Sunday, 6 May 2012

The Auteur in London

Jean Nouvel is an architect whose critical stock has both risen and fallen in dramatic ways over the course of his career. His career as an architect of international importance was launched by the Institut du Arab Monde, one of the Grand Projets, built in Paris for the Bicentenary of the French Revolution. This building, with its expressed structure and intricate detailing, proved rather atypical of his future output. It embraced the modern materials utilised by British “High-tech” and, indeed,   envisaged by Jacques Tati in his film “Playtime.”  However, it has always been possible to differentiate his work from “sublime engineering,” which is how some categorise the work of Norman Foster. Nouvel utilised a similar artistic language exploring the aesthetics of mass production but fused with an altogether different sensibility. In Barcelona he integrated a polychromatic façade with an organic shape, contextually appropriate in the city of Gaudi. The Culture and Congress Centre in Lucerne incorporated a seemingly unsupported cantilevered roof stretching out to create a line of simplicity and purity similar to that of the horizon line of the lake itself. The critics, however, also insisted that his career had embraced many creative lows as well as highs. The Torre Agbar   was held to have inadequate spatial and urbanistic qualities. The Musée du Quai Branly in Paris was slammed by the critics for its uninspired detailing. When he finally came to build in London he was greeted with little fanfare. His pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery was described as a dull one-liner, seeing as its entire creative strategy seemed to be to colour every surface red. One expressed the view that this was simply the work of an architect who was long past his best.

After failing to enthuse the British critics, he was given a second chance with a building intended to be permanent. He was asked to produce a mixed-use development, consisting of office space, retail and restaurants on a site just east of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Surprisingly, with “One New Change” he has managed to confound his critics with, I think, one of the finest new buildings to be built in London for years. The nickname “One New Change” has  already acquired,  “The Stealth Bomber” conveys nothing of  this building’s  quality.

On a site with such a distinguished neighbour, the strategy Nouvel seems to have adopted is one of reticence. The building  has a chameleon-like quality whereby it seems to adopt a sort of visual camouflage. The all-glass façade has been designed to reflect light,  meaning that most of it appears to be a milky-white. This is counter-balanced by large horizontal strips of muted colour, mostly a matt brown, created by fritting a brown pigment on one  face of the centre of a glass laminate. The decision to use brown coloured glass was a brave one. Presumably Nouvel was trying to merge his design with the brick buildings of this part of London. This is a  building without clearly defined edges. It’s transparency and emphasis on the way in which materials reflect light creates a sense of   dematerialisation, an unusual strategy in an age when some gifted architects side-step the approach of minimalism.

        Although the exterior is marked by a sense of blankness and repetition, certain techniques are introduced to give a sense of rhythm to the façade. The modular cladding system erupts at certain points with twisting planes, creating a sense of sculptural richness. An axis is projected from St Paul’s Cathedral into the centre of the building. This provides the route of an arcade-like space, one of four, laid orthogonally to each other which penetrate the solid mass of the building. It is possible that this simple arrangement, with its echoes of the Roman method of laying out a city along   Cardo and Decumanus axis, refer back to the City of London’s origins.  The four  arcade-like spaces lead to a central space open to the sky which penetrates the building down to the basement, providing a circulation core and light-well. Jean Nouvel has said that “architecture happens mostly inside” and it is only when you venture down one of these arcades that the building really begins to reveal itself to you.

If brown is the signature colour of the more public parts of this building then a change of colour signals the more private, internal spaces. On the  North and South axis, the arcades are roofed-in. The ceilings and entrance screens abandon the muted palate of the exterior and instead are coloured a glorious red on the Northern side and a mixture of red, grey and brown on the South side. The quality of twisted planes is repeated in the soffits, constructed by overlaying polished plaster onto sheets of glass reinforced gypsum, assembled   on site to prevent unsightly joints. The result is that each plane of the ceiling receives and reflects light in a different way.  This is more reminiscent of “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari” than anything produced by the American aeronautical industry. The reflectiveness of the materials used throughout the arcades ensures that you are constantly catching glimpses of reflected images of the buildings surroundings and of the Nouvel building itself. This kaleidoscope-like  quality both dazzles and entices and as you progress through the arcade the ceilings above recess back as the space opens up into a mezzanine level. At pedestrian level, the envelope is simply constructed of glass sheets providing views and access into the retail units which line the internal ground floor of the arcades. There is one more spatial surprise: the various levels of the central core are interconnected by escalators which conduct you through enclosures faced entirely with  black glass. These look towards the central core as do a series of balcony-like spaces.

       The central core again adopts a mono-chrome palette and the overwhelming quality of this space is that of reflected light, from the stainless-steel wall climber lift, and planes of mirrored-glass. The latter are composed as series of twisting planes, their reflectiveness softened by the re-appearance of the matt-brown cladding. I visited the building on several occasions and found, in different weather conditions, the building displays a whole range of colours and light qualities rather like Monet’s paintings of haystacks or Rouen Cathedral. In seeking precedents for this work, we could look to the great luminous spaces typical of French Architecture. Jean Nouvel, when asked to name his favourite buildings, has referred to examples such as the Sainte-Chapelle and the Maison de Verre. However, the real cultural reference we should consider probably lies outside architecture. Standing in the darkly-shadowed subsidiary spaces around the central core, viewing the heart of the building, I was reminded of the spatial experience of being in a cinema. The sense of dematerialisation has precedents in the example of film. For instance, in Jacques Tati’s “Playtime,”  several key scenes appear as reflections in plates of glass. However, perhaps the key theoretical idea we should refer to is that of “montage” as understood by the Great Russian film-director, Eisenstein. Eisenstein thought that film illustrated a dialectical method. Each frame could be read at various levels such as symbolism and composition but would contain internal conflicts. This would lead to a succession of moving images, a “montage,” driving the narrative forwards.  In the film, “The Battleship Potemkin”, the massacre on the Odessa Steps ends with a close-up of a stone lion, presumably symbol of retribution. The building’s juxtaposition of utterly different spatial and material qualities suggests a similarly conceptual approach. Nouvel has said that:

“Architecture exists, like cinema, in a dimension of time and movement.”

      It also exists in the creation and framing of certain qualities of light. Cinematographers and indeed photographer often create lighting effects which to the viewer seem entirely natural and uncontrived. A portrait photographer may rely on an assistant holding a screen to reflect light onto a subject’s face, differentiating the foreground from background, but the photographer is always careful to crop this.  Nouvel seems to have a similar repertoire of mysterious techniques to control light hidden up his sleeve. He states that his one unrealized ambition is to direct a film, but with this building he already has taken his place among other architect-filmmakers such as Eisenstein and Fritz Lang.

As with all architecture, it is intriguing to try to guess its tectonic logic. For instance, in a Rogers’s project, the staircases are usually placed on the outside in a lightly structured glass and metal enclosure. This means that one of the normal functions of a vertical circulation shaft, the cross-bracing of the floors, is not achieved. The solution usually adopted is some form of externally-expressed, structural cross-bracing. The Nouvel structure has similarly diagonal elements expressed in the cladding and in some steel members which touch the ground. I suppose stressed skins and even structural glass are possibilities but my instinct tells me that this glazing is simply curtain walling.

This is reminiscent of the art of the watercolour painter, where the paper, shining through the paint, actually represents the light. Along with this transparency, reflection and dematerialization have been added empathetic, tactile qualities achieved through more traditional materials such as polished plaster. The result is something quite ethereal. St. Paul’s definitely deserves a neighbour which shines brightly and in this building has found one.