A few days ago a correspondent asked me whether I’d seen modernist architect Jean Nouvel’s latest building in Lyon, France’s third largest city. Finished in 2019, it is an apartment building called Ycone, and looks like a work in pickup-sticks. The instigator of our conversation about Ycone, Anthony Daniels, pointed me to Jean Nouvel’s writing about it and asked, “Do such people actually have thoughts that correspond to their words?”
The link from a website called aasarchitecture.com, whose text is taken directly from Nouvel’s website, answers Daniels’ question with a resounding no. Here are some of the more obtuse (probably meant to be abstruse) passages:
[W]e’re not making sense for today, but for a programmed future – with all the risks that that implies: in urbanism, things that are programmed can vanish without a trace from one day to the next. What I’ve tried to do, then, is develop positive features.
How can this possibly represent what Nouvel’s really thinking? “We’re not making sense for today”? Things can “vanish without a trace from one day to the next”? Is he warning that this may happen to his building? Still, he’s developing “positive features.” Will they exist one day, then maybe not the next day? So who is he planning to sell the units to? Other figments of his imagination?
I tried to turn the building round a bit, to push it to one side, then push it to the other side, to work out how I could set off a positive conversation with the neighbouring buildings.
This is archispeak boilerplate. Nothing to see here, except for the neighboring buildings, which look incapable of positive conversation with anything. Fortunately, Ycone will be surrounded by tall trees to block views of the neighbors, no doubt preserving their ability to converse politely.
We need to preserve the distant landscapes, and several apartments will be able to enjoy them; and we need to preserve the close-up landscapes too.
So the distant landscape for those living atop Ycone will be preserved, but for those who live in the distant landscape the view will be wrecked by the Ycone. Perfect! And let’s preserve the close-up landscapes, too. You can see them in the photo atop this post, but since any of them can (and should) disappear on a day-to-day basis, you’d better look quickly or they may be gone.
The first creature comfort is not to be at the mercy of your neighbours. Everything that goes towards protecting privacy, private life, is paramount. With that in mind, you don’t just create façades that residents can draw the curtains across. We need to find ways of living under the watchful eyes of others. We also need to create features that allow us to say I’m at home here and everything’s different because I’m at home.
By neighbors this time Nouvel means not the neighboring buildings but your actual next-door neighbors. But don’t draw your curtains. You need to open yourself to the watchful eyes of others – so that they’ll know that “everything’s different because I am at home”!
In another passage about living in Ycone, Nouvel writes:
There’s a way of projecting yourself into a depth that means telling yourself: maybe I could live here and have an impact on this chosen spot.
Does that mean spending more time in the bathroom or in a closet so that your neighbor can’t keep track of you? What does having “an impact on this chosen spot” mean? Does that mean tidying up a bit? Or using your apartment as a bomb factory? That would probably mean closing your curtain, but closing your curtain might mean that your neighbor might not fall in love with you (you, not your apartment; this is not the Soviet Union, after all). Choices, choices!
Regarding the look of the building, Nouvel writes:
Ycone plays down similarities and creates differences – in light, feel, and of course, planes – even if the differences are slight; above all it plays on differentiation, at the level of each objective element.
More archispeak. Nothing to see here. In fact, this whole exercise has become a bit tedious, like shooting fish in a barrel, and no doubt trying the patience of readers. When am I going to get to the April Fools part, where I reveal that this is only a joke. Except that it’s not a joke. Ycone really exists, and the above recorded absurdities are actually what Nouvel has said about it – no telling what he really thinks. So in a sense this is an April Fools joke, but true. Ycone and Nouvel are jokes that keep on giving beyond April 1. But at least Ycone was built amid a setting of almost equally ridiculous buildings. Lyon seems to have kept Nouvel away from the old city center, which may be viewed below.
“What I’ve tried to do, then, is develop positive features.” I can see at least one positive feature: 30 years hence, it should be pretty easy for the ruinmen to disassemble the outside for reuse.
I’m waiting for the scaffolding to come down.
Actually there is a very funny website that generates suitable gibberish, tinyurl.com/epuadkmk – aimed at landscape urbanists, but these folks are in the target range too. Sample BS: “Retool urbanistic matrices,” “mediate distributed clusters,” “inculcate strategic architectures,” etc… Try it!
Actually I wouldn’t mind at all if this was a sculpture in a museum or in someone’s house, where people chose to experience it. But forcing it into the daily urban lives of millions, with ill-considered impacts on their quality of life and on the public realm, is nothing other than malpractice. And what Jane Jacobs memorably described, as a confusion between art and life… that is neither (good) art nor (good) life… but “taxidermy.”
It was in the area of philosophy that some person first wrote a piece of philosophical verbiage to demonstrate how verbiage is produced and lauded by cliques. It has nothing to do with architecture, the slick marketing language which means nothing is everywhere, in politics, in business, in philosophy, in art, many people ‘talk the talk’. Bureaucrats and institutions produce tons of documents with the slick meaningless ideological talk, just in the arts people are even more free to produce tendentious verbiage.
Even the expression ‘to experience it’ is from the scene by the way. It is invented by the marketing department, where instead of products they started to sell ‘experiences’.
““Do such people actually have thoughts that correspond to their words?”
“The average man finds himself with “ideas” in his head, but he lacks the faculty of ideation. He has no conception even of the rare atmosphere in which ideas live. He wishes to have opinions, but is unwilling to accept the conditions and presuppositions that underlie all opinion. Hence his ideas are in effect nothing more than appetites in words, some- thing like musical romanzas.” José Ortega y Gasset
Democratic man rises social-economic upwards in society, no matter if he is a mere talented creative fashionable word magician, or as usual, a copycat, not even a skilful imitator. Unleashed and unbound…, no standards of quality upheld by any tradition are in his way, no weight of common sense holds him down in the contemporary cultural sector of society, he will enjoy the flattery of fools and knaves.
Perhaps the work in ‘pickup-sticks’ is symbolic? And he’s right ‘We’re not making sense for today’.
I’m so relieved that you translated Mr. Nouvel (Mr. New… how apt) for me. I had no earthly idea what he was trying to say. His building is equally incoherent.
Nouvel’s rhetoric does the trick of befuddling the reader without the linguistic somersaults of most modernists, who try to use obscure words to hide their meaning, or the absence of meaning.