When did I first meet Jean Nouvel? Must have been around 1980. He hadn’t built much then, though I have a memory of vaguely postmodern bits and bobs in the Parisian suburbs and satellite new towns, which don’t seem to appear in his published oeuvre. Certainly some of what he showed me was the work of his friends. He was a bit surly back then, as befitted a rebel (he’d started a protest organisation, the Syndicat d’Architecture, as a leftist riposte to the moribund official French architecture institute). He was certainly a lot thinner than now, though oddly (given his bullet-headed look today) I can’t remember what his hair was like: the arched eyebrows were always the thing. He drove me round outer Paris very fast in a black Renault 5 Alpine, first of the ‘hot hatches’. We struggled with my A-level French: he was not comfortable with English until quite recently. Taciturnity was his default mode even in his mother tongue.
Of course his career was transformed by the Institut du Monde Arabe a little later, and slowly Nouvel changed into the genial starchitect we know today, willing to psychobabble on about his buildings to anyone who will listen. A Pritzker Prizewinner and Royal Gold Medallist, no less. But he has a mischievous streak. At his Royal Gold Medal lecture in 2001, he presented an image of his then unfinished Torre Agbar in Barcelona. He stared at it for a while and then pronounced: “Bien sur, c’est un PHALLUS ENORME.”
Yes, he plays up the stereotypical Frenchman, in the way that Renzo Piano plays up his Italian-ness. Some of his stuff can be a bit too showy, a bit too clever for its own good. And these days, he likes to have a bit of a laugh as well. Hence the all-red Serpentine Pavilion, just opened for the summer of 2010.
In fact it is many shades of red, depending on whether it is applied to steel, fabric, polycarbonate, composition flooring, chairs etc. Is this a memory of his old chum Bernard Tschumi’s red ‘follies’ in the Parc de La Villette? Is it to do with London buses, phone kiosks and the like? Or is it, as he says, just to do with the contrast between the related colours of red and green, the one against the other, layered as is his wont?
It doesn’t really matter: it’s just the intensity of colour that counts. When you’ve been inside the pavilion for a while, it messes with your eyes as well as your camera, and you stagger blinking into the green parkland outside. Strangely, his Pavilion looks a bit like a miniature homage to Colin St. John Wilson’s British Library when seen from the Serpentine Gallery side – a coincidence, surely, as he is merely stepping down the bulk of his building in deference to its neo-Georgian 1930s neighbour.
But here’s the thing: it works, very well. What does France have a lot of? Pavement cafes, under retractable awnings. Nouvel’s pavilion is simply a row of simple portal frames bearing such retractable awnings, with café chairs and tables placed underneath. You open or close them depending on the weather conditions. As the height of the sections diminishes, the functions change until finally you are sitting at games tables in a sort of pit. Scattered around are loungers, table-tennis tables, Frisbees. All in red, as are the fridges behind the bar.
So it’s a distillation of café life on the town square, really, nothing more intellectual than that despite his quoting of Baudrillard. Perhaps the big angled steel and polycarbonate screen on the southern side is superfluous, but the rest works just fine, is indeed positively practical. In everything except that inescapable colour. Which is no big deal, for the short time that people are going to stay there.
I know it’s the thing to sneer at Nouvel these days and he is certainly building a huge and rather horrible behemoth of a commercial development just east of St. Paul’s Cathedral, but – this pavilion, I like. Good old Jean.
Serpentine Gallery: http://www.serpentinegallery.org
Ateliers Jean Nouvel: http://www.jeannouvel.fr/