon Bennington, because the jury liked the "transparency, elegance, boldness and daring" of his work, which "doesn't shout but grows on you." Jurors liked not only "the way he approached our site and our program" but also the "very enduring quality in his work."

Nouvel's first scheme for the science center stacked six stories of glass- and metal-clad boxes above the existing building, with each box housing a different program or function. One of three architects who were asked to refine their schemes, Nouvel returned with a less complicated, more transparent building. It still rises six stories above the older building, but Nouvel reduced the number of boxes and combined several functions within each.

"We understood more clearly what was [their] target," Nouvel said.

The exterior walls of Nouvel's exhibit areas are all glass, some of which might be animated with etched or projected images. The cantilevered portion juts 80 feet over the river and houses cantilevered floors projecting into a mostly open, rectangular volume with broad views up and down the rivers.

"I was really impressed by the rhythm and succession of the bridges," Nouvel said, and he wanted the science center to catch those views.

The design will continue to evolve in the coming months as the science center raises the money to build it. A final scheme is expected by April 2003, with completion set for 2008.

"It's going to change a lot as we work with Jean and his team," Bennington said.

"The analysis to date is that there's lot of expense in stacking it up and achieving that dramatic cantilever. On the other hand, we don't want to compromise any of that strength. Who knows where that will lead Jean in his thinking?"

Nouvel won't predict how it might unfold.

"I never have one idea about the end of the process," he said. "I can change. It's not a problem for me, but I like to find good reasons."

Art and architecture

In conversation, Nouvel is candid and direct, with a good command of the English his mother taught him. In a recent interview, he was flanked by Hala Warde, his project manager, and Alain Trincal, his director of business development, who sometimes helped translate or elaborate on the questions he was asked.

Born in Fumel in 1945, Nouvel was 8 when he moved with his parents to Sarlat, a medieval town of 10,000 near Lascaux in the chateaux country of the Dordogne.

"I was living in the architecture of the 17th century," Nouvel said. "I am sure I was impressed by that."

While his parents supported his interest in architecture, they required that he study first in nearby Bordeaux, then at Paris's tradition-bound Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Nouvel, who took first place in the Ecole's entrance competition, arrived in Paris in 1966. Two years later, in May 1968, Ecole students and faculty were on strike, part of a mass movement for social change.

"Nouvel took the floor at the amphitheater in the Sorbonne to protest the academicism of the Beaux-Arts system and the conservatism and self-interest of the Ordre des Architectes, the official body for architects," writes Conway Lloyd Morgan in his 1998 book on Nouvel. "He also argued the stupidities of centralized planning and the failures of postwar urban reconstruction."

Coming of age in the late 1960s led Nouvel to understand and value the importance of public input on a project. He also regards his own contribution, the creative act, as sacrosanct.

"This duality of obligation, the architect's responsibility to a public and to his or her personal integrity, is a crucial aspect of Nouvel's approach to architecture," Morgan writes.

While still in school, Nouvel took a job with Claude Parent, who with Paul Virilio formed Architecture Principe in 1963 in Paris, espousing a non-orthogonal "oblique architecture" using angled planes.

Nouvel has never embraced any particular intellectual theory; rather, his work is guided by an approach that explores and exploits the dramatic, sensuous and transforming possibilities of transparency and light.

"For me, light is matter, and light is a material," Nouvel has said. "Once you understand how light varies, and varies our perceptions, your architectural vocabulary is immediately extended, in ways classical architecture never thought of. An architecture of ephemerality becomes possible -- not in the sense of temporary structures, but mutable ones, changed by light and changing with light."

Encouraged by Parent, who said "do it alone," and supported by projects Parent gave him, Nouvel struck out on his own in 1970. Over the next decade, he won and lost competitions and designed small residential and cultural projects, including the renovation of several theaters. He began consulting with theatrical designer and writer Jacques Le Marquet, whom Nouvel now regards as his "one permanent adviser."

"I want someone with another culture than mine, that I can check with him my stupid ideas," he said. Nouvel has two other "sparring partners," as he calls them: architectural writers Olivier Boissiere and Hubert Tonka. But it was Le Marquet who nurtured an awareness of the theatrical possibilities of architecture, which has been central to his approach.

Another influence: He designed a series of exhibitions for the Paris Biennale, which brought him into contact with contemporary artists. Nouvel especially admired the work of Joseph Beuys, Walter De Maria, Dan Flavin, Richard Serra and Robert Smithson.

"He combined their influences and expanded them to the dimensions of the landscape," Boissiere wrote in his 1996 book on Nouvel.

"This desire to become a painter, to work in an emotional way, I think I've kept some of that," Nouvel said. "For me, art and architecture are a common territory."

In a Nouvel building they are, in fact, inseparable, and it's easy to regard some of their components -- like the glass cones of Paris' Galeries Lafayette -- as permanent installation art. Nouvel prefers to liken his work, with its fluid, dazzling effects, to filmmaking.

Patterns and light

Within his firm, Ateliers Jean Nouvel, he functions as creative director, responsible for a building's concept, its big idea.

Nouvel considers making initial sketches a "19th-century" approach, preferring to shape the building entirely in his head before putting it on paper at the last moment.

"The sketch I draw in 20 seconds," he said.

He leaves most of the design development details to the 75 architects on his 110-member staff but continues to advise and consult.

His first project to attract critical attention was his addition to the 1950s Bezons Clinic, a short-term care facility in a Parisian suburb that includes maternity and post-operative convalescent wards. Treating the patient's stay there as a metaphor for a voyage, Nouvel evoked the streamlined look of trains and cruise ships with a silver, corrugated metal facade and porthole windows.

Nouvel's breakthrough project -- the one that made his reputation in France -- was the Arab World Institute, a museum and center for Arabian culture in Paris that opened in 1986. Nouvel and his team conceived an East-meets-West building of two linked structures that embrace a courtyard pointing toward nearby Notre Dame. The curving north wall faces the Seine, with images of old Paris both literally mirrored and faintly etched in silk-screened enamel on its glass curtain wall.

The rectangular south wall is an intricate grid of shape-shifting, aluminum circles within squares, referencing patterns at the Alhambra, the 14th-century Moorish palace in Granada, Spain. The circles are diaphragms controlled by photoelectric cells that trigger openings and closings in response to natural light. They become ever-changing polygons that create an interior kaleidoscope of dancing beams of light.

In 1986, Nouvel won the competition to expand and renovate Lyon's Opera House, a 19th-century Beaux-Arts building with two floors of Roman arches topped by eight muses. Nouvel took the round arches as a point of departure, designing an enormous glass barrel-vault roof that rises six stories above the historic building and provides a dark, spare backdrop for the white, classical muses. Inside, Nouvel inserted a highly polished, black, red and chrome interior. At night, activities inside are visible from the street, including practice in the rehearsal hall on the top floor.

A 1992 competition to design a residential, office and retail building in the eastern section of reunified Berlin led Nouvel to create one of his most innovative and spectacular projects, known as Galeries Lafayette for the department store that occupies part of it. Here, Nouvel reinterprets the traditional skylight by inserting conical and cylindrical light wells that penetrate the building, terminating in points that are accessible and inviting to the touch, at once seductive and menacing. Animated with projected images, the cones become swirls of color and light.

The Pittsburgh project will be his first science center, one that will house many exhibits and programs, including "Cybercity," exploring the newest technology in virtual reality, robotics and electronics and their applications in the region. At night, the architecture might communicate that by projecting images on the exterior walls.

"He likes the idea of using screens -- a fabric screen that is between the two layers of glass, so there's a combination of insulation and secure separation for the mechanism for this," Bennington said. "It would create different levels of sunscreening, and, at night, they come down and become rear projection screens, [with images] covering some of the content and activity of the building. I have every confidence that Jean's articulation of that would be more complex, that it would not become just an illuminated billboard."

And while some of the spectacle would happen outside, Bennington believes it's also important that "the drama and participant's experience of the architecture unfolds in a gradual way inside -- that it's not a building that just makes one large bang and after that it's all rather ordinary. I think it's important to try to sustain that level of fascination and also to reveal itself over time."

Nouvel also will design a master plan for the 13-acre site, including an outdoor Discovery Park with exhibits focusing on water, light, sound and energy. In Nouvel's plan, the park extends from the rear of the site to the river's edge, where water enters in the form of a cove divided by a walkway, just west of the building.

"We like the way Jean sees the indoor-outdoor experience being interconnected or integrated," Bennington said. "I think it's going to be quite a challenge to reconcile that with his striving for a vertical solution."

Nouvel put parking in a linear, four-level garage opposite the new stadium and next to the science center, maximizing convenience for visitors. But the Port Authority may build a 1,700-car garage at the northern edge of the science center site that would connect to a new light-rail stop. Commuters would use it Mondays through Fridays, and Steelers fans on occasional Sundays.

"That leaves a lot of capacity for our peak days," Bennington said. "On the other hand, it's quite a long walk, covered or uncovered, from there to the science center. We've got to decide how important it is to bridge that."

Reuse and reanimate

As an urbanist, Nouvel believes in the art of the possible. In 1990, when a German newspaper invited architects and planners to suggest ideas for rejuvenating blocks near the fallen Berlin Wall for the purpose of stimulating discussion, most responded with grand schemes for skyscrapers and monumental buildings. Nouvel proposed a series of smaller, short-term, achievable projects: Cafes, kiosks, book shops and play and sports areas would be developed on the empty blocks, and the existing buildings in the former, dreary East Berlin would be brightened with neon lighting, advertising signs and electronic bulletin boards on facades and rooftops.

Nouvel also advocates the reuse of existing buildings when possible and practical, as he does with the existing science center, which is integrated into the new design. In his scheme last year for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art competition, Nouvel renovated several buildings and added a new one. But in December, LACMA trustees chose Rem Koolhaas' plan to demolish almost everything and replace it with a vast new building.

There have been other disappointments. Nouvel's design for the Endless Tower, winner of a 1988 competition, is a circular, glass-walled Parisian office building that becomes more transparent as it rises, and seems to disappear into the sky. It awaits an economic upturn.

But Nouvel has projects under way in France, Germany, Czech Republic, Japan, Mexico, Switzerland, Brazil and New York. In February, he unveiled his design for a new, $125 million Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis -- a series of metal-clad cubes and cylinders that evoke grain bins and other nearby industrial structures. Its most dramatic feature is a glass-and-steel walkway that will cantilever 140 feet over a parkway to permit views up and down the Mississippi River.

And in New York, he's awing visitors to the Guggenheim Museum with a spectacular installation for an exhibition of Brazilian art. Nouvel painted the spiraling white rotunda black, set within it an enormous, ornately carved and gilded 18th-century cedar altar, and then turned off almost all the lights.

Asked what advancements he thought he would be remembered for a century from now, Nouvel did not state what would seem to be the obvious -- being in the vanguard of architects making diaphanous, kinetic buildings that blur the boundaries between inside and out.

Rather, he demurred.

"I am not interested by the future. I want to build for the present. I cannot imagine, what is the meaning of this building? We have to be the most honest and efficient now. It's not my question."

Then he softened.

"Thirty years ago, I was sure that many architects would work in this way. Maybe I am the beginning of another attitude in this way -- integration, cultural context, dialogue, at one moment in one place.

"I think [the science center] could be a little polemical because the American attitude is to demolish. I lost LACMA because they wanted to demolish. For me, this building could be important to talk about those kinds of questions."

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