Discovering Nouvel

Discovering Nouvel

Print Print
Email Email

The historical facts our tour guide was attempting to convey to us
were no longer registering. Images and places were starting to blend
under the dismal, drizzly day. The group had just been on its feet for
a long time. Actually, we were being held captive on a four-hour city
walking tour and needed a tiny break from both the sightseeing and the
elements. Desperately.  Suddenly, from under our umbrellas, my
friend spied it. It was a department store, luring her in with the
promise of shopping, shelter, and a relaxing ambiance. Then, the sun
gently peeked out and I too was enticed, for its glass façade had come
to life revealing much of its interior, innovative spaces.

inside, we were drawn to a void in the center of the store.  The
ceiling above it was sculpted into a conical form that appeared to be
funneling light in from the sky. Rays of sunlight streamed in,
cascading down its sides towards us. Peering down, yet another
translucent cone appeared.  Our eyes became riveted to this
inverted shaft, following the tapering spirals of glass down,
level-by-level. Its axes converged at the narrow opening below,
allowing us to catch a glimpse of the gourmet markets &
gastronomical fare–precisely the ‘relaxing ambiance’ that would be our
ultimate destination that afternoon.

We continued to
explore the store, encouraged by this impressive central feature that
kept us oriented. In essence, it metaphorically represented classical
atriums much like those found in les grand magasins in Paris.
Just then, we realized the luminous building we had stepped into in
Berlin was actually Galeries Lafayette. Moreover, it resulted from a
much-heralded competition won by none other than France’s own:
Architect Jean Nouvel.
We had arrived in Paris, four
friends embarking on an adventure. Three of us had just completed our
third semester of living French. So, what better way to test our
proficiency than to tackle the City of Lights together?  However,
we slowly realized we all had arrived with different agendas. Of the
three classmates, one was interested in sketching & photography;
another in the French cuisine, and I was hoping to see that bold, new
Paris being fêted in all the current architectural journals.

of the days, I took a turn arranging our walking tour. Our route would
take us through the Latin Quarter and down the Boulevard St. Germain.
We made several stops along the way, including one at the Arene de Lutece, and a visit to the Musée de Cluny. All this was, however, an exercise to secretly work one of my major dream buildings right into the itinerary.

the time we were getting close, however, our fourth friend became
restless. It was her first trip to Paris and she had yet to see the
traditional tourist sites she had anticipated. She grabbed a map, ready
to go off on her own, when suddenly it appeared before our eyes. It was
L’Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA), designed by Jean Nouvel and it was
striking. The competition for IMA was part of Mitterand’s famous grands projets,
an ambitious building program for major public works.  It came
precisely a time where world architecture needed such a platform, a
showcase of design and innovation.

The sleek, modern
building is perched near the banks of the Seine. Situated on an odd
parcel of land, at first glance, it appears as if it were two
completely distinct buildings. The northern curvilinear section
seemingly follows the sweep of the Seine and addresses the historical
city. The southern rectangular section, with its industrial grid
exterior, stoically faces the nearby university. It is precisely at
their juncture, where West seems to meet East, that the design takes

A courtyard is formed between them, part of the
typology of Islamic design. A spiraling, white marble ramp encased in a
glass tower references the minarets of the mosques. However, its most
ingenious component is actually found within the wall structure. Closer
inspection of the south wall reveals a distinctive pattern of
mechanical openings, each with a central aperture. These, in turn, open
and close automatically through photocells. The effect is of an
intricate metal screen, calling to mind the carved wooden ones that
filter sunlight found in Islamic cultures. This use of light as well as
the manipulation of interior spaces and geometrical patterns is a
clever reinterpretation of traditional Arab architectural elements.
Nouvel’s award-winning design met its program requirements both
masterfully and magically.

Eight years have passed and
the group has long since disbanded, exploring the world on their own.
Last year, however, that fourth friend and I finally met up again on
another trip. Our travels would take us through several countries,
architectural masterpieces, and long train ride discussions about
politics, men, and life in general.  Yet, this journey
symbolically began again with a walking tour, that eventually made us
restless, but that happily ended at a building designed by Nouvel. That
building, Berlin’s Galeries Lafayette, eventually marked the
Renaissance of the former East Berlin. L’Institut du Monde Arabe, as
well, was at the forefront of a Renaissance, architecturally, in Paris.
Furthermore, IMA has quietly emerged to become one of Paris’ most
alluring, modern buildings.
IMA opened in December 1987 as a
cultural center both for the Arab world and promoting the Arab culture
to others. As such, it is a multi-functional building housing a museum,
temporary exhibitions, library, auditoriums, children’s workshops and
restaurants. The following is important information for the visitor:

1, rue des Fossés-Saint-Bernard
75236 Paris Cedex 05 (across from Pont de Sully)

Everyday (except Monday)
from 10 am to 6 pm

métro: Jussieu, Sully-Morland, Cardinal Lemoine

bus : 24, 63, 67, 86, 87, 89

restaurants: Panoramic “Le Ziryab” on Level 9 (Open Tuesday-Sunday,# 01 53 10 10 20)
Self-service “Le moucharabieh” (Open everyday except Monday. 12 pm- 2:30 pm)