Jean Nouvel, Cattani and Associates at the ICA, 1993
Exhibition review by Ian Ritchie for Blueprint magazine, July 1993
It is exactly ten years since Jean Nouvel, acting as exhibition architect, invited Peter Wilson, Jan Kaplicky, Will Alsop + John Lyall and myself from the UK to exhibit at the Paris Biennale in 1982. The section on architecture, Modernity or The Spirit of the Times, was given the same importance as painting and video art, displayed in an enormous hall, and one of the first exhibitions to promote contemporary architecture to the general public. It confirmed the socialist French Government’s commitment to the importance of contemporary architecture to society. In this climate, through open competitions, many young French architects blossomed, and in particular Jean Nouvel, who, at the architecturally tender age of 35 came to prominence with his design for the Arab World Institute. This work of architecture, through its masterful handling of the site, reawakened enormous interest in the curved line, and was subsequently plagiarised, often not so intelligently by many architects and students. Its infamous arabesque mechanical shutters heralded his concern with cultural identity and at the same time his fascination with technology. In the Biennale catalogue, Nouvel opened with a quote from Rene Char, “That which comes into the world without upsetting anything, isn’t worth consideration or patience.” Nouvel’s competition entries and built architecture have been consistently provocative, and sometimes controversial.
Nouvel has chosen film, in the form of video and slides, as his primary exhibition media. He has unexpectedly followed the cliché of black room drama in two of the three galleries, making the atmosphere rather depressing. His intention to select film, arguably as a more easily accessible medium for the public, can be equally and probably more enjoyably appreciated with some natural light.
The exhibition is announced by a full size arabesque mechanical shutter, which located without contact with the sky, reveals its metallic beauty but not its dynamic performance. I recall witnessing the excitement that an operating version created at an exhibition in Dubai, where sunshine is guaranteed. Maybe its location is Nouvel’s commentary on the English weather ! The main gallery is dominated by one long wall of large projected slide images which, with the “avenue” of video monitors located above head height successfully brings scale to the exhibition, although the position of the latter makes watching them rather physically uncomfortable. It is here that he communicates visually best the content of his built architecture.