“Everything will become infrastructure bathed in artificial light and energy,” wrote French theorist Jean Baudrillard in America, part-travelogue, part-cultural critique, in 1989. “The brilliant superstructure, the crazy verticality will have disappeared. New York is the final fling of this baroque verticality, this centrifugal eccentricity, before the horizontal dismantling arrives, and the subterranean implosion that will follow.”
On a humid afternoon in Soho, New York feels less in a state of finality than of inexorable expansion. Overhead, construction works to digest remaining slivers of space. Seated in a corner booth in the lobby of the Mercer Hotel, the Pritzker prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel recalls the work of his friend. “Jean … had a strong influence,” he says in French, via a translator. “Whether it’s fatality or seduction, those are notions that never leave me. I try to fight one with the other.”
It’s been two years since Nouvel last visited New York, which he calls “the prototype of the modern vertical city”. “Do you know an architect who doesn’t love New York and is not bowled over by New York?” he asks. “To build in New York, for a European architect, is a dream.”
Nouvel is here to launch his most significant contribution thus far: 53W53, or 53 West 53rd Street, a 1,050ft tower containing 139 residences and three new gallery levels of the adjoining Museum of Modern Art. Although not as tall as One World Trade Center, 53W53 will surpass the Chrysler Building, once the world’s tallest, and challenge the Empire State – a dramatic insertion into the midtown skyline, on a site only about half the size of Central Park’s Wollman Rink.
Nouvel’s initial inspiration for 53W53 were early 20th-century American architect Hugh Ferriss’ charcoal renderings of classic New York skyscrapers, such as the Majestic Hotel and the Woolworth Building – but final renders of 53W53 show far less platonic geometry. The building’s structure comprises interconnected segments that taper according to varying height and setback limits within its site. Each segment has an individual flat-edged, shard-like form, so no side of the envelope is homogeneous. The structural frame, a visible concrete skeleton Nouvel calls the “diagrid”, culminates in a peak as sharp as a Stanley blade – an arrow to some inconceivable height that even 53W53 itself, originally slated for 1,250 feet, proves we have not yet reached.
“[Architecture] is the art of using the force of your opponent against himself,” Nouvel says of the site’s complex restrictions, which caused years of delay and a reported $85.3m purchase of 240,000 square feet of air rights. “It’s like judo. Every time you have a constraint, you need to use it. You need to push it to its limits; you need to give it a sense other than the constraint, so that it will look as if you did it on purpose.”
Despite what Baudrillard might have called its “crazy verticality”, Nouvel’s aspirations for 53W53, scheduled for completion in fall 2018, sound almost modest: “It’s going to try to hold its place,” he says. “It’s going to try to be good enough for New York … it’s going to try to make its own small contribution, and it’s done in a way that ensures this contribution is readable, understandable, and it’s maybe a bit more precious than others. And it’s a little linked to this notion – a fairly disputed notion these days – that architecture is still an art, sometimes.”
Born in Fumel, France, in 1945, Nouvel graduated from the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris with a diploma in architecture in 1972. As a student, Nouvel worked for architect Claude Parent and philosopher Paul Virilio, known for their Oblique Function concept, based on research into abandoned second world war bunkers, which emphasised sloping floors to challenge conventional socio-spatial dynamics. As “architecture principe”, Parent and Virilio made drawings and models without a single 90-degree angle, shifting the paradigm of one of architecture’s most fundamental features: the wall.
Nouvel is still “very attached” to his early mentors. “They will be an influence for ever,” he says. “They taught me what it is to be an architect, and how to make architecture that comes from ideas.”
Nouvel founded his firm, Ateliers Jean Nouvel, with Michel Pélissié in 1994. His first office, Jean Nouvel & Associés, went bankrupt during the early 90s real estate crash, largely due to debts incurred by the project known as “tour sans fins” (tower without end). The unbuilt high-rise, for the La Défense area west of Paris, would have been Europe’s tallest building. Tour Sans Fins continues to symbolise the outer limits of architectural imagination: according to plans, the peak of its shard-like form would have disappeared among the clouds.
In his early work with Ateliers, Nouvel extended Parent and Virilio’s experimentations such that the question became not what a building’s form was, but whether it had one. His sensitivity to light and the structural potential of indeterminacy informed shimmering, sometimes kinetic façades that interact with their surroundings. The 1994 Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain’s grid of glass and steel supports extends beyond the edges of the building itself, and is transparent or reflective depending on the time of day. Outside the 1987 Institut du Monde Arabe’s south-western façade, metal panels of mashrabiya, or latticework, reinforce its flat verticality. Inside, they act as a brise-soleil with adjustable aperture size, perforating the architecture without relinquishing any of its magnitude.
“It’s a question of eroticism,” Nouvel says of his interest in ambiguity. “From the moment you understand and see everything, you’re not interested any longer; you understand everything at once. You need to experience something; you need to live something. Above all, you need to get inside something that you don’t know, something which promises depth. You need to believe that you’re never going to touch the end.”
The Institut du Monde Arabe is also an instance where Nouvel’s vision for a building’s features got muddled in implementation. Nouvel had programmed the facade’s apertures to expand and contract based on the ideal amount of sunlight throughout the day. Instead, the Institut’s administration reprogrammed the mechanism to open and close every hour. A related example is the Philharmonie de Paris: last month, Nouvel lost a much-publicised battle to remove his name from the building following its completion. His case cited 26 incidents of “non-compliance” with his original design.
At times, Nouvel’s work bears a less sympathetic relationship to its surroundings. The 2004 Torre Agbar, a bullet-shaped tower nicknamed “el supositorio” (the suppository) is a headquarters for Spanish water company Agbar. While it makes reference to Catalan modernist architect Antonio Gaudí’s Sagrada Família church, it ultimately dwarfs the Barcelonan icon. Nouvel nicknamed 100 Eleventh Avenue, a 23-storey apartment building on Manhattan’s west side, the “vision machine”, for the angled glass panels in its curvilinear curtain wall. This emphasis on windows and on looking was unfortunately Foucauldian given the building’s neighbour: the Bayview correctional facility women’s prison.
At his boldest, Nouvel is at the edge of what Baudrillard called “the sparkle and violence of American cities”. Both critics and admirers have commented that he eschews a formal language and, in a 2008 profile, the New York Times wrote that Nouvel’s work lacks even a “readily apparent common sensibility”.
“They’re very right to say that,” Nouvel says, with quiet intensity, then a smile. “I’m very proud of that. I’m not a painter or a writer; I don’t work in my room, I work in different cities with different people. I’m more akin to a movie-maker who makes movies on completely different subjects. To reduce style to the adoption of a formal language is such a short-sighted vision that if anybody is reproaching me for this, I would reproach their reproach.”
In the near-decade since it was announced, 53W53 has also garnered its share of censure. As part of MoMA’s widely criticised expansion, the tower is implicated in the demolition – although it will not occupy the site – of the former American Folk Art Museum building. It also suffered funding shortfalls, partly due to the 2008 recession. Developers Hines and Goldman Sachs were rescued in 2013 by an equity investment from Pontiac Land Group, and again in 2014 by a reported $860m construction loan from a consortium of Singaporean and Malaysian banks. Real estate blog Curbed NY reported 53W53’s apartments are set to list for $3m to more than $50m.
All of which raises the redundant question: does New York need more luxury housing? In January, the New York Times reported that the city will receive 6,500 new condominium apartments in 2015, with only 800 in the so-called “entry-level”, $1,700-per-square-foot bracket. As Curbed commented, the New York housing market defies fundamental economic logic: it’s hard to believe the ostensible effect of this supply on demand will do anything to lower the overall average cost.
Whether the city’s affordable housing problem should fall at all within Nouvel’s, or even 53W53’s, purview is up for debate – especially as other comparable structures represent greater spatial (Rafael Viñoly’s 432 Park Avenue) and economic (the Time Warner Center) interpolations. And throughout his practice, especially prior to 1994, Nouvel has often engaged issues related to social housing and urbanism – a term he dislikes.
“I did social housing in France that changed the paradigm,” Nouvel says, referring to his 1987 constructions Nemausus I and Nemausus II in Nîmes, “and actually the public housing office never forgave me for that, because I got into what they should have been doing and were not doing”.
Nouvel has frequently denounced “the way cities are built today – through technocratic and simplistic laws”, but acknowledges that “sensitive laws” are “difficult”; “an oxymoron”.
“Architects are today very relative, because they’re no longer taking part in the fundamental urban decision-making … I think that from the moment you’re not in the decision-making that takes into account the landscape, the colours, the relationship with the other buildings, the context, you can’t really go anywhere interesting; because then each person is just doing their own little thing.”
The increasingly global nature of architecture makes its relationship to context – social, economic, political, historical – even more complex. To what extent must an architect contend with the expanded significance and impact of their work? When, and under what circumstances, should a building be considered sovereign?
Nouvel’s Abu Dhabi Louvre building in the Saadiyat Island cultural district is scheduled for completion later this year. Architectural projects on the island have been plagued by these questions. After the deaths of migrant workers in Qatar, the site of Nouvel’s forthcoming National Museum, Zaha Hadid, the architect of the al-Wakrah stadium, caused uproar when she said: “It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it. I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it. I think it’s a problem anywhere in the world. But, as I said, I think there are discrepancies all over the world.”
Nouvel never ignores context. It is a crucial factor in his practice; it is the reason his work is brilliant, or sometimes less successful, or sometimes problematic. But he does believe context is a slippery thing – difficult to quantify, and so perhaps difficult to consider in terms of responsibility.
“I think that judgments on those countries concerning democracy, they’re cultural judgments, because they have to do with religion,” Nouvel says, referring to Abu Dhabi and Qatar. “That can take us to very fundamental discussions, because we often look at them but it’s difficult for us to look at ourselves; it’s not a simple thing.”
Shortly before our interview ends – Nouvel has to make it in time for the launch of 53W53 at MoMA, where he will field yet another round of questions from film-maker Matthew Tyrnauer in front of future condo buyers, MoMA benefactors, fellow architects, journalists and others – he recommended a book by another French theorist, Jacques Derrida. Voyous, or Rogues in English, which he said “also talks about the limits of democracy in the great western countries.”
In Rogues, Derrida refers to the concept of Khōra: an interval, a space-maker between two forms, a space that is enacted upon, where something happens.
“No politics, no ethics, and no law can be, as it were, deduced from this thought,” Derrida writes. “To be sure, nothing can be done … with it. And so one would have nothing to do with it. But should we then conclude that this thought leaves no trace on what is to be done – for example in the politics, the ethics, or the law to come?”