Jean Nouvel’s Responsive Solar Facade at Institut du Monde Arabe
In the early eighties famed architect Jean Nouvel, in conjunction with Architecture-Studio, won the competition to design what would become the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA). It was conceived during the Grands Projets, a major development initiative headed by the French government, as a forum to explore the relationship of the Arab culture with France. Jean Nouvel, known for his innovative façade detailing, proposed an advanced responsive metallic brise soleil based on an archetypal element of Arabic architecture, the mashrabiyya. Drawing inspiration from the traditional lattice work that has been used for centuries in the Middle East to protect the occupants from the sun and provide privacy, Nouvel created a modular system of mechanized panels that could react dynamically to changing sunlight. Each made of several hundred light sensitive diaphragms, the panels could sensitively regulate the amount of light allowed to enter the building. During the various phases of the lens, a shifting geometric pattern of squares, circles, and octagons are formed and showcased as both light and void. As a result, the IMA’s interior spaces are dramatically modified, along with the exterior appearance, throughout the day. While these ocular devices create an incredible aesthetic, they are perhaps most innovative for their environmental performance. Since solar gain is easily mitigated by closing or reducing the aperture sizes, the building can be climate controlled efficiently without relying on energy-intensive air conditioning systems. Though completed almost three decades ago, the building remains a powerful example of alternative ways of imagining an “ecological” and culturally-aware architecture.