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Parisian to design Carnegie Science Center

Friday, March 15, 2002

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

It was a long and tough competition that at one point he was sure he had lost.

Jean Nouvel with his science center design. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

But in the end, Parisian architect Jean Nouvel triumphed, winning the commission to design the $90 million expansion of the Carnegie Science Center -- a project that will transform the gray, metal-clad building into a light-filled, transparent structure cantilevered over the Ohio River.

When it opens in 2008, it will be a building "that takes your breath away," said science center director Seddon Bennington.

With his bald pate, well-chiseled features and black leather jacket and pants, Nouvel cut a dashing figure amid the political leaders and Carnegie Institute staffers at yesterday's news conference.

"The last major, French-designed building here was a fort," Bennington quipped as he introduced Nouvel, who uses patterning and layered, transparent materials to create dramatic, luminous effects. His credits include an opera house, museums, theaters, schools, shops and clinics. This is his first science center.

Nouvel was chosen, Bennington said, 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. He hasn't latched on to particular trends."

In visits to three Nouvel buildings in Paris, Bennington said, he found the clients still pleased with the architecture.

"These are buildings that are 10 to 15 years old and haven't aged. They stand as equally fine expressions of contemporary design on the one hand, and have a classical confidence."

The science center launched its competition in the fall of 2000, inviting Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind, Bernard Tschumi, Jean Nouvel, and Ben Van Berkel/Caroline Bos of UN Studio.

Eisenman and Tschumi were eliminated a year ago. The remaining three were asked to submit revised designs addressing the jury's concerns.

Nouvel's first scheme stacked six stories of glass- and metal-clad boxes above the existing building, with each box housing a different program or function. He returned with a less complicated, more transparent building that still rises six stories above the older building, but reduces the number of boxes and combined several functions within each.

"We understood more clearly what was the target," Nouvel said.

The exterior walls of Nouvel's exhibit areas are all glass, some of which might be etched with images, perhaps of clouds. The cantilevered portion juts 80 feet over the river and houses cantilevered floors 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, with a final scheme expected by April 2003.

"It's going to change a lot as we work with Jean and his team," Bennington said. "We're going to go slow on the architecture side while we raise the money."

The state has pledged $45 million toward the project.

Actually, Nouvel himself spends very little time at the drawing board. As head of Ateliers Jean Nouvel, he is entirely responsible for a building's concept and leaves most of the design development details to the 75 architects on his staff.

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

For the science center, project architect Hala Warde bought books about Pittsburgh and made copies of images, most of them bridges, that Nouvel liked and taped them to the office walls. Then the analysis and brainstorming began.

And then, typically, Nouvel retires to a quiet place -- his bed, usually -- to let it all percolate. It is in that contemplative space that ideas emerge.

His firm, founded in 1972, now employs 110 people. They have projects under way in France, Germany, Czech Republic, Japan, Mexico, Switzerland, Brazil and New York.

Last month, Nouvel 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.

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