October 24, 2016
Jean Nouvel, the famed French architect whose work has redrawn city skylines around the world, is the topic of filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer’s newest documentary, Jean Nouvel: Reflections. (You remember him as the man behind The Last Emporer, the acclaimed film that followed the fashion designer Valentino’s glamorous retirement.) Derek Blasberg interviews the director about what drew him into Nouvel’s orbit and what it was like to follow him as he approaches his “Bilbao Moment.”
Lets start at the beginning. How did this documentary happen?
I’ve always had a strong interest in architecture, and I've written about it for years for Vanity Fair. But in school, I studied film, and so here I had an opportunity to combine both of those passions. I think Jean Nouvel is on the precipice of having a moment.
What kind of moment?
It’s what I’d call a “Bilbao moment,” referring to the moment in Frank Gehry’s career when he became internationally renowned for the Guggenheim museum he built in Bilbao. This kind of moment does not typically happen quickly in an architect’s career. In fact, it takes forever to become a star, normally when an architect is nearing his 70s.
What will Nouvel’s “Bilbao moment” structure be?
The Louvre in Abu Dhabi, which is scheduled to open next year. It’s a museum project that's almost unprecedented in scale. It was conceived by Thomas Krens, who envisioned the Guggenheim Bilbao, and it’s the first of the major museums to open in Abu Dhabi. There will be five in total, including the other architects Tadao Ando, Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, and Zaha Hadid.
Why do you think it takes an architect so long to be heralded for their genius? Apart from the obvious, of course, that it takes longer to create a building than, say, a painting.
It’s a combination of factors. The architecture system is an apprentice system, it takes a while to get out of school. It’s like the medieval guild system at this point. You go and work for a senior architect and you apprentice, and then the building process is lengthy, and there are always stops and starts. The other factor is that in most cases, architects have to be commissioned, so you have to wait for someone else to pay for it. Some people become famous younger, but generally the masters who become household names do it around 70.
Speak to me specifically about Nouvel. How did you two meet?
I met him when he did Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis [in 2006], which I wrote about for Vanity Fair. At that time, I had seen one of his early buildings in Paris and admired it.
What is it about his buildings that you admire?
He is one of the most interesting Modernists in that he was one of the first to break away from the Mies van Der Rohe rut that modernism was in, and do something that was Modern—with a capital M—but not pray to the ideals of Post Modernism. It was a wash of historic references, in a way. He found a way to keep his works modern, but also make it interesting, and nod to history and tradition but also stand the test of time. His works don’t seem dated, like some other Post Modernists do. I’ve always admired that. I think the Arab World Institute in Paris was a building that exemplified that: At first glance, it’s a glass building with boxy form, but upon closer inspection there’s a very intricate wall that is a reference to Islamic culture. Not only was it a kind of incredible technical feat that opens and closes with the sun and has a high tech element to it, it was also strikingly beautiful and added an element of decoration to a modern building. I was struck by that building and it got me very interested way back then, in the late 1980s.
Was he game for the film?
Jean is a very reserved man. He is devoted to his work and doesn’t seek attention. So, there was a bit of a courtship process.
What kind of courtship?
That kind that you’re used to from a glossy magazine world. You fly to Paris for lunch and you spend that lunch convincing the hard-to-get-to person that they’re going to have a good time with you, and it’s going to be absolutely painless, and in the end it’s going to be something everyone is pleased with. We had a sort of “audition lunch” in the private dining room of the Hôtel Costes, and there was a bottle of red wine, that probably helped, too. We just talked about what the movie could be and would be, the feel of the film, that it would be a short, which would be a meditative portrait that expresses important things about his life’s work. The through-line in the film was having been fascinated with the wall in Paris, and then I saw in his latest work in Abu Dhabi that he reinterpreted that concept in a completely different way—if you look at the dome renderings, he used this form again in an Arab country to really contextualize the building but also, as the building is a form of expression, to make it more simple—that becomes the theme.
Had he seen your Valentino film?
I can’t recall if he had or hadn’t.
What was great about that film is that you stole these private, unknown moments in Valentino’s life. What did you discover about Nouvel?
His eye masks, and how he relies on them so much.
What does that mean?
Nouvel is an extremely thoughtful person. I asked what his process was, I thought it was going to be typical: “I circle the field and make a million sketches and then throw all of them out except one.” But no, he said his process begins when he wakes up in the morning. He washes his face and brushes his teeth, and then put on an eye mask and pulls the covers over his head and thinks for an hour and visualizes everything. In that process he begins to understand what the business is. After he thinks about it for hours in this way, he then communicates with his other architects the understanding. Once, early on in our process, I went to visit him at the Mercer Hotel because he invited me to see some sketches in his room. I sat down and saw eyeshades and earplugs all over the room, and I wondered, “What goes on here?” And then later he told me the story and it finally made sense.
Jean Nouvel: Reflections will be screened at the Savannah Film Festival, Savannah, Georgia on Tuesday, October 25, 2016, 11am ET.