Jean Nouvel Wins Architecture Honor

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Jean Ayissi / AFP / Getty

French architect Jean Nouvel.

Some architects produce work with a signature look. Richard Meier is one. Daniel Libeskind is another. Almost anything they do is instantly recognizable as theirs. Jean Nouvel isn't one of those. He's playful, contradictory and devoted to the idea of context — designs that grow out of their surroundings and are bracingly different. His career is proof that paying close attention to the neighborhood is a good way to find new avenues.

All of this helps to explain why he was named today as the 2008 winner of the Pritzker Prize, which at this point is something like the knighthood of architecture. It was always only a matter of time before the Pritzker Foundation said "Arise, Sir Jean" to Nouvel, 62, who for decades has been one of the most closely followed architects in the world. Born in Fumel, a town in southwestern France, to parents who were both schoolteachers, he was already famous within the profession by 1981, when he was just 35, which is youthful in architect years.

That was the year he won the commission for the Institute of the Arab World in Paris, one of the Grand Projects decreed throughout the city by Francois Mitterand. Its most ingenious feature was a sunscreen created by thousands of steel-frame iris mechanisms. Arranged in Islamic tile patterns, they widen and contract in response to the sun. Architects talk sometimes about buildings having a skin. This one had pores. They didn't always operate, but they announced to the world an intricate mind.

How the outside comes inside would turn out to be one of Nouvel's great preoccupations. Transparency is one of his bywords. Paradox is another. Again and again he toys with the idea of buildings that seem to dematerialize, that play hide and seek as you approach them. One of his most influential designs was for an unbuilt skyscraper in Paris, the Endless Tower. Envisioned as a structure rising to over 1300 ft. (400 m.), its surface would shift to ever lighter materials, from granite to aluminum to stainless steel and finally glass, appearing to disappear as it ascended into the sky.

Then there's his Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris, a glass-walled structure that has another, free-standing glass wall set a few yards in front of it. You see the glass building behind a shimmering screen of glass that's constantly reflecting the street and sky. It's architecture as mirage.

But the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, his first completed building in the U.S., is very different. At first approach it's all bunkerish midnight-blue steel, a cube-and-canister form answering to the legacy of the old mills and silos that once occupied — some still do — the industrial stretch of the Mississippi River where it stands. A lengthy, covered bridge-to-nowhere cantilevers out from one side of the building like a robot arm toward the river, ending in ledges of tiered seating for taking in the view.

And as you get closer the building discloses its secret life. Screen-printed onto its steel exterior are ghostly images from photographs of old Guthrie performances. Step inside and that covered bridge turns out to be an extension of the lobby, where mirrored window ledges scramble the views and make them pointedly artificial. The theater begins before you reach your seat.

Nouvel has also dressed at least one tall building in colors that tall buildings don't usually wear. His 2005 Torre Agbar in Barcelona is a cylindrical tower covered in a gridwork of painted metal panels. Windows turn up all around, seemingly at random. The entire tower is then surrounded by a membrane of fixed glass louvers fritted with ceramic dots that blur your view of the multicolored surface behind them.

The effect is to turn the entire 31-story exterior into a watery pixel field of color, blooms of orange, fuschia and reds near the base giving way to clouds of blue closer to the sky, with the occasional panel of yellow or red appearing wherever it may. At night a lighting system adds blue, yellow and white in varying combinations. Nouvel has called his building, which houses a local water company, "a fluid mass that bursts through the ground like a geyser under permanent, calculated pressure." That would be one way to look at it. As just about everyone has noticed, it's also more plainly a phallus than any tall building has ever dared to be.

As he enters later life, Nouvel is also entering a period of maximum creativity. He's been commissioned to design an outpost of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, a concert hall in Paris, and towers in Singapore, Milan, Kuala Lumpur, New York and Los Angeles. All of them are intricately imagined. And not one of them will look much like any of the others.