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Pages from The Invisible in Architecture

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Sören Kierkegaard once said: 'It is true what the philosophers tell us, that life can only be understood in retrospect. But they generally forget another law: that it can only be lived in a forward direction. It will be clear to anyone who thinks about this that life can never really be understood in the context of time, quite simply because I don't have a single moment of the peace I need to understand life in retrospect'.

With this statement he laid the foundations of Existentialism that would later be such a decisive influence on the philosophy of the 20th century. In the end the only things that count are one's acts. In this respect Jean Nouvel - who usually wears black - has proved himself a genuine Parisian. Few architects at present have been so eager to play the role of committed intellectual in the ongoing cultural debate, even if Nouvel's commitment is distinctly depoliticised. As an architect Nouvel is capable of talking back to the culture, and of presenting his work as something more than just an illustration of the culture. The high quality of Nouvel's discourse makes it a part of a cultural debate that is way above the normal level one gets in a highly specialised discipline like architecture. (Nouvel does however have the sense to realise that as an architect you had better not put on too many airs if only for reasons of tact and tactics.)

One of the subjects that Nouvel has repeatedly discussed is the supposed immaterialisation of architecture. That process, in his view, would not stop at Modernist achievements such as screen façades and structural steelwork but has continued through to the level of the meaning of the building itself which would eventually be no more than a climate regulating shell around the otherwise autonomous processes that go on inside. The front, once thought of as the boundary of the architectural object, is reduced to an interface between different modes of existence. There is no longer any inside and outside; in fact all the previous functions of the front have ceased to exist. We are in a permanent state of transition and the interface will limit any interruption in this flux to a minimum. In addition to his defence of this approach to the profession, Nouvel has also become involved in the discussion around the problem of the specialist in a culture that is undergoing the virtualisation of reality through modern technological media such as television, video, fax-machines, modems, etc., which lead to space and time shrinking till they eventually merge in an ultimate simultaneity. This development has enormous implications for architecture that has traditionally been understood as being the bringing together of space and materials in the context of time. In order to establish its position in this process it will have to give an explicit account of itself. A simple rejection is not the correct answer in Nouvel's view. This time of 'afterwards' demands a more subtle attitude. It is still a matter of thinking in stone (or in Nouvel's case, glass, that according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the most innocent of all stones). 'In a broad sense my audience is the public of my time; it has the same cultural background as I do, and I appeal to its spirit. I don't appeal to its eyes; that isn't interesting at all, but much more directly to its culture, to the realm of connotation in other words, to encourage it to ask questions about things'.

It follows that the virtualising of reality also has enormous implications for how we experience reality. It is no longer a hierarchical series of impressions registered by our eyes that gives a structure to our perceptions, but a continuous process of things which merge with each other or overlap, without one being able to deduce any moral from it. Architects are in a sense responsible for the environment and Nouvel regards his task as being to do justice to the new character of our experience of it. Nouvel's treatment of the entrance to a building is also distinctly culturally determined; he lays as little stress as possible on the physical transition between inside and outside, between public and private. Entirely in keeping with the relativising of every hierarchy, you never know precisely where you are as you follow your route through the building; nor, from an institutional point of view, do you know what you are. You are caught up in Nouvel's circulation. In the end you come up against the problem of identity: in this virtual reality you no longer know who you are.

The thing that is striking about all these examples is not so much the programmatic will to change, or a directly institutional commentary within a specific project, but above all Nouvel's urge to create a specific post-historical atmosphere. Even though his architectural objects are often hard, even reticent, they have an aura that negates this hardness and reticence. They do not function as objects but as pieces of machinery, like Duchamp's bachelors' machines. What Nouvel is particularly concerned with is the aesthetic experience, the creation of a cinematic ecstasy in which space is reduced to pure emotion, prised loose from Cartesian geometry with its rational purposiveness, its soulless dimensions of length, width and height. Nouvel does not just want to manipulate these three dimensions; he wants to give people a scenario in the cinematic sense of the word that enables them to experience this compression of time. By doing this Nouvel has turned his fear of not being in tune with the times into a positive approach. To quote his own words: 'I get in a state of panic at the thought that I am not making good use of the possibilities of my time'.

This brings us back to the necessity for the act. With his increasing emphasis on practice Nouvel has chosen for a reconquest of innocence. His aim is to heal the Cartesian fissure. The dichotomy between subject and world, between words and things, a divide that modern French philosophers have presented with some emphasis as being unavoidable, can only be overcome by the existential act of life dirtying its own hands. The hyperconscious Nouvel would be only to pleased to lose some of his understanding of life.[More ... See PDF]

Tomorrow can Take Care of Itself
A conversation with Jean Nouvel by Ole Bouman, Roemer van Toorn

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