On a warm August day in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, the hilltop artistic pilgrimage village a short drive from Nice, the French architect Jean Nouvel is dressed all in white, the summer version of his usual all-black uniform. We’re at the Colombe d’Or restaurant, where Modigliani, Braque, Chagall, Picasso and Miró once held court. And we’re immediately ushered to ‘Monsieur Nouvel’s’ table in a shaded corner.
Nouvel has been coming to Saint-Paul for 22 years and clearly considers it his second base after Paris. ‘I designed the Paris Philharmonic here at the Colombe,’ he says. There’s a signed model of the building surrounded by mirrors hanging in a Perspex box on the restaurant wall next to an original piece by Alexander Calder.
We chat first over lunch at the restaurant and then relocate to his apartment above the town’s main café. It is large and decked out like the man himself, monochromatically, with a selection of black and white desks, sofas and chairs, spare and still but for the sound of pétanque players and children in the background. Nouvel – the Pritzker Prize-winning architect behind the groundbreaking Fondation Cartier, Institut du Monde Arabe and Quai Branly museums, and myriad other cultural, hospitality and housing projects and skyscrapers around the world – is clearly in summer mood, peppering his conversation with loud laughter and little jokes.
No stranger to controversy, he is also unusually vocal about schemes he finds compromised or anodyne. He is disarmingly open, for instance, about how much it hurt when his MoMA tower in New York was cut down from 380m to 320m for reasons ‘connected to pseudo-electoral promises’, or when the ‘incredible industrial archaeology’ of the Île Seguin on the Seine, once home to the main Renault factories, was demolished in the summer of 2005 and a scheme to transform it into a cultural quarter and eco city (which he masterplanned) went from ‘ambitious and strong’ to ‘much less visionary’.
‘The only truth is that Renault wanted to sell at the highest possible price and a cleared site without constraints was easier to sell. They had no vision of what a place like that could be, they viewed it as a developer would.’ He was criticised for sticking with the project in its watered-down version, but says, ‘I thought there was still the possibility to do something that wasn’t entirely disconnected from its history’. We move on to happier projects.
Your Fondation Cartier building is 20 years old. What does this project represent for you?
Quite simply, it is the answer to a very particular question and one that was very ambitious for the time. Alain Dominique Perrin, its founder and then 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 Fins in the Défense district. It was supposed to be 427m high and it explored the idea of rising dematerialisation – you couldn’t understand where the tower started or where it ended.
These questions of materiality and light that I was asking with the Tour Sans Fins I was also exploring with the Fondation Cartier. That ambiguity of perception that makes us wonder if the building is there, if it’s not there, and how it is there at all. It has something of the unexplained and enigmatic about it. 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.
One of your most ambitious current projects is the Philharmonie de Paris. It is due to be completed in 2015 after delays and with a budget that has almost tripled.
It’s a very important project because it is the Paris concert hall that people have been waiting for – for almost a century – and that [French composer] Pierre Boulez always wanted. The concert halls in Paris are all a bit odd and don’t meet the standards of other major European capitals. It’s very important we have a concert hall capable of receiving the world’s great orchestras on the one hand, but popular music too. It’s a place that will host music from around the world as well as jazz, and has been conceived to attract young people, to act as a sort of educational venue. It’s an extension of the Parc de la Villette, so people will come here for the park’s other cultural and music venues too. It will be the polar opposite of a conventional concert hall, which opens once a day at 7 or 8pm and that’s it. It will be a sort of Pompidou Centre for music.
As for the costs, the initial figure was a lie. I have built a few music auditoria in my career, in Lucerne and Copenhagen, 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.
Tell us about the Louvre in Abu Dhabi.
I believe that a museum should belong to a town and its history, that architecture has roots and an identity and that it needs to take on board the history and geography of the country it is located in. We don’t need another global building. That was the first thing that shocked me when I was a student at the École des Beaux-Arts – that people made buildings that were completely abstract and disconnected from the places they were in; they weren’t aware of what was happening just down the road. They were beautiful buildings in many ways, but in terms of their significance, they were rather hermetic.
With the Louvre in Abu Dhabi I wanted to create something that belonged to its land and its history. That’s why I created a building on water with large public spaces and rooms located under a big dome. Symbolically it is important to use the architectural language of the local culture. Their urban typology in the region involves placing volumes close together and making narrow streets to create shade and cool. The white dome is their symbol for sacred spaces. A museum is a spiritual place even if it isn’t connected to a religion.
And what were your thoughts regarding the National Museum of Qatar building?
This was a different proposition. First they wanted a traditional museum that talked about the history of the country through popular art. I had proposed a much smaller museum that was very simple and calm and built into the earth so that it was cool. But they wanted something much more symbolic and demonstrative and much more monumental.
So I came up with this second option, an idea that speaks both of the desert and of modernity, and of the paradox between the eternity of certain shapes and typologies and ultra-rapid development and modernity. I used the phenomenon of the crystallisation of the desert rose and created an outsized version of it in a metal and aluminium structure. It will be a technical, architectural and cultural feat, and a real destination.
There were some people who criticised you for taking on this project.
The Qataris and Emiratis are building their cities now just as we did when we dominated the world. Our museums are filled with objects and things we stole left and right – the English and French were particularly good at that! There is no reason why they shouldn’t have their own national museums and that their children and families shouldn’t have access to the richness of the world’s cultural heritage. In France there was a whole polemic about ‘why would we lend objects to them?’ and ‘why would we help them create their collections?’ These are shameful questions. These are places of learning for their populations. This is their Golden Age. We can’t be the only ones allowed to have world-class museums.
Is the National Art Museum in Beijing your first Chinese project? It is based on the idea of art and calligraphy, isn’t it?
Yes, it’s my first major project in China. I had taken part in the project to design the opera, but didn’t get that. Its design is based on the first stroke of a letter. Symbolically you could say that the Chinese culture is contained in this line, because Chinese culture is initially contained entirely in its writings and its art.
Most Chinese students who learn to draw and write will start with their first stroke of the pen. So it’s this stroke that I chose as the symbol for Chinese culture and what it can contain. It will house collection pieces from the Ming dynasty up until the contemporary art of the present day.
What do you think of the new cities in fast-developing countries that have sprung up from nothing and mushroomed into mega cities in the space of just a few years?
The real problem is that since industry works in a certain way and governments work in a certain way, we always do the same things. We make them make the same mistakes as us. It’s an automatic reproduction of the mistakes of the past because that’s what companies sell. It’s always about the maximum amount of infrastructure, whereas we should be moving towards the maximum of autonomy, be that in terms of energy or transport… The future of the 21st century should be linked to a form of transformation, mutation and continuity, rather than ruptures and breaks with the past of this kind.