The 2009 Creativity 50: Jean Nouvel

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Credit: Gaston Bergeret
While many modern architects have attained rock star status with a characteristic aesthetic—like Frank Gehry's exploding, metallic wings and Zaha Hadid's sloping, fluid lines—Jean Nouvel has made his mark designing buildings that speak to their surroundings, not to his personal style.

Nouvel's signature is contextualization. Clients don't sign up for the Jean Nouvel silhouette in the skyline, but a design approach that synthesizes the building's purpose, surroundings and the location's culture to create something closer to structural testament than design trophy. The project that first brought the French architect international recognition in 1987, theArab World Institute in Paris, modernizes traditional Arab motifs with latticework motor-controlled apertures that control the light passing through its glass facade. More recently, his 2006 Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis reflects and contrasts its industrial setting, nearby grain silos and the Mississippi River, while its dark-blue exterior, bright yellow terrace and LED lights signal drama and performance. With no obvious visual similarities, these buildings can be identified as a part of Nouvel's oeuvre for their firm anchor to place and function.

Nouvel's urge to provide context has resulted in fiercely distinct buildings that have forced the architect to repeatedly test new roads, even after knowing which of his works his critics liked (and didn't). And it's that very daring and risk-taking that won Nouvel architecture's top honor, the Pritzker Prize, in 2008. "For over 30 years Jean Nouvel has pushed architecture's discourse and praxis to new limits," the prize jury writes in its citation. "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."

Nouvel's current works in progress include the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi, the Philharmonie de Paris, and a 75-story residential tower adjoining the Museum of Modern Art in New York (construction of which was recently delayed because of financing).

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