Building Moments

Jean Nouvel, 62, is the 2008 winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, only the second French designer honored in the 30-year history of the award. The Pritzker jury cited Nouvel's "persistence, imagination, exuberance and, above all, an insatiable urge for creative experimenta tion." His buildings include the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris (both opened in 2006) and future designs for La Philharmonie de Paris, the Tour de Verre in New York and the Louvre Abu Dhabi. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Cathleen McGuigan. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Congratulations. You don't have a signature style; each project is unique. Tell me about your philosophy of design.
NOUVEL: When I began to study architecture in the '60s, I was shocked because I saw a lot of buildings that were similar all around the world, in the international style [modernism]. They were not linked to the different cities or to different geo graphic climates. So very early I had a strong idea about the relationship be tween architecture and the situation of the architecture. With the evolution of the world in the last 40 years, I think it's worse, worse and worse. When you go around the world, all the cities are the same. So I always work on the question of identity—linking the architecture to the cultural identity of the city, the climate, the vegetation, as well as to poetic and historical things. For these reasons, my buildings generally never use the same vocabulary, the same colors or the same materials. But, of course, I have some permanent values, such as the epoch, the time we are living today. Architecture is a petrification of a moment of culture. That is my definition of architecture.

You've built many projects in Europe but now you're also designing in the Middle East.
Yes, I am working on the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and it is really a very good situation. It is part of a cultural neighborhood, on an island, along with projects by Frank Gehry, who is doing the Guggenheim there, and also projects by Zaha Hadid and Tadao Ando.

What kind of inspiration do you take from the geography and climate in Abu Dhabi?
I began to create a microclimate, to cover a large area [with an immense canopy], with the water, the sea, coming in, and the landscape. Then there are a lot of white buildings. For me, a museum is part of a city—the art should be part of a city—not just a building with an entrance that you go through, but open. It's impor tant that you can go to the bar or the restaurant, or the promenade—and not have to pay to enter.

The idea of public space is an idea we're losing in cities. Here you're building in the Middle East where the climate is so hot it is difficult to go outside.
For this reason, I am creating a strong landscape with trees, and creating this cover, with great shadows above the build ing. Also you have the freshness of the water—it's an island on the sea—and the microclimate.

When you think about your buildings in other parts of the world, do you also think about the public space?
Of course, the public space is part of the initial strategy. For example, in Lucerne, when I created the concert hall [which opened in 2000] and the Museum of Contemporary Art [which opened in 2002], I began to create a covered square because in Lucerne, it is snowy and rainy. The covered square was the beginning of a very popular place because it is comfortable there.

In every place I try to do that. In the Quai Branly museum, I created a public park and put the museum in the middle. If you look at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, I created a strong link with the park along the Mississippi River and the view of the waterfalls—and with a public terrace and the restaurant. It's very im portant to create a desire for the inhabi tants of the city to go to a place like that and enjoy it.

Clearly, you were inspired by the Mississippi. When we spoke at the time the Guthrie opened, I asked if you knew the song, "Old Man River," and you immediately began to sing it!

You're very busy these days. What about the 75-story tower, the Tour de Verre, you're building next to the Museum of Modern Art in New York?
I am very excited by that. Manhattan is a vertical city and to create the spirit of the skyscraper there is to put another piece in a historical city. It is a dream project for an architect.