When Jean Nouvel starts sketching ... something unexpected often happens:
"I like to play with architecture ¡ it's my favorite game," he chuckles.
He's designed the Agbar Tower in Barcelona, a concert hall in Copenhagen, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and the Arab World Institute on the banks of the Seine in Paris.
But the 65-year-old French architect is not yet a household name:
"My buildings are more famous than me," he said. He also prefers it that way.
Nouvel is a star in the world of architecture. Two years ago he won its highest honor, the Pritzker Prize.
"Everywhere he goes his project is the biggest of wherever it is," said Justin Davidson, the architecture critic for New York magazine.
"He also creates buildings that have a personality and have a real presence in a place. They're not timid."
Jean Nouvel grew up in southern France, the child of two high school teachers (geography and English). They wanted him to be a scientist. He wanted to be an artist:
"You went to your parents and said, 'I'm going to be a painter,' and they said . . . ?" asked Mason.
"No. No way."
So he used his drawing skills to imagine buildings.
He's now about to make his mark on America's biggest stage, designing two major structures in New York City:
"Was it important for you to make a statement in New York?" asked Mason.
"Of course!" he chuckled. "For an architect, to build in Manhattan, it's kind of a dream."
The first is a residential tower on Manhattan's West Side, with hundreds of irregularly-placed windows tilted at odd angles. He personally placed each window in the building.
From the outside they're designed to reflect the sun and the sky . . . from the inside, to frame the landscape.
"Here, of course, I wanted to catch all the panorama," he said.
In one bedroom he positioned a window so it could perfectly frame the Empire State Building:
"It's like a guardian during the night," he said while reclining on a bed.
Nouvel's other New York project is a building that could rival the Empire State Building . . . a soaring skyscraper that one critic said "promised to be the most exhilarating addition to the skyline in a generation."
"I try to play with the idea of a needle," he said.
The tower would be built on a tiny lot next to the Museum of Modern Art. In Nouvel's original design, the slender spire would have risen 75 stories, higher than the Chrysler Building and almost tall as the Empire State:
"Which is precisely what bothers some people," said Davidson. "For people who reacted negatively to the tower, it seemed arrogant."
Community groups fought the project. New York, a city of skyscrapers, seemed to be afraid of heights:
"Is Nouvel's building worthy of standing alongside the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building?" Mason asked.
"I think so," said Davidson. "It marks the period in which it's being designed so dramatically."
The architect has faced resistance before. There were questions about his striking Barcelona tower:
"Maybe people think I am sexual obsessed with this building!" he laughed. "It's not the case."
In fact, it was meant to echo the unusual rock pinnacles of nearby Montserrat.
And another Nouvel skyscraper, the so-called "Tower Without End," was never built, because of a housing slump in the nineties which left his Paris-based studio in bankruptcy.
He says it wasn't discouraging: "No, it's not in my character."
The City Council finally gave the go-ahead to build - but only if Nouvel chops 200 feet off the top.
"It's very French to cut the head, eh?" Nouvel laughed. "A guillotine!"
So at his Paris studio, Nouvel has gone back to the drawing board, working on a redesign, while his residential tower opened this summer.
"Do you like how it looks now?" he's asked.
"Yeah, I like that. Yes, it's exactly what we wanted."
His aim as an architect, he says, is to give pleasure to people: "I think architecture has to be a gift."
Jean Nouvel is leaving his gifts now across the skyline of the world.
For more info:
Ateliers Jean Nouvel
Justin Davidson, New York Magazine