Jean Nouvel Buildings: Shadow & Light

Architecture by Ateliers Jean Nouvel (b. 1945)

man with shaved head standing in red backdrop that says GREEN
Jean Nouvel and His 2010 Serpentine Pavilion in England. Oli Scarff/Getty Images (cropped)

French architect Jean Nouvel (born August 12, 1945 in Fumel, Lot-et-Garonne) designs flamboyant and colorful buildings that defy classification. Based in Paris, France, Nouvel is an internationally known architect that has lead a multinational, multicultural design firm, the Ateliers Jean Nouvel (an atelier is a workshop or studio), since 1994.

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.

Nouvel is said to have no style of his own, yet he takes an idea and turns it into his own. For example, when he was commissioned to create a temporary pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery in London, he thought of the English double-decker buses, red phone booths and post boxes and playfully built a structure and furnishings colored entirely in British red. True to form, he defied his own design by pronouncing it GREEN in large letters that overlooked the landscape of its location — Hyde Park.

Defying expectations, the 2008 Pritzker Laureate experiments not only with light, shadow, and color, but also with vegetation. This photo gallery presents some highlights of Nouvel's prolific career — architectural designs that have been called exuberant, imaginative, and experimental.

2017: Louvre Abu Dhabi

modern white and grey exterior courtyard, paths between pools of water leading to a circular structure with a lattice metal dome-like roof
The Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum, United Arab Emirates.

Luc Castel/Getty Images


A lattice dome dominates the design for this art mueum and cultural center in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). With a diameter of nearly 600 feet (180 meters), the dome is reminiscent of an iconic sports stadium, much like Beijing's National Stadium from 2008, the Bird's Nest in China, designed by Herzog & de Meuron. But as the Beijing metal lattice acts as siding for a container, Nouvel's multi-layered lattice is the cover of the container, acting both as protection for the historic collection of art and artifacts and as a lattice filter for the sun, which becomes starlight to interior spaces. Over 50 separate buildings — galleries, cafes, and meeting places — huddle around the dome disc, which itself is surrounded by waterways. The complex was built in conjunction with a signed agreement with the French government and the UAE.

1987: Arab World Institute, Paris

typical commercial building shape but with a lattice metal panel facade
Arab World Institute in Paris, France. Yves Forestier/Getty Images (cropped)

Jean Nouvel burst onto the architecture scene in the 1980s by unexpectedly winning the commission for the Arab World Institute's building in Paris. Built between 1981 and 1987, the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) is a museum for Arabian art. Symbols from from Arabian culture combine with high-tech glass and steel.

The building has two faces. On the north side, facing the river, the building is sheathed in glass which is etched with a white ceramic image of the adjacent skyline. On the south side, the wall is covered with what seems to be moucharabieh or mashrabiya, the kind of latticed screens found on patios and balconies in Arab countries. The screens are actually grids of automated lenses used to control light entering the interior spaces. The aluminum lenses are arranged in a geometric pattern and covered with glass.

To regulate light, Nouvel invented an automated lens system that operates like a camera shutter. A computer monitors external sunlight and temperature. Motorized diaphragms automatically open or close as needed. Inside the museum, light and shadow are integral parts of the design.

2005: Agbar Tower, Barcelona

city scene with large missile-like skyscraper rising amongst rectangular buildings
Agbar Tower in Barcelona, Spain. Hiroshi Higuchi/Getty Images (cropped)

This modern office tower overlooks the Mediterranean Sea, which can be seen through the glass elevators. Nouvel drew inspiration from Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí when he designed the cylindrical Agbar Tower in Barcelona, Spain. Like much of Gaudí's work, the skyscraper is based on the catenary curve — a parabola shape formed by a hanging chain. Jean Nouvel explains that the shape evokes the mountains of Montserrat surrounding Barcelona and also suggests the shape of a rising geyser of water. The missile-shaped building is often described as phallic, earning the structure an assortment of off-color nicknames. Because of its unusual shape, Agbar Tower has been compared to Sir Norman Foster's 2004 "Gherkin tower" at 30 St. Mary's Axe in London.

The 473-foot (144 meters) Agbar Tower is constructed of reinforced concrete sheathed with red and blue glass panels, reminiscent of the colorful tiles on buildings by Antoni Gaudí. At night, the exterior architecture is brilliantly illuminated with LED lights shining from more than 4,500 window openings. Glass blinds are motorized, opening and closing automatically to regulate temperature inside the building. The brie-solei (brise soleil) sun shading louvers extend from colored security glass window panels; some south-facing materials are photovoltaic and generate electricity. The exterior shell of glass louvers has made climbing the skyscraper an easy task.

Agüas de Barcelona (AGBAR) is the water company for Barcelona, handling all aspects from collection to delivery and waste management.

2014: One Central Park, Sydney

modern glass building in three distinct heights with loft-like area hanging from the tallest height
Vertical Gardens at One Central Park in Sydney, Australia. James D. Morgan/Getty Images (cropped)

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 for daredevil stuntmen. Within the decade after well-publicized climbs, Nouvel had devised an entirely different residential design for the Australian sun. The award-winning One Central Park in Sydney, Australia with its hydroponics and heliostats, makes the building-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."

Working with the French botanist Patrick Blanc, Nouvel designed one of the first residential "vertical gardens." Thousands of indigenous plants are taken a-flight inside and out, making "the grounds" everywhere. Landscape architecture is redefined as heating and cooling systems are integrated into the building's mechanical systems. Want more? Nouvel designed a cantilever high-end penthouse with mirrors beneath — moving with the sun to reflect light to the disenfranchised plantings in the shade. Nouvel is truly an architect of shadow and light.

2006: Quai Branly Museum, Paris

bright reds and yellow panels mix with glass exterior of building behind lush vegetation, a wide red line down a path toward the building
Musee du Quai Branly, Paris, France. Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images

Completed in 2006, the Musée du Quai Branly (Quai Branly Museum) in Paris appears to be a wild, disorganized jumble of colorful boxes. To add to the sense of confusion, a glass wall blurs the boundary between the outer streetscape and the inner garden. Passersby cannot distinguish between reflections of trees or blurred images beyond the wall.

Inside Musée des Arts Premiers, architect Jean Nouvel plays architectural tricks to highlight the museum's diverse collections. Concealed light sources, invisible showcases, spiral ramps, shifting ceiling heights, and changing colors combine to ease the transition between periods and cultures.

1994: Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art, Paris

glass and metal facade on a tree-lined city street
Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain, Paris, France. Michael Jacobs/Art in All of Us/Getty Images (cropped)

The Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art was completed in 1994, well before the Quai Branly Museum. Both buildings have glass walls dividing the streetscape from the museum grounds. Both buildings experiment with light and reflection, confusing the inner and outer boundaries. But the Quai Branly Museum is bold, colorful, and chaotic, while the Cartier Foundation is a sleek, sophistocated modernist work rendered in glass and steel. "When virtuality is attacked by reality," writes Nouvel, "architecture must more than ever have the courage to take on the image of contradiction." The real and the virtual blend in this design.

2006: Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis

grey-blue roundish shaped industrial-looking building
Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Hervé Gyssels/Getty Images (cropped)

Architect Jean Nouvel experimented with color and light when he designed the nine-story Guthrie Theater complex in Minnesota. Completed in 2006 and built in the historic Mills District on the banks of the Mississippi River, the theater is shocking blue by day — unlike other theaters of this period. When night falls, the walls melt into the darkness and enormous, illuminated posters fill the space. A yellow terrace and orange LED images on the towers add vivid splashes of color.

The Pritzker jury noted that Jean Nouvel's design for the Guthrie is "responsive to the city and the nearby Mississippi River, and yet, it is also an expression of theatricality and the magical world of performance."

2007: 40 Mercer Street, New York City

Industrial-looking apartment building at 40 Mercert St. in NYC
Jean Nouvel's 40 Mercer Street, New York City. Jackie Craven

Located in the SoHo section of New York City, the relatively small project at 40 Mercer Street posed special challenges for architect Jean Nouvel. Local zoning boards and a landmarks-preservation commission set rigid guidelines on the type of building that could be constructed there. Nouvel's modest beginnings in Lower Manhattan hardly anticipated the towering residential skyscraper at 53 West 53rd Street. By 2019 the million dollar condominiums at Tower Verre in Midtown Manhattan topped out at 1,050 feet (320 meters).

2010: 100 11th Avenue, New York City

Top view of Nouvel's residential tower, with lights on in a few units with asymmetrical windows
Jean Nouvel's Residential Tower at 100 11th Avenue in New York City. Oliver Morris/Getty Images (cropped)

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote that "The building clatters; it jangles like a bracelet." Yet standing directly across the street from Frank Gehry's I.A.C. Building and Shigeru Ban's Metal Shutter Houses, 100 Eleventh Avenue completes the Big Apple's Pritzker Laureate triangle.

The residential condominium building at 100 Eleventh Avenue in the Chelsea area of New York City stands a mere 250 feet — 56 apartments on 21 floors.

"The architecture diffracts, captures and watches," writes architect Jean Nouvel. "On a curving angle, like that of the eye of an insect, differently-positioned facets catch all of the reflections and throw out sparkles. The apartments are within the 'eye', splitting up and reconstructing this complex landscape: one framing the horizon, another framing the white curve in the sky and another framing the boats on the Hudson River and, on the other side, framing the mid-town skyline. The transparencies are in keeping with the reflections, and the textures of the New York brickwork contrast with the geometric composition of the large rectangles of clear glass. The architecture is an expression of the pleasure of being at this strategic point in Manhattan."

2015: Philharmonie de Paris

detail of entrance to a theater that looks like a grey monster or large-eyed sea creature
Philharmonie de Paris, France. Michael Jacobs/Art in All of Us/Getty Images (cropped)

When the new Philharmonie de Paris opened in 2015, The Guardian's architecture and design critic, Oliver Wainwright, likened its design to a "gargantuan grey shell wrenched to and fro as if battered by an intergalactic skirmish." Wainwright was not the only critic to see a broken Star Wars extra crashed on the Paris landscape. "It is a tyrannical hulk of a thing," he said.

Even Pritzker Laureates don't bat a thousand — and when they strike out, it's never their fault.

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? Deconstructionist? 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."

When Nouvel received the Pritzker 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."


  • Davidson, Justin. "A Genius in Bed." New York Magazine, July 1, 2015,
  • Goldberger, Paul. "Surface Tension." The New Yorker, November 23, 2009,
  • The Hyatt Foundation. 2008 Pritzker Jury Citation,
  • The Hyatt Foundation. Jean Nouvel 2008 Laureate Acceptance Speech,
  • Nouvel, Jean. "Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art," Projects, Ateliers Jean Nouvel,
  • Nouvel, Jean. "100 11th Avenue," Projects, Ateliers Jean Nouvel,
  • Wainwright, Oliver. "Philharmonie de Paris: Jean Nouvel's €390m spaceship crash-lands in France ." The Guardian, January 15, 2015,
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Craven, Jackie. "Jean Nouvel Buildings: Shadow & Light." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Craven, Jackie. (2021, February 16). Jean Nouvel Buildings: Shadow & Light. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "Jean Nouvel Buildings: Shadow & Light." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).