France’s two most preeminent architects, Jean Nouvel and Christian de Portzamparc, present very different architectural philosophies. Portzamparc is elegant and refined and subtly theatrical, whereas Nouvel is brash and dynamic and powerfully charged. But as Ada Louise Huxtable put it, “The aggressively theatrical solutions of Jean Nouvel have eclipsed the delicacy and refinement of Christian de Portzamparc, who combines sensuous references to mid-twentieth century form and color with stylish twenty-first-century solutions of striking originality.”
Huxtable clearly prefers Portzamparc, but whom do you prefer? (If you like neither, you could choose the wild card of Dominique Perrault, architect of France’s National Library.)
After the break, my take on the matter.
Theater for the sake of theater is probably what we will remember as the worst aspect of the architecture of the 2000s (the decade, not the millennium or century). For me, Nouvel’s works are crystallizations of that singular aspect. They have departed the world of functional problem-solving, and seem to exist on a plane of wild form only barely related to function.
There is no denying that Nouvel is smart and thoughtful. His less brash works, like the Cartier Foundation Building and the Insitut du Monde Arabe, both in Paris, are quite palatable and demonstrate a clear mastery of the use of materials. But even in those early works, Nouvel’s theatrical tendencies shown through. The Insitut du Monde Arabe, pictured below, become famous for its facade of mechanized apertures evoking the windows of traditional Arab mosques. An interesting idea, for sure. But the facade looks out on a massive, empty stone plaza that simply cannot be mistaken for the architectural stage it is. Nouvel’s building is a subtle and contextual actor, but an actor nonetheless. In his more recent works, it has become apparent that he has shed any former humility — essentially his works have gone from resembling Colin Firth to resembling Johnny Depp. The very best buildings of our age, however, are not represented by buildings at all, but by real people. Even Frank Gehry’s flamboyance is grounded in function and reality and a clear understanding of context and defined relationship with function. Christian de Portzamparc’s works are similarly founded in a search for architectural form that holds lasting meaning for our day and age.
The Institut du Monde Arabe — an interesting concept, but undone by its own self-absorbance.
So, to directly answer the question posed above, I strongly feel that Christian de Portzamparc is a more original, more interesting, and even better architect than Jean Nouvel.
Portzamparc has always grounded his projects with a strong, thoughtful urban planning sensibility. He does not just globe-trot, whipping up overblown designs for the wealthy in various important cities. Instead, he has long worked planning Paris (here’s a good video of Portzamparc explaining his approach). His buildings, too, are clearly connected to their urban environments. His form is thoughtful — contemporary, but not over-the-top. Whereas Nouvel’s wild designs are usually hit-or-miss, Portzamparc’s works are delicately thought-out successes almost every time. His LVMH building, in New York City, is probably my favorite of his works:
The LVMH Building is at once dynamic and subtle.
So given my love of Portzamparc, it is quite alarming to me that Huxtable feels Nouvel is eclipsing him. The boldly theatrical sells well among the public; to many people, it seems that buildings should require no thought whatsoever — they should either be wildly memorable or utterly forgettable. No middle ground. But for us, the people who still love to think about architecture, Portzamparc is so much more satisfying. We all know that the economic crisis has not halted the wild proliferation of increasingly flamboyant starchitects across the globe as many thought it might. In all that, we should not forget the key aspects of architecture that separate it from pure sculpture or theater. We certainly know we can look to the works of Christian de Portzamparc for guidance.
Note: photographs in this post were not taken by me. Photo credits: 1. http://www.air-mad.com/cdg/imagd.jpg, 2. http://www.e-architect.co.uk/images/jpgs/new_york/lvmh_tower_new_york_acp08_1.jpg.