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Jean Nouvel - Art to Architecure

Jean Nouvel's architecture speaks a beautiful, harmonious language. His work has won awards for its stunning symmetry of light, shadows, and iridescence; including the Wolf Prize in Arts in 2005 and the Pritzker Prize in 2008. Nouvel is best known for creating beautiful structures that leverage the surrounding space.

Born on August 12, 1945, in Fumel, France, Jean Nouvel's love of learning is often credited to his parents who taught high school in a small town in southwestern France.

It was not Nouvel's intention to design structures. His first love was art of a different kind; he had aspirations of becoming a painter.

His parents asked him to try something a little more “sensible,” like math or science.

Nouvel's first great compromise was architecture; it was practical. However, he failed the admissions exam for architecture school in Bordeaux in 1965.

The following year, he took first place in the admissions exam in Paris, an honor that presented the opportunity to become project manager to Claude Parent, an architect, and Paul Virilio, a cultural theorist.

Both of these men had profound influence on Nouvel's professional career as he watched them develop their experimental architecture firm.

This may have been what kept him going despite his open dislike of the Beaux-Arts teaching method, which consisted specifically of drawing beautiful details rather than doing research and providing critiques.

He quickly learned enough to branch out on his own, and with Parent's promise to send him referrals every now and then, he began his own architecture firm. In 1971, Nouvel received his degree in architectural design from the National Superior School of Fine Arts in Paris.

Paris's Institut du Monde Arabe was the structure that sent Nouvel's reputation skyrocketing – two completely different facades, enhanced by modern technology.

On the north side, The Institut was aligned directly with Notre Dame Cathedral, with a computer-generated image of the skyline across the river etched into fritted glass.

The south facade, however, was the vision that stunned not only the architecture world but the public. He created Moorish patios and balconies as homage to Arab culture based on geometry and light.

Once the Institut opened, Nouvel partnered with Emmanuel Cattani for his political contacts and industrial experience.

The firm quickly expanded to over 100 people, moving on to transforming many structures, including an opera house in Lyon and the Fondation Cartier. Eventually he had to give up the firm, and then buy back half of it, during the recession of the 1980's. Ateliers Jean Nouvel is Jean Novel's present practice. He created it in 1994 with Michel Pélissié and is is one of the largest in France with 140 employees.

Nouvel's most enterprising goal was a skyscraper he termed the “tour sans fins,” or endless tower. The endless tower would have sat inside a crater, with a facade that rises into a sky, changing color, awash in dark granite to pale stone, then, seamlessly, integrated into aluminum and glass, where the tower vanishes into thin air.

Although this project never materialized, his ambition set a standard for at least two structures: the Agbar Tower in Barcelona and the Doha High-Rise Office Building in Qatar.

Of course, there is always a chance for more to come.