The winner of this year's RIBA Royal Gold Medal, Jean Nouvel, looks like a nightclub bouncer, cites philosophers as a major influence on his work, and spent years being labelled a troublemaker. How very French. . .
Louis Hellman could not have made him up. Jean Nouvel plays the role of cartoon Frenchman so well that you cannot help harbouring a suspicion that he has to be doing it for effect. Invariably dressed in black, he has the appearance of a 'glamorous bruiser'. Like his friend and mentor Michel Foucault he is one of that peculiarly Gallic breed, a theorist who could easily be mistaken for a nightclub bouncer. He describes Foucault, along with Jean Baudrillard and Gilles Deleuze as having influenced his methodology, and describes his architecture as 'philosophical as well as political'.
Renowned for his left-wing politics, Nouvel is an activist as well as an idealist.He organised a union opposed to the national architectural registration body, the Order of Architects, shortly after setting up practice in 1970 and, one way or another, has been protesting ever since.He was involved in the experimental group 'Mars' and has led demonstrations to preserve various key buildings. He campaigned (unsuccessfully) against the demolition of Paris' fruit and vegetable market, and (more successfully) against plans to redevelop the Renault factory at L'Ile Seguin, also in Paris.
Labelled a troublemaker, he was excluded from public commissions in Paris until President Mitterand came to power and gave him his first break - the Arab Institute. He has since completed '50 or 60' buildings, including several major public commissions. He has rebuilt the opera house in Lyons, built a cultural centre in Tours, the Palace of Justice in Nantes, and the Cultural and Congress Centre in Lucerne. Yet it was some 23 years before Nouvel received another public commission in Paris, a result, he says, of being blacklisted by those with a political axe to grind. He has now, finally, landed the commission for the Paris Musee des Arts Premiers, but is holding out for more funds.
Although undoubtedly a fighter, Nouvel also has a less serious side. He is incurably social and a self-confessed hedonist. 'I love gastronomy, I love to swim, I love to read, I like to go to the movies, I like to stay with my wife. . .'. He also loves to party. Visiting London last week to receive the 2001 Royal Gold Medal for Architecture at the RIBA his main disappointment was that Will Alsop could not make the ceremony - he was looking forward to a good night out with his fellow bon viveur. Alsop is one of a wide circle of high-profile friends, many of whom are film directors and artists rather than architects.
Nouvel himself wanted to be an artist, but was thwarted when his parents refused to pay his tuition fees. By way of compromise he studied architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, a pursuit which he originally viewed as a temporary diversion. 'Ten or 20 years ago, I thought that perhaps I could stop architecture', he says 'but I am not rich enough to do that'.
Now, having won arguably the most prestigious architectural prize in the world, it would be churlish to leave the field. For all his maverick bravado Nouvel is touchingly emotional about winning the Gold Medal. Upon hearing the news, he says:
'I was very proud, I thought I was a little too young'. At 56 he is in fact the third-youngest person to achieve the distinction: Giles Gilbert Scott was the youngest, followed by Norman Foster.
At his acceptance speech last Thursday he appeared awe-struck by the gravitas of the honour. 'I could never imagine that when I was a young student architect in Bordeaux it was possible to enter such distinguished company - Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Corbusier, Aalto' Part of his delight at winning the Medal stems from the fact that, when it comes to architecture, he is something of an Anglophile. As a student his great influences were Cedric Price, the Smithsons and Archigram. And he is just as impressed by his UK contemporaries, in particular Rogers, Foster, Grimshaw, Alsop, Hadid, Chipperfield and Future Systems. 'I was so proud and happy when I learned Amanda Levete was on the jury, ' he recalls, 'because for me Future Systems was an ally in the fight against Post-Modernism'.
Nouvel's own technical lyricism locates his work in the 'high-tech' tradition. But his work has an exuberance which is far removed from the cool constraint of many of his British counterparts, and shares certain characteristics with the postmodernism which he so derides - theatricality, ornamentation, playfulness, and a wide range of influences which have resulted in a highly diverse set of buildings.
The Cartier Foundation in Paris, for example, exploits the trompe-l'oeil potential of reflected glass, playing strips of metal off against the surrounding trees; while the Hotel de Saint-James near Bordeaux, is constructed of rusty metal screens which ape the tobacco warehouses nearby.
Although Nouvel insists an aficionado could recognise one of his buildings by the consistency of approach, he answers accusations of incoherence by saying 'style is not the repetition of tricks'. One unifying theme is that the 'wow factor' predominates over common-or-garden functionality.
'Rationality is not the first criterion' Nouvel admits with a shrug, 'I am French'.