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Seeing the Light With Jean Nouvel

A short documentary on the 2008 Pritzker Prize winner doesn’t show his eccentric creative process—just the fruits of it.

Jean Nouvel: Reflections from Altimeter Films on Vimeo.

The French architect Jean Nouvel spends his mornings lying in bed with an eye mask on, earplugs in, and a sheet over his head as he visualizes what will eventually become a brilliant design solution for one of his projects. (“But first, Bed Cocoon,” he presumably tells staffers.)

Jean Nouvel: Reflections, Matt Tyrnauer’s short documentary on the 2008 Pritzker Prize winner, doesn’t actually show this part of the prototypical starchitect’s creative process—but it does show the fruits of it.

The 71-year-old has a few high-profile projects underway today, including 53W53 next door to MoMA in Manhattan and the oft-delayed Louvre Abu Dhabi. Tyrnauer weaves shots of Nouvel’s projects, insights from associates and critics, and interviews with the architect himself as he explores his own works while explaining the ideas behind them.

Reflections steers away from the thornier stories behind his buildings, including the Philharmonie de Paris, which opened in 2015. Woefully overbudget, the project was subjected to severe design compromises against Nouvel’s wishes. (He boycotted its opening.) And, like many of his equally famous colleagues, Nouvel does not take a strong stand against well-documented labor exploitation on the projects that bear his name—including the Louvre Abu Dhabi—choosing instead to see the architect as a powerless contractor in a complicated process.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is currently set to open this year. As Tyrnauer’s film shows, it’ll be stunning. Topped by a cupola decorated with abstracted Islamic references, the building’s design manipulates light to make the space appear neither fully inside nor outside. From one of his first major projects, the Arab World Institute in Paris (1987), to the more recent Doha Tower (2012), Nouvel’s interest in shaping light captures his ability to—as Paul Goldberger says in the film—“be bold and delicate at the same time.” All thanks to a career filled with mornings spent in self-imposed darkness.

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