27 January 2009

One Hundred Unbuilt Projects

Over a decade ago, the architectural magazine Kenchiku Bunka published an issue titled: The Unbuilt Jean Nouvel, 100 Projects. That title was the sole English used in the entire issue, and thus limited its distribution. I found it, strolling one evening in Ochanomizu, where most independent bookstores are found in Tokyo, as well as my favorite hotel: The Yamanoue or Hilltop Hotel. I brought it back to my Japanesque styled room - where Yukio Mishima rested and penned his own letters - and wondered how did Nouvel pen these many projects in so short a time?
I had, after all, spent a few years in his early studio on the Rue Lacuee - making ink drawing for a series of competitions, on average one per month. But 100 projects, that would take most architects a life-time. An extraordinary feat, even with Nouvel's legendary stamina, widely known in Paris of the late 80's, when the Bains Douches was in its heyday.
Nouvel's design studio near the Bastille, boasted a three story factory space and a badminton court at its center. It was shared with five of his previous partners, collaborating with three younger partners who he would quickly part from (or vice versa) and years before the three or four iterations of his firm and partnerships, which would bring him further into the 11th arrondissement of Paris and to settle on the practice, Architecture Jean Nouvel or AJN, with unnamed partners and financing. These iterations of his practice, left many collaborators aside, as well as his roots building innovative social housing and the deliberate antagonist practice he had started, aimed at exposing the weaknesses of the predominant post-modernism practice and the public entities that commissioned them. (For those who doubt this, it is worth recalling one of Nouvel's earliest projects - a modest suburban house - where he left all of the "edits" imposed on him from the building department in place, but patched up so as to make them that much more visible; and his later writings in Le Monde, to speak out for the social responsibility of the State, to preserve the site of the former Citroen factories, the island factory complex outside of central Paris, where the first labor movement in France began). And these iterations also left so many compelling projects Unbuilt. The images above show a few.
It is now this complex character, father of the Societe des Architects, a resistant movement against the predominant Order of Architects of the time, and other manifestos, that now brings us the inaccessible Mercer and the Chelsea Condo's at upwards of $2,500 a square foot; the same architect that twenty years ago was largely ignored in the States, even as he was the established star of the pre-IMA generation (Paris' Institute du Monde Arabe). Perhaps it is this dichotomy - the socialist and builder for the priveledged - that ferments his mind, his process, and allows him to continue to bring us stellar work. For he has clearly entered a new phase of his prolific design work, some exceptional buildings - from Lucerne to Copenhagen - that make his early experiments, his 100 Unbuilt Projects pale in comparison. And yet, each of his recent works, share many of the same preoccupations that we experimented with - and he wrote about late in the night, the evening before the projects were due - for innumerable competitions. It is these works that I recently look at again in the Kenchiku Bunka review, 130 pages dedicated to his unbuilt projects that I use to gage Nouvel's new designs. It is here that I still find some of my own early work as well; the ink pen lines collaged with film stills and printed dialogs from a Varda or Wenders movie. And it is here that I see his real voice coming through, the same voice that I carry with me today in my work that continues to influence a whole generation, whom he told: it is only the context that counts. We are architects of context. This design conceit, has now been jetisoned in his most recent projects, as Nouvel builds context-generationg structures. And we, fans and visitors alike, are better off on account of it.