Tuesday, March 23, 2010

All Nouvel, All the Time

Jean Nouvel is the architect of the moment, with news on three major projects blanketing the digital airwaves: the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London, the National Museum of Qatar, and 100 Eleventh Avenue in New York City.

[Serpentine Gallery Pavilion | © Ateliers Jean Nouvel]

The breaking news is Nouvel's selection for the Serpentine Gallery, an annual temporary structure in Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park. Past commissions have gone to SANAA, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Toyo Ito, and Daniel Libeskind, many with Arup for engineering, including Nouvel's design. It's a who's-who list of starchitects, given free reign (not so free in the case of MVRDV's unrealized "mountain") to build a no-budget pavilion with few programmatic requirements. Experimentation is the name of the game here.

[Serpentine Gallery Pavilion | © Ateliers Jean Nouvel]

The bright red pavilion immediately recalls Bernard Tschumi's folies for Parc de la Villette in Paris, realized nearly 20 years ago. Of course he was inspired by Russian Constructivist art and architecture, so the lineage of inspiration extends far beyond the immediate past. It also recalls another Nouvel design, the Brembo Research Office in Italy, another bright red building integrating a highway noise barrier. The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion--whose red "reflects the iconic British images of traditional telephone boxes, post boxes and London buses"--consists of "bold geometric forms, large retractable awnings and a freestanding wall that climbs 12m above the lawn, sloping at a gravity defying angle." It's fun with a capital F!

[National Museum of Qatar | image source]

The other big news is the unveiling of Nouvel's design for the Naitonal Museum of Qatar, covered by Nicolai Ouroussoff, who drools over it as the "French architect’s most overtly poetic act of cultural synthesis yet." Last week the New York Times critic praised 100 Eleventh Avenue's "mix of grit and glamour," as the building nears completion in Chelsea, visible from the High Line.

[100 Eleventh Avenue | photo by archidose]

These last two designs and their treatment by Ourousoff spur me to link to Alexandra Lange's recent analysis of the critic's writings at the Times. I tend to agree with Lange's position that the architecture critic at the nation's newspaper of record should be much better, but the comments show that opinion is hardly unanimous. I think what's missing from discussions of celebrity architecture and fashionable, eye-catching designs is how these designs come about, the role of the client and the cultural context. Architects do not design these sorts of buildings in a vacuum and then happen to have them built; it is a two-way street of a desire for what Nouvel and his comrades are very good at doing: creating unprecedented architecture that receives the widest attention, this blog included.