Nouvel but not novel

Fondation Cartier, in Paris, by Jean Nouvel. (germanopratines.fr)

Fondation Cartier, in Paris, by Jean Nouvel. (germanopratines.fr)

There is nothing unique, these days, about an architect who loves to throw ugliness in the eye of the world. There is nothing novel, alas, in architecture by those who keen to a sado-masochist ethic. I refer to Jean Nouvel, who is first in line to put up a skyscraper inside the Périphérique, in Paris, and who has committed other crimes against the eye as well. Anthony Daniels, a fellow of the Manhattan Institute, defenestrates Nouvel with max aplomb in “Architect of Himself” in National Review:

No one can be blamed for the fact that nature did not make him handsome, but blame attaches to the insistent pursuit of personal ugliness, and M. Nouvel’s shaven head and adoption practically always of jet-black casual clothes make him look like an informal SS man, or perhaps a villain from a bad remake of a James Bond film who wants to dominate the world by his evil. A man who self-consciously presents himself thus to the world is not to be entrusted with a task, such as architecture, that requires taste; his appearance is a deliberate slap in the face to others, more appropriate to the doorman of a nightclub with a reputation for violence than to a man practicing a public art that, like stuff, refines — or coarsens — you.

Daniels, after spending most of his essay parsing the meaningless and stupidity – and lies – of the Nouvelian aesthetic, turns to the building where Daniels lives in Paris.

What a relief it is to turn from Nouvel to the building in Paris where I have taken a flat! Built not long before World War I, it is neither original nor wholly derivative. It blends perfectly with the urban environment around it. It is graceful and grand without being overweening. It does not scream “Look at me! I am the work of such-and-such a great name, an Ozymandias of architecture!” True, as with other such buildings in Paris, the name of the architect is carved on a small stone plaque, but he was an architect of civilization, not of gimcrack, sixth-rate ideas, or himself. He is forgotten, no one looks at such plaques, but it probably never occurred to him that he should be remembered. For me, he and many others like him are as forgotten heroes, the architects of the kind of urban civilization that we no longer know how to create.

Imagine how beautiful the world would be if architecture had never stopped being this way. It might not mean there’d never again be Hitlers, but at least there’d be an end to Nouvels.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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8 Responses to Nouvel but not novel

  1. kristen says:

    enough with the bombastic vitriol! like a building or don’t like a building for whatever reason(s) you wish. but characterizing an architect (or anyone) by what he/she looks like (an SS guard – really?!!? that’s sinking to a pretty low level of criticism) – as the reason his/her buildings look the way do is really stretching things beyond the point that such criticism should even be taken seriously.

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    • On the contrary, Kristen, if you know more than most people do about the history of modern architecture, and especially of its founders, then you’ll know that Daniels was not only being an astute critic but brave to boot – even gentle. Nouvel and his ilk deserve much worse, and to give it to them is to raise one’s level of criticism higher and higher.

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      • kristen says:

        calling people names is not being brave. (I must admit that I chose not to pay to read
        Daniels entire article – $.25 on my credit card would cost a lot more than a quarter) — only the first few and last few graphs that were accessible. nothing indicated “gentle.” I’ll be the first in line to rant about archi-babble (and Nouvel is a master). and I really don’t care whether he likes Nouvel’s work or not (I’d have linked in ANN if it didn’t cost). I was more revolted by the personal characterization. he’s bald. he’s tall. he wears black. so he deserves being compared to an “SS man”?!!? puh-leeze. cheer or jeer a design or architect’s oeuvre. cheer or jeer archi-babble. a person’s pate or sartorial choices have no bearing on serious criticism of anything. I found it totally insulting. whether I agree or not, I find anything following a tirade about looks hard to take seriously. sorry for my own rant, but it just really struck a nerve…

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      • Fair comment, Kristen, I disagree, and you are clearly unaware of what steps the modernist establishment has taken to assure that the playing field is not level in architecture, but that is a fair comment about sartorial and physical criticism.

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  2. Sam says:

    Bill is right, you might be thinking of the Torre Agbar, by Nouvel, which is a very similar shape but in Barcelona.

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  3. Bill Kissinger says:

    The Gherkin or 30 St Mary Axe, in London, was designed by Norman Foster, not Jean Nouvel:http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/30_St_Mary_Axe

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