High-Tech for Cultural Exchange – Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris (1987)
Client: Institut du Monde Arabe
Architects: Architecture Studio, Ateliers Jean Nouvel
Structural engineer: SETEC Bâtiment
Location: 1 Rue des Fossés Saint-Bernard, 75005 Paris
Few buildings – and none of this particular type in the 20th century – are as solely associated with a single façade in public memory as the Institut du Monde Arabe, executed by Jean Nouvel und Architecture Studio on winning the respective competition in 1981, and completed in 1987.
Technoid Shading Elements
A total of 240 sun-breaking elements 180 x 180 centimetres in size lend structure to the cultural centre’s otherwise fully glazed southern front and provide shade for the function rooms and the library reading room behind the façade. As such they are inspired by both Arabic mashrabiya window screens and the shutter mechanism of reflex cameras. As in the case of the latter, small electric motors are connected to light sensors for automatic aperture control, thus determining the amount of light passing into the interior. At least that was the case in the early days. Later on, more and more electric motors broke down and it was not until 2017 that they were renewed, namely in a large-scale façade renovation measure to mark the 30th anniversary of the institute. For Nouvel, his building at the side of the Seine marked the starting point of a career that reached its apogee in 2008, when the architect was awarded the Pritzker Prize. For Paris, the Institut du Monde Arabe – a joint project undertaken by France with 19 Arab states – was the first grand projet of the Mitterand era to see completion.
Subdued Light Mood
But reducing the cultural centre to just its technoid façade screening does not do justice to the building. In the interior, the architects proficiently combined glinting machine aesthetics with the subdued light mood typical of Arabic architecture, thus making the institute the exact antithesis of the light-flooded transparency of other steel-and-glass architecture of the post-war years. A narrow west-east cleft divides the building into a ten-storey southern volume and an eight-storey northern section mainly containing exhibition spaces. On the fourth floor, the level where the museum entrance is situated, a bare, square-shaped interior court opens up to the sky, its four sides clad in square white marble tiles. Yet as so often with Nouvel, these merely form a brise-soleil, mounted to a slender aluminium structure and coming with chinks that allow natural light to seep through to the glass windows behind.
Screen-Printed Glazed Façade
The list of iconographic allusions that the building makes could be extended indefinitely – and by no means do they solely concern North Africa and the Middle East. On the little noticed northern façade, banded with horizontal metal profiles and facing the Seine, the architects had the silhouettes of old Parisian buildings screen-printed onto the glass. As one of the first examples of computer graphics applied in XXL format to glazing, this marked the start of a whole series of screen-printed glass facades in the years leading up to the millennium.