Biography of Jean Nouvel

French Architect of Light and Shadow, b. 1945

Architect Jean Nouvel in 2014, white man with shaved head
Architect Jean Nouvel in 2014. Photo by Dave J Hogan/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images for Gagosian Gallery/Getty Images (cropped)

French architect Jean Nouvel (born August 12, 1945 in Fumel, Lot-et-Garonne) designs flamboyant and colorful buildings that defy classification. In 2008 he was awarded America's highest honor, the Pritzker Architecture Prize. The judges noted that his works demonstrate "persistence, imagination, exuberance, and, above all, an insatiable urge for creative experimentation." Critic Paul Goldberger agrees, writing that Nouvel's buildings "not only grab you; they get you thinking about architecture in a more serious way."

Architectural examples abound. To handle Spain's hot sun, Nouvel designed Agbar Tower with a skin of adjustable louvers, which made climbing the skyscraper's exterior walls a quick and easy task. Within a decade after that climb, Nouvel had devised an entirely different residential design for the Australian sun. The award-winning One Central Park in Sydney, with its hydroponics and heliostats, makes the climbing challenge more like a walk in the park. The Pritzker Prize jury said he would do this: "Nouvel has pushed himself, as well as those around him, to consider new approaches to conventional architectural problems."

Jean Nouvel was traditionally educated at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France, but as a teenager, he wanted to be an artist. His unconventional buildings suggest the flamboyance of a painter. Taking cues from the environment, Nouvel places an emphasis on light and shadow.

Color and transparency are important parts of his designs, yet he ultimately moves with a profound sensitivity to the client. He burst onto the architecture scene by unexpectedly winning the commission for the new Arab World Institute's building in Paris, designed with a heat-deflecting facade that appears like a mashrabiya.

Many of Nouvel's buildings continue to be centered in Paris, although no one would consider him exclusively a Parisian architect.

With the success of the Institut Du Monde Arabe, Nouvel has been the go-to architect for Western designed "Arab architecture"—that is, the architect with enough stature and star power ("starchitect") to straddle the needs of conflicting stakeholders. For "example, Nouvel has been cited as the architect for a museum that will take the place of the controversial "Ground Zero mosque" at the Park51 address in Lower Manhattan. We'll see if it gets built, but Nouvel's name alone has eased tensions.

Jean Nouvel is not afraid to experiment and take on new challenges. He has worked with French botanist Patrick Blanc on "vertical garden" projects, incorporating plants without soil into the facade of buildings. A series of mirrors may follow the sun to deflect light into the nooks and crannies of a Nouvel design, like in the 2014 residential building in Sydney, Australia. With plantings and mirrors and porches and sunscreens, the Sydney architecture has been called "innovative and environmentally ambitious" by The Skyscraper Center. Its huge cantilever penthouse looks space-age hanging between the two-towered structure.

Called One Central Park, Nouvel's architecture is a poke in the eye to other cities with a Central Park.

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger has written that "it’s not easy to characterize his work; his buildings share no immediately recognizable style." Is Jean Nouvel a modernist? A postmodernist? For most critics, the inventive architect defies classification. "Nouvel’s buildings are so distinct, and redefine their genres so thoroughly," writes architecture critic Justin Davidson, "that they don’t seem like products of the same imagination."

Selected Buildings:

Quotes by Jean Nouvel:

  • "I am a hedonist, and I want to give pleasure to other people."
    New York Times, April 6, 2008
  • "I am mad, mad about architecture...."
    —Pritzker Acceptance Speech, 2008
  • "F**k, make some holes!"
    —From the documentary The Competition (2013) about Pritzker Laureates competing for a commission. Nouvel apparently was directing his staff to modify a design model.

Sources: 2008 Pritzker Jury Citation and Jean Nouvel 2008 Laureate Acceptance Speech (PDF), The Hyatt Foundation; Surface Tension by Paul Goldberger, The New Yorker, November 23, 2009; The Competition: a documentary that exposes how 'starchitects' really work by Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian, May 8, 2014 [accessed October 30, 2015]; A Genius in Bed by Justin Davidson, New York Magazine, July 1, 2015; El-Gamal reverses, plans museum for “Ground Zero mosque,” The Real Deal, April 30, 2014; One Central Park, The Skyscraper Center [accessed January 23, 2017]