It’s Fashion Week on the Rue Saint-Honoré in Paris, and a black-clad mountain of a man lumbers through a hotel lobby full of preening gazelles. His long coat sweeps a Champagne flute off a coffee table and into a young woman’s lap. He makes vague blotting motions, as if he could soak up the Champagne remotely, then gives up and moves on. His assistant grabs a napkin and administers a few firm dabs and profuse apologies. She, too, moves on, following her boss into a private dining room for a working lunch. A few minutes later, a waitress pops in with an update: The young woman is fine, she’s been given a new drink, and, in fact, “Elle est ravie que ça soit vous” — she’s delighted to have been soaked by one of France’s cultural treasures, the architect Jean Nouvel.
In a nation that makes celebrities of its philosophers and literary critics, Nouvel is more than a designer of buildings; he’s a curator of French architecture’s cultural ambitions. His Philharmonie de Paris, which opened in January, embodies the desire to bridge the chasm between elite and popular music — or, depending on your politics, it’s a state-sponsored boondoggle squandering fortunes on deluxe entertainment. The Musée du Quai Branly, a rust-colored museum of non-Western culture that crouches in the greenery near the Eiffel Tower, plunges into France’s long and fraught debates over colonialism, Orientalism, and primitivism. His Louvre Abu Dhabi will bring a new cultural juggernaut to the Persian Gulf with the help of a French museum consortium and a French brand name.