Masterpiece began on a napkin

A sculpture (above) by Italian artist Giuseppe Penone at the museum, which has a lace-like ceiling; and American artist Jenny Holzer (left) with her work carved across several walls.
A sculpture (above) by Italian artist Giuseppe Penone at the museum, which has a lace-like ceiling; and American artist Jenny Holzer with her work carved across several walls.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, EPA-EFE, NYTIMES
A sculpture (above) by Italian artist Giuseppe Penone at the museum, which has a lace-like ceiling; and American artist Jenny Holzer (left) with her work carved across several walls.
A sculpture by Italian artist Giuseppe Penone at the museum, which has a lace-like ceiling; and American artist Jenny Holzer (above) with her work carved across several walls.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, EPA-EFE, NYTIMES
A sculpture (above) by Italian artist Giuseppe Penone at the museum, which has a lace-like ceiling; and American artist Jenny Holzer (left) with her work carved across several walls.
French star architect Jean NouvePHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, EPA-EFE, NYTIMES

Architect Jean Nouvel's initial idea for the Louvre Abu Dhabi was one of a neighbourhood rather than a building

PARIS • The Louvre Abu Dhabi, which opened its doors on Wednesday, started life as a simple sketch on a restaurant napkin, says French star architect Jean Nouvel.

It is a welcome triumph for Mr Nouvel, who admits he is still smarting from a controversy surrounding the iconic Philharmonie de Paris.

That napkin sketch he drew in 2006 eventually became what has been hailed by the media as a masterpiece, the "Louvre of the Sands".

The Abu Dhabi building has echoes of the pyramid of glass that serves as an entryway to the Louvre in Paris.

"When Thomas Krens (former director of the Guggenheim Foundation in New York) spoke to me about the project, my first idea was of a micro-climate, of a museum which would be a neighbourhood rather than a building," Mr Nouvel, 72, said in an interview.

"When I had all the information, I let the images scroll in the dark. I summon them," he added, speaking at the offices of his associate Hala Warde, surrounded by test models of the Louvre Abu Dhabi's dome.

While finishing the Abu Dhabi project, Mr Nouvel also had to keep an eye on the construction of the tower at the Museum of Modern Art in Sao Paulo, as well as several projects in China.

How does he juggle so many architectural balls at the same time? Well, they are not all at the same stage.

"Each one takes 10 years on average. You are always in the process of beginning to design one."

On top of that, each building is a series of projects. The Abu Dhabi dome was "a project all by itself".

The 2015 controversy over Philharmonie de Paris concert hall has faded, but not completely, in his mind at least.

After being criticised for the project's spiralling costs and delays, he refused to attend the inauguration of the building.

The humiliation still rankles for Mr Nouvel, who does not forgive or forget.

"I can't accept what happened, not just for me, but also for the role of the architect and the importance of the project," said the 2008 winner of architecture's highest honour, the Pritzker Prize. "The building was dirty, badly built, badly finished. It's a counterfeit."

But an architect's profile is built on everything he does, he said, adding that an abandoned tower in the high-rise La Defense area west of Paris "earned me a lot of orders".

Among his great regrets was the planned Guggenheim Museum in Rio de Janeiro that never saw the light of day.

He said: "An architect must learn to live with his ghosts."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2017, with the headline 'Masterpiece began on a napkin'. Print Edition | Subscribe