All modern buildings look the same, the critics claim. Not so, say the judges of the prestigious Pritzker prize who this year have honoured the eclectic work of Jean Nouvel. By John Lichfield
Innovation in architecture
Jean Nouvel looks like a villain from a James Bond movie. He is large. He is completely bald. He always wears black, except in the summer, when he always wears white. He is celebrated for his rages but also for his generosity and his long friendships, even with his rivals.
Yesterday, Nouvel, 62, the French architect who has designed some of the most memorable buildings in the world in the past 20 years, won the Pritzker prize - the Nobel of architecture. It was a poke in the eye for his many critics. It was a riposte to those who believe that all modern buildings look the same. Famously, no two Jean Nouvel buildings look alike.
Given that the Pritzker is an American prize, it was also a timely reply to Time magazine, which said late last year that the land of Monet and Proust was no longer a creative country.
It could be pointed out that Jean Nouvel was, for many years, rather neglected and criticised by the French themselves. It could also be pointed out that France is a country, celebrated for its beautiful old buildings, which often erects dull or ugly or repetitive new buildings.
All the more reason to prize and honour Jean Nouvel. No one has ever accused a Nouvel building of being dull or ugly or repetitive. Impractical, sometimes. Over budget, occasionally. But never dull or ugly.
His work includes the curvaceous, and angular melange of western and Moorish styles in the Institut du Monde Arabe (1987) on the left bank of the Seine, east of Notre Dame, and the extraordinary Musee du Quai Branly (2006), a witty jumble of coloured boxes and exotic foliage beside the Eiffel Tower. He is also celebrated for the Mercer building (2007) in New York, a 15-storey red and blue, glass, wood and steel luxury block in the SoHo district and the Agbar tower (2005), a giant, candy-coloured bullet in Barcelona.
Three Nouvel projects now under way may come to overshadow all the rest: an immense flying saucer for a Louvre branch museum in Abu Dhabi; a75-storey, pointed steel and glass skyscraper in Manhattan; and an aluminium "artificial hill" for a new philharmonic concert hall in the north-east corner of Paris.
"For over 30 years Jean Nouvel has pushed architecture's discourse and praxis to new limits," the Pritzker prize jury said yesterday. "His inquisitive and agile mind propels him to take risks in each of his projects, which, regardless of varying degrees of success, have greatly expanded the vocabulary of contemporary architecture."
Note that rather catty phrase - especially for a prize citation - "varying degrees of success". Even Nouvel's best friends would not claim that he always gets it right. It is to his enormous credit, however, that his friends include some great names in a …