Monday, May 28, 2007

05.27.07: Quai Branly

(I am dating these when they were written. I will post them as internet access allows….)

Wow, what a building! The Musee du Quai Branly by Jean Nouvel is a difficult building to try to come to grips with, due to the fragmented and multifaceted nature of the architecture. As you can see in the photos that I have posted so far, the building has a number of different design languages and motifs happening simultaneously. While this makes for great photography (not a bad angle in the place), I have found it difficult to synthesize the project in my mind. I will try to organize my thoughts as best I can. Overall, this is a tremendously ambitious project, one that would probably not be possible to achieve in the US.

Nouvel’s concept for the building was that of a “sacred wood”. He set out to create a spiritual and poetic place where the architecture disappears and the individual is left to have a dialog with the collection. The concept is appropriately fitting for this museum, where most of the artwork is actually indigenous artifacts from Asia, Africa and the Pacific Rim. The collection also includes aboriginal artwork as well as artifacts from Native American cultures. Since most of the work on display has a religious or spiritual aspect within its own culture, the concept of a sacred place to commune with art seems appropriate for this building.

In much of Jean nouvel’s writings, he argues for an architecture of specificity. Nouvel feels that our global society has an effect of eroding context, and that architecture should re-discover the specificity of place, making each project unique to its situations. This project responds directly to its context in a number of ways.

The Adjacent Monument: In this project, similar to his Institute du Monde Arab, he slices a large gap into the building to acknowledge the alignment with the Eiffel tower beyond. One way this building addresses the specificity of place by its alignment with the Eiffel tower.

The Seine and the Quai: Another response to context is the subtle curve of the buildings, which mirrors the adjacent river. Nouvel also creates an entry glass screen, similar to his Fondation Cartier, which both reflects the trees and provides a needed sound break for the heavy automobile traffic on the Quai.

Adjacent Building Blocks: Nouvel responds to the adjacent Haussmann era building masses by cleverly aligning the massing of various program blocks within the museum. This allows the project to almost literally grow out of its environment in a very physical and direct way.

The Parisian Park Becomes the Sacred Wood: By raising main museum spaces up off the ground on pilotis, Nouvel invites the public to enter his sacred wood, a very well designed park like setting within the city. This park also allows for the pedestrian to cut through the museum complex without ever buying a ticket, a very nice way to make this complex part of the local fabric of the city. When the hundreds of trees in this park finally mature, Nouvel may very well get his wish that the building will disappear.

My favorite aspect of the museum are the various ways in which Nouvel deals with light. It seems that light, or the manipulation of light is a focus of many of the design aspects. Nouvel writes about being inspired by gothic cathedrals, and you can see here he understands that to really capture poetic light, you must first reduce the space to the absence of light. The interior of the museum is very dark, and has been a complaint of some of the visitors. The south façade features a sunscreen system that creates a magnificent and dramatic effect on the interior. The north façade is a glass wall which has an image of a forest screen printed on it. Light is dealt with on the interior in controlled and very dramatic ways, capturing a ray of light here and there to provide the poetic presence of space that Nouvel desires. Nouvel uses almost every technique imaginable to capture the presence of light. I am willing to overlook the lack of design unity in the façade because of the successful attempt to capture light through different aperatures. Overall, the manipulation of light creates a dramatic and successful interior where the artwork becomes the focus, within a spiritual and poetic setting.

The museum experience is quite successful, unfolding as if you are entering a sacred place for reflection. The first sequence of spaces occurs along a long ramp, which gets darker and narrower as you approach the main gallery. The main gallery space is organized along a river like circulation path which is finished in this very odd leather covered object which holds displays, benches and multi-media exhibits. Finally, the 30 plus cantilevered “gallery” boxes create unique and individual museum experienced on the inside that are quite successful. Overall, the museum sequence of spaces is very fitting and appropriate for the main objective, the art within.

Lessons Learned:
I am going to take away many things from this project which I feel are positive design lessons, including many successful light manipulation techniques, the importance of architecture that attempts to address as well as create place, the importance of architecture that seeks for poetry and spirituality, and the successful interior sequencing of dramatic spaces. The artifact display cases that Nouvel designed are also quite extraordinary. Most importantly, the ambitious set of ideas that shape this project are worth commending.

On the other hand, I feel that Nouvel falls a bit short of creating a building which “dematerializes” into a poetic environment. The architecture throughout is so bold, multifaceted and aggressive that it is impossible to ever truly escape it. Despite the low lighting and dramatic sequencing of spaces, the architecture still retains a bold and aggressive presence due to the fragmented and almost chaotic nature of the composition. I also feel like some of the finish materials seem cheap and unresolved, like the linoleum flooring on the interior. At some places within the museum, the articulation of the finishes seems to be almost a caricature of the cultures on display, dangerously Disney-esque I might say. While I really appreciate Nouvel’s attempt at creating an environment as poetic as “a simple woodland shelter”, I feel the images of forests screen printed to the glass are also a bit too literal for my tastes. I love the idea of light passing through a tree canopy, but I wish there was a more natural way to accomplish this.

Overall, this is a very ambitious project with many design lessons, but I feel as if the end result is less polished than some of his other work that I admire, and I am left feeling a bit unsatisfied with the result. I plan to spend the next rainy day back at the museum taking the audio tour. I feel that I need a better understanding of the artifacts on display to truly appreciate the building.


  1. I agree with almost everything you discuss...I'm not sure it's quite as "disney-esque" but that screen printed foliage is really odd. I think it was an after-thought. I think they should have continued the sun-shades on that facade as well. Those are much more effective.

  2. It's great reading your comments. I appreciate the description of the Quai Branly. I'm anxious to see it in person so I can compare it to some of his other work.

    Keep the comments coming and, puh-leeze, no more Starbucks doughnuts! Dear god, man, grab a crepe!

  3. I think I like his older work better. I revisited the Arab Institute and the Foundation Cartier today. Both are much cleaner, although Nouvel did intend to break from the tradtion of the "western" museum with quai Branly.....

    No more starbucks - I promise!!!
    by the way, there is a starbucks in the Louvre - sign of the appocalipse...