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21 First Drafts: Jean Nouvel's Maison Delbigot

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Franziska Barczyk

First Drafts is a series exploring the early work of our architectural icons, examining their careers through the lens of their debut projects. Occasionally unexpected but always insightful, these undertakings represent their initial, finished buildings as solo practitioners. While anecdotes accompany the work of all great builders, there's often more to learn about their first acts.

The entrance of the Maison Delbigot, initially built for two retirees. All images courtesy Ateliers Jean Nouvel.

Jean Nouvel
Maison Delbigot in Villeneuve-sur-Lot, France
Date completed: 1973

Getting the Gig:
Jean Nouvel became an architect as a fallback, urged by his parents Renée and Roger to pursue a profession more steady than his dream job as an artist. But the anti-authoritarian Nouvel chafed at the demands of a traditional Beaux Arts curriculum, which was more concerned about gorgeous sketches of classic structures instead of deep research into culture and context. The methodology also didn't put a premium on debate, clearly one of the French architect's strong suits. Teachers rejected two of his early projects for being too heady, tangential and, perhaps, rebellious: a study of library design based on children's drawings of what they expected such a building to look like, and a research project about towers that referenced siege-breaking structures from the Middle Ages instead of sleek modern skyscrapers. Already seeking to stretch out beyond the exercises he was being tasked with at school, and searching for an extra source of income, Nouivel sought out a project manager gig with architects Claude Parent and Paul Virillo, despite the fact that he admittedly knew nothing about construction. He would graduate in 1971, but not before designing a handful of projects and homes that showed him anxious to test theories, as well as boundaries.

Description and Reception:
Designed for a retired couple, family friends living in the southwest of France, Nouvel's first built project has a certain Blade Runner/Death Star appeal to it, a brutish wedge of concrete that looks more appropriate for the blackness of deep space than the French countryside. The slanting, angular exterior appears to suggest an uncomfortable interior, but it actually smooths out the irregular, sloped site, making for a livable, if unorthodox, floor plan.

Impact On His Career:
The '70s provided a foundation for Nouvel's later work in the institutional realm, a string of museums and theaters that would help make him a rising star in the architectural world. The Maison Delbigot was only tangentially connected to that shift; when he told Parent that he was designing a home in southwest France, his employer suggested he step out on his own and promised the occasional referral. While Nouvel would design for numerous clients during the decade, including the Dick family, for whom he built a home in Troyes in 1978—it was smartly clad in brown and red bricks, the red outlining areas that violated local building codes—the most important connection was with the Biennale de Paris. Parent opened the door for his former employee to work with the arts festival, for whom he designed exhibits for the next 15 years. This entree into the art world led to numerous theater commissions and experimental works, early projects that build up to the blockbuster Arab World Institute.

Famous Future Works::
Arab World Institute (Paris: 1987), Fondation Cartier pour l'Art Contemporain (Paris: 1994), Golden Angel (Prague: 2000), Torre Agbar (Barcelona: 2005), Guthrie Theater (Minneapolis: 2006), Koncerthuset (Copenhagen: 2009), Philharmonie de Paris (Paris: 2015)

Current Status:
The home is still being used by private residents, as is another built during the same time period, the Delanghe house in Perigueux. Called "the bunker" by local residents, that home was renovated a few years ago by a family with two daughters, who purchased it "for next to nothing" without knowing it was a Nouvel original. According to a local newspaper article, while the interior needed a lot of work, they now can't imagine living anywhere else.

Jean Nouvel's Je Ne Sais Quoi: 5 Facts From a New Feature [Curbed]
Jean Nouvel to Paris Concert Hall: Don't Use My Name [Curbed]
Nouvel's Arab Institute in Paris Gets Camel-Hair Tent Extension [Curbed]