At this year’s Salone Ufficio in Milan, the charismatic French architect has been given a platform to express his vision for the workplace. Which means homogeny is out, and personal expression is in…
Dressed in trademark black, Jean Nouvel sweeps into the dining room at Milan’s Hotel Principe di Savoia. I greet him with a wonky “bonjour”; he pauses briefly to shake hands, and then sits down at a table with another journalist some 20 feet away. At dinner the night before (part of a press junket), word had gone round that I was “the one” who had scooped an interview with the great man. Needless to say, it comes as something of a disappointment to find that I am not.
I spend the next 15 minutes watching him like a hawk just in case he melts away like one of his diaphanous buildings. I am learning, as many in the design world have before me, that Nouvel is harder to catch than a bullet between the teeth, such are the demands of the French architect’s schedule. I’m already nervous.
Our interview has been cut to 45 minutes including photo shoot, but Mario, our photographer, isn’t worried. “I’ve shot him before,” he says confidently. “Give me ten minutes, that’s all I need.” Still, it gives us a chance to study our surroundings. Dripping in neo-Romanesque baubles, the Principe is one of Milan’s most opulent lodgings; it seems an incongruous spot to meet one of architecture’s most prominent iconoclasts.
Nouvel is in the city to promote his upcoming work at the Salone Ufficio, the biennial show when the Salone shifts its attention from conceptual prototypes to the prosaic world of office furniture. He seems in a good mood when we eventually sit down to talk, which comes as something of a relief – a nocturnal creature, Nouvel is said to be taciturn at breakfast time.
My first question, about the architect’s own working habits, draws a hearty chuckle. “We play at this game with our designers and we will show how they work. That is one of the first things I’d like to show at the exhibition – that we do not have to clone the space of work,” he says.
In the absence of a real client, Nouvel has asked his friends (Philippe Starck, Ron Arad, Michele De Lucchi and Marc Newson) to film themselves throughout the day to illustrate their different approaches to work; these will then be screened at the show. Later, I watch snippets on an iPad, which reveals that while most of us still slug it out in rigid, hierarchical workplaces, the likes of Starck – who appears elemental in a THX 1138-style white space by a beach – most definitely don’t.
Nouvel volunteers his own modus operandi: “The first tool of my work is my bed. Every morning I awake first [laughs] and I come back to bed and I put my earplugs in and my mask on the eyes then I lie on the bed like this and I lie in silence for an hour and half or two hours.” At this point, Nouvel crosses his arms across his chest and leans back in repose. For a moment he looks a little like an FW Murnau character. He comes back to life and continues: “So it is not clearly a meditation, because that is to create a void – but it is a kind of de-baggage of life, to imagine a different thing.”
As we speak, Nouvel reveals a tendency to invent words in a sort of reverse Franglais. Though the meaning is always clear it lends an entertaining dimension to his philosophical musings. Pick of the day is “autobanal”, a brilliantly apposite way of describing his view that offices are too homogenous.
“Buildings on a huge scale have to be more symbolic; that is the vocation of a high-rise building”
Such is Nouvel’s physical charisma it is easy to picture him receiving subordinates ensconced behind a Byzantine obsidian desk, so it is surprising to find that he has no fixed abode in his own office, preferring to move around depending on the task in hand.
Nouvel’s event at the Salone (entitled Project: Offices for Living) takes cues from his own fluid work style, and aims to offer a series of alternatives – Milanese apartments, an industrial warehouse and a loft, all converted into workspaces – to the homogeny of modern offices. Thus far, there isn’t much to see aside from some renders that undoubtedly don’t do the project justice.
Nouvel believes that apartments make better places to work than offices, and that existing buildings on the outskirts of a city should be adapted and reused. “The worst thing is the standardisation of all the office space in companies. They do the same thing a thousand times. So I think what we can imagine is liberation from that. This evolution has to be done with another spirit. And this spirit is not in contradiction with efficiency.” Nouvel scorns what he sees as the over-regulation of office building dimensions: “Everything is the same height and things have to be such and such metres or else you lose money. It is totally ridiculous.”
Those at the forefront of workplace design have been banging this particular drum for a good while now, and might find the architect’s comments a little patronising. But perhaps it is fairer to see Offices for Living as an exploration of possibilities rather some star architect’s edict saying, “this is how you should do it.” It is also refreshing that an architect of Nouvel’s stature is applying himself to improving a building’s interior when so many others seem content with the external spectacle.
Nouvel has long waged war on the banal. His work has moments of genius (The Institut du Monde Arabe, or the Cartier Foundation, both in Paris) interspersed with more eccentric projects such as the bird-box-like nuttiness of the Tour Horizons, a Parisian office block.
Nouvel’s unpredictability is part of his allure. Unlike some of his contemporaries (David Chipperfield springs to mind), he has no signature style, dabbling in high-tech buildings, glass icons and postmodernism alike. The unifying factors are a fascination with the manipulation of light, which sears his work together like a laser beam, and context drawn from culture and surroundings. London’s One New Change (2010), for example, is a beguiling mix of forelock-tugging deference to St Paul’s and daring asymmetrical angles in provocative brown fritted glazing.
The bullet-shaped the Torre Agbar (2005) in Barcelona is inspired by rock formations in nearby Montserrat. For Nouvel, icons are alright, as long as there is a meaning beyond form-making. “Buildings of a huge scale have to be more symbolic with more identities. That is the vocation of a high-rise building,” he explains.
“People have the right to personal expression, to express their idiosyncrasies”
Around the same time as Torre Agbar was completed, Nouvel published the Louisiana Manifesto (coinciding with a solo show at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art) in which the he warned of a globalised architectural style that absorbs and destroys local identities. Nouvel drew the battle lines much earlier in his career with the building that made his name, the Institut du Monde Arabe (1987).
One of François Mitterrand’s heralded Grands Projets, the building was a highly decorative reinterpretation of Arabic architecture, which diffused light through automated geometrical apertures on the facade to create a kind of modern-day Mashrabiya. The opposite end of the building reflected Notre Dame and Paris at large in its all-glass curtain wall – the idea being to establish a “dialogue between cultures”.
Identity is important to Nouvel. The architect spent his formative years in the medieval town of Sarlat in the Dordogne, surrounded by monuments of the past. “When you go into cities today, you always seem to have the same building in the same place. All architecture is a chance to extend the world to create smaller worlds with links to the history and geography. For this reason my architecture is a kind of adventure,” Nouvel said in a lecture to the National Building Centre.
Certainly, Nouvel brought his adventurous spirit to the CLMBBDO building (1992) in Parisian suburb Issy-les-Moulineaux, where he designed a kind of adult’s playground for his advertising agency client.
The building rests on the River Seine like a scuppered, rusting oil tanker. Hiding behind its high-tech facade is a tremendously theatrical interior. Three office floors are arranged around a wooden-floored atrium that doubles as a volleyball court in the evenings with a Gary Glaser-designed bar at one end.Either side of the space are multicoloured strip lights that feel like a community- hall disco.
The crown jewel is a mechanical roof, which peels back like a cabriolet. The architect brims with enthusiasm when he remembers the project. “When it is sunny the roof opens and the space becomes a kind of courtyard. We also designed railings like benches so people could dangle their legs in the void, and walls like accordions so you could change the space. Outside there was water and high grass and ducks,” he smiles. “And they were really efficient!” Now 20 years old, the building remains an emphatic riposte to the bland office space Nouvel calls “bureau en blanc”.
Sadly, the speculative nature of the commercial world means that new office buildings have to appeal to the broadest spectrum of occupiers, which inevitably leads to generic spaces.
Ever the optimist, Nouvel believes we are in a state of flux and will eventually take as much care over our offices as we might our homes. “Probably in the next decade and centuries they will look at our working habits with stupefaction because it is a little bit reminiscent of Tati’s Playtime.” Jacques Tati’s 1960s film charts the misadventures of Monsieur Hulot who, lost in a modern office block, becomes hopelessly befuddled by the technological gizmos designed to simplify life. So are we to take it that technology is not a solution to office design?
“It is not necessary to go for more and more technology. I want to show that it is possible to make a melting pot of ancient furniture and furniture of today. People have the right to personal expression, to express their idiosyncrasies. We want to show to the furniture companies they can propose these things. We can show that if you don’t like one neighbour and like the other you can build a wall with modules to create an office for two people.” It resonates with Professor Bronowski’s assertion that man is the only creature who feels compelled to adapt the environment to suit him, and in this guise, the office would be truly representative of the people within it. But as intoxicating as this freedom sounds, one can’t help but picture the scene in TV’s The Office when Tim, tiring of his dysfunctional working relationship with Gareth, blocks the latter out using printer-paper boxes. Anyway, Nouvel continues: “We cannot have a fit-all solution for example, the standard office lighting in the ceiling. We can use different lights and the position of vegetation to bring some excitement to the space.”
This is exactly what he did with the ghostly Cartier Foundation (1994) – a mash-up of cultural centre and offices constructed around a cedar tree planted by 19th-century polymath Chateaubriand.
Nouvel played with the history of its setting by sandwiching the tree between a glass outer wall and an all-glass facade making it appear to sprout inside the building.
It’s clear that Nouvel digs “vegetations”. His Musée du Quai Branly (2006, middle image) is covered in the stuff, while renders of the now-cancelled Tour Signal show an interior that resembled the Eden Project. It’s evidence of the Frenchman’s humanistic leanings, which, owing to the spectacle of his work, are often overlooked. The hope now is that Nouvel’s show at the Ufficio can embody something of these values. He sums up: “I think no space has a vocation that it needs to be designed by a star architect. Everything needs sentimental conditions. It has to be done with knowledge… and with love.”