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Volume 40, Number 1January/February 1989

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Window on the Arab World

Written by Joseph Fitchett
Photographed by Bruno De Hogues
Additional photographs by Patrick E. Rosa

Paris has an edifice complex, New buildings emerge almost monthly from scaffolding cocoons as the French capital completes its most ambitious cycle this century of monumental public construction. Fresh landmarks include a new opera house, a gigantic new triumphal arch at La Défense, a glass pyramid added to the Louvre, the brilliant Orsay Museum on the Seine, and a modernistic exposition complex devoted to 20th-century science and industry and built on the former site of a sprawling stockyard.

Like the Eiffel Tower exactly a century ago, each of these contemporary creations first aroused controversy; some gradually won admiration for their enrichment of the city's cultural heritage. But none of the newcomers has been more controversial, or ultimately more ardently admired, than the Arab World Institute, or AWI - an elegantly glass-walled showcase of Arab civilization that is attracting growing interest because of its novel cultural role and architectural ambitions.

Today, after some teething troubles in its first year of operations, the AWI is flooded with visitors: 5,000 people a week, all the building can handle, visit the Institute's museum exhibits and explore its high-tech facilities for learning about the Arab world. Esthetically, the Institute's daring architecture is recognized in France as the most imaginative new building to rise in Paris in a decade. Increasingly popular with critics and public alike, this cross-cultural institution, already a contemporary masterpiece, may well influence the style and orientation of future development of the French capital.

The Institute is a joint venture between France and Arab nations; it reflects the opinion, in all those countries, that the Arab world - its civilization and values, its past and its future - needs to be better known and understood in the West. To meet this need, the Institute supplies cultural information in a wide range of media: from libraries to electronic databanks, from a conventional, glass-case museum to audio-visual displays, and an outreach program of touring exhibits and performances as well.

But the AWI has no political agenda, says an aide to Bassem El-Jisr, the Lebanese-born director-general. Its aim is to "satisfy widespread curiosity about the Arab world by correcting the often abysmal factual ignorance about it." Retired diplomat Paul Carton, AWI's first president, says, "We are feeling our way. This is a unique experiment for Arab governments in a Western country." But Carton felt confident enough that AWI was well established to turn over its reins to his successor, Edgard Pisani, a politician who has played prominent roles in French foreign policy since his first cabinet position under President Charles de Gaulle.

The Institute's objective - to provide a window on the Arab world - is well served by its architecture, whose theme can best be described as transparency. In this building, space is defined by light and shadow, not by solid structure - an idea that French architect Jean Nouvel says he derived from Arab architectural traditions. When its curved glass front wall reflects the Seine in bright daylight, you can still discern jeweled rays of sunlight beaming through the back wall into the building's shadowy inner spaces. These shapes and shafts of sunlight are not the result of a happy accident: They are sculpted into a decorative geometry of light by computer-controlled metallic diaphragms - 25,000 of them - that comprise the Institute's southern facade. The deceptively simple-looking glass building is designed to create a mood of give-and-take with its surroundings: At night, the cylindrical six-story library tower, with its lighted spiraling ramp, seems to symbolize the institute's educational vocation in its Latin-Quarter site, the traditional heart of French academia.

The effect of openness continues throughout the building, with a diffuse green aura from the landscaping and painting modulated by the silvery gray tints of the aluminium frame. The U-shaped building has two wings, one curved scythe-like to fit the bend of the Seine, the other the rectangular block with its wall of diaphragms and containing other geometrical structures. The wings are separated by patios at several levels, and the effect is as if layered light were the substance of the structure.

A hall of giant pillars - 125 of them - somehow evokes a waterless reflecting pool. Glass-walled elevators enable visitors to see through each floor's activities. From the rooftop terraces, nearby Notre Dame Cathedral on its midstream island seems like a ship majestically steaming upstream toward the Institute. The result, said a Parisian decorator on her first visit, is to "make me feel somehow that this is an extended hand from a foreign culture." This inviting, friendly impression seems to be generally shared: On a recent Sunday, many visitors - mainly French - were obviously making repeat visits, proudly pointing out to friends fine points of the building's design.

Success for the AWI, as a large-scale, permanent, cultural bridgehead in a European capital, was not a foregone conclusion. Though French President François Mitterrand personally presided at its inauguration in December 1987, as a mark of the Institute's importance, there were many times in its 15-year gestation period when the Institute nearly strangled in red tape or the snarl of political tensions. But the project's momentum, together with the determination of its Arab and French sponsors, proved irresistible - and holds promise for the Institute's future.

Conceived in 1973 by French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the AWI proposal reflected France's heightened interest in the Arab world. This new mood was influenced by several factors: the energy crisis, a new outlook toward the Arabs that grew as France's colonial guilt diminished, heightened competition for trade with those Arab countries that France had previously ignored, and a growing awareness that France needed better relations with the North African countries just across the Mediterranean, whose expatriate citizens in France had become a factor in French culture and society.

Giscard d'Estaing's idea was to offer the Arab countries a Parisian showcase for Arab culture. To give it a pan-Arab dimension, the AWI became a project sponsored primarily by eight Arab nations - Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - with participation by all member states of the Arab League. The AWl's High Council would be composed of the founder states' Arab League ambassadors in Paris, and Trench nominees.

In the first seven years, Arab governments spent $30 million on the project but got scarcely anything to show for it. This was due mainly to unresponsiveness by the municipal government of Paris, which had fallen into the hands of Giscard d'Estaing's political rivals. Bureaucrats shunted the project from one undesirable site to another, each of which the AWl's Arab sponsors tenaciously resisted. Government legal advisers also ruled against an official - but only oral - French pledge of diplomatic and tax immunity for the proposed Institute.

The outlook for AWI changed overnight in 1981 when Mitterrand, newly elected, decided to include the AWI among his "presidential projects" for major new institutions. His goal was to open French cultural life to new horizons and to a broader public, and he wanted revolutionary architecture to dramatize these new objectives. The AWI project got top priority.

Minister of Culture Jack Lang personally selected the new site, one of the most visible and desirable locations in Paris. And architect Jean Nouvel, then only 36 but already known for his innovative solutions to a wide range of architectural problems, met a three-week deadline with the winning design. "As usual, I started from scratch and immersed myself in the project," he said. Aided by a French scholar of Islamic architecture and city planning, he delved into books, paintings and even movies to select a few basic themes and motifs for the building: "The core values of Arab architecture are impressive: generosity combined with precision, even preciousness - and I tried to translate those into my design," he said.

Handling space at AWI with Arab generosity, Nouvel conceived the astonishing wall of metal diaphragms - a Western reflection of the intricate wooden screens of mashrabiya windows - to represent precision, demanding that the shutter-like irises form lozenges, squares and bars of light to match mosaic patterns in the Institute's floors. The preciousness, meaning highly detailed, finely wrought decoration, is evoked for Nouvel by the accumulation of visible high-technology machinery. But Nouvel insists that this is a Western building, not a pastiche of an Islamic one. "The building expresses the idea of Arab architecture; it has Arab architectural values without being Arab. It is suggestive, emotional, sensual."

Built in five years at a cost of $100 million, the Institute is quickly becoming as much a part of the Paris landscape as the Egyptian obelisk erected last century in the Place de la Concorde, at the hub of the city's traffic.

And in future, the Arab World Institute may become a cornerstone of the city's development, thanks to Nouvel's inspiration in handling the site. Many architects were intimidated by the location: On the banks of the Seine, the site exposed any building on it to direct comparison with some of the major landmarks of the city -and to rigid building-code restrictions. Worse, the land abuts a university campus whose rough concrete buildings, on pylons, are acknowledged eyesores. But rather than playing it safe by placing his building on the back of the site, where it would hide the campus, Nouvel risked constructing it close to the river.

The result is an urban triumph. The curving glass walls mirror the water and smoothly prolong the line of the Left Bank's major thoroughfare, the historic Boulevard St. Germain. "Some day the Institute will be seen as the building that carried grand architecture eastward into the city's neglected areas," Nouvel said.

By building at the water's edge to achieve dramatic sweep, Nouvel left the university buildings exposed behind the Institute. But he has won official acceptance - though not yet financing - for a master development plan that calls for an avenue of greenery there that would run eastward for nearly a kilometer (.6 mile), connecting with gardens on the city's eastern edge. If this vision materializes, ivy will soften the raw concrete of the campus.

Within its walls, the AWI is adjusting to meet public demand for its services. Its staff of nearly 100 men and women, drawn from all the Arab nations, have no research or teaching programs of their own. Rather, the Institute's style is to try and meet requests for information from the public, from institutions and from government - in every conceivable form. An innovative feature is the "media wall" - a room with 24 television screens, each of which can be programmed to carry broadcasts from a different Arab nation. Viewers use headphones for the sound. Reams of data can be retrieved from computer data-banks, and the Institute has been an innovator in finding ways to work with Arabic materials on computers.

Naturally AWI also offers the more traditional fare of a first-class cultural center: Europe's largest reference library on the Arab world, for example. A spacious, quiet museum, although dependent mainly on gifts from Arab governments, already boasts an impressive permanent collection of artifacts. The superbly equipped theater and auditorium, which seats 500, hosts musical, theatrical and literary troupes and performers from every corner of the Arab world - some of whom go on, as do temporary shows from the museum, to tour the provincial towns of France.

Reflecting this outreach program, the AWI hosts scholarly discussions on Arab civilization and cooperates with French broadcasters and publishers to promote shows and books about the Arab world. "We are a unique resource center, helping ensure that the Arab world is never again absent or misrepresented in Europeans' mental geography of mankind," an AWI researcher said.

Despite its growing success, AWI has not escaped controversy about its work - or questions about its future. "The Institute is not aggressive enough, and when the novelty wears off, it will become irrelevant," warns an Arab ambassador in Paris. In his view, the AWI should actively engage in consciousness-raising among France's 2.7 million Arab inhabitants. "The Arab immigrants are only five percent of the population in this country, but they can play full roles here only if they know their Arab heritage and are proud of it," the diplomat said.

Other critics say that the AWI's dependence on government funding is a limitation. An Arab journalist in Paris charges that "the natural reflex of any government is to censor anything sensitive, so the Institute can never say anything critical about many crucial aspects of Arab affairs." Indeed, an exhibition of political cartoons from one sponsoring country was withdrawn shortly after it opened because of objections from the embassy. But public vetos of this sort have been rare.

The AWI's officers maintain that the Institute has its hands full of useful work of many sorts that transcends governments' political sensitivities. It properly confines its mission to providing a vision of the Arabs to European publics, they say, without becoming involved in such domestic issues as minorities' rights. Indeed, AWI's president and director-general would like somewhat more attention from some governmental sponsors, rather than less: So far, France, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have carried most of the financial burden of the Institute's work. But AWI's initial success, officials say, should help accustom other governments to the Institute's need for prompt, steady financing, in order to maintain an undertaking that has given the Arab world such a brilliant presence in Paris.

Joseph Fitchett, chief correspondent of the International Herald Tribune in Paris, writes on geopolitics and the arts. He is co-author of the recent book Great Hotels of the Middle East and Asia.

Making a Mark
Written by Joseph Fitchett

Approaching the Arab World Institute, visitors pass through a high, narrow curving marble gateway into a vast open courtyard. Someday this will be a park whose trees and vines provide a backdrop of greenery for the Institute itself, tucked into a bend of the Seine. The building, rising dramatically and floating on a glassed-in ground floor, is a mosaic-patterned block. This visually stunning effect comes from the seemingly countless metal diaphragms of different sizes, set symmetrically in groups of 25 and mounted in the facade in 10,000 identical panels, each centered on a large, eye-shaped iris. In this extraordinary wall, the exposed machinery becomes an intricate geometrical decorative design, enhanced by gleams of outside light and tints of inside illumination on the metal of the diaphragms' irises. The square panels, in 10 tiers and 20 columns, create an effect of stability that resembles arrested movement: energies in some extraordinary equilibrium.

Past the Institute's doors, visitors enjoy facilities that compare favorably with any in the latest museums in Paris. Multi-lingual videotext terminals list the day's events. Parking is automated. Clear directions keep the crowd flowing cleanly in separate directions - some heading up toward the terraces to eat in the popular riverside restaurant and enjoy its spectacular view of the city, others browsing in AWI's ground-floor giftshop and buying maps, catalogues, books, records or videocassettes about the Arab world - or reproductions of Bedouin jewelry, posters of modern Arab art or Islamic devotional materials.

Similarly imaginative technology enlivens the AWI's temporary exhibitions, and public response has grown as the shows become more ambitious. Both in popularity and in quality, the biggest success so far was the exhibit entitled "Holy Places in Saudi Arabia," which provided a vivid impression of the spiritual dimensions and physical scale of the focal points, in Makkah and Medina, of the Hajj. Imposing, exquisitely executed scale models of the mosques provided a bird's-eye view of these vast sanctuaries of Islam, and of King Fahd's plans for embellishment and expansion to add luster and provide room for more pilgrims. The emotion of individuals and the magnitude of the crowds came alive in movies and slide shows, with stereo spectacles provided so that they could be watched in three dimensions. Historical pictures were presented from the AWI library's collection of rare books; the Louvre lent ancient ceramic tiles; from Saudi Arabia came an exquisitely embroidered panel of the Kiswa, the black draping of the Ka'ba (See Aramco World, September-October 1985).

The show's impact helped put the AWI on the European cultural map, with newspapers in many foreign capitals listing the exhibition as a highlight for visitors to Paris. For non-Muslims, of course, it was a rare opportunity to see places and ceremonies to which they have no access. But Muslims - often whole families - were equally numerous among the visitors, frequently waiting until the guides had moved on to add their own commentary for the benefit of their children or their non-Muslim friends. This kind of enthusiasm seemed to vindicate the hopes of AWI's supporters that the Institute, through education and openness, will help the Arab world change for the better the image it has in the world as a whole.

Nouvel Ideas
Written by Joseph Fitchett

Despite the romantic language that made him the darling of international critics and helped him win the 1988 Grand Prix d'Architecture - Jean Nouvel has a practical side. The lengthening list of his building's attests his ability to adapt his vision to the constraints of almost any site and need. His work starts from a conviction that architects have exhausted the possibilities of geometrical construction - from pyramids, to temples, to skyscrapers. He is equally appalled by neo-classicism and by post-modern recombinations of disparate elements of different architectural styles.

"What I want is an architecture of sensations, of emotions," he said, pacing through his white-painted studio in a gutted factory. "The Arab project gave us a chance to work with the values of Islamic architecture, which proved to fit strongly with my idea of trying to build with cultural materials instead of simply with bricks and mortar or steel and rectangular perspectives." Convinced that the1970’s were a period of retreat in all the arts in the West, breeding a nostalgia for the lost energies of modernism, Nouvel found the Arab World Institute the biggest opportunity yet to put into practice his ideas of a more exciting, more popular kind of architecture. Previously, he had been successful with projects like an apartment building in southern France whose railings, companionways and bulkheads gave it a shipboard feeling that proved very popular with its occupants. But the AWI commission gave his approach unrivaled international exposure.

Despite working on a historic site Paris with the risk of an outcry over any apparent breach of time-honored building styles, Nouvel unflinchingly pursued his own vision. He had to cope with the dual demands of a difficult location and the unique nature of the commission. The site stood "at the pivot-point of two sections of the city - historic central Paris and neglected eastern Paris," he said, and the commission required that he develop "a correct attitude toward. Arab architecture that prolongs its values into a Western tradition."

The most striking feature of his design is the mosaic wall of diaphragms. Manufactured by the industrial firm that builds the TGV, France’s bullet-train, the diaphragms, Nouvel says, are "anti-functional. We could have controlled the light flow by using, for example, blinds."

But in contrast to Paris's last world-class building, the Beaubourg Museum, which exposed pipes to highlight its functional identity, the AWI, Nouvel says, "accumulates technological excess to express the kind of decorative intensity and intricacy of fine Arab buildings." Visitors are mesmerized by the exposed workings of these constantly shifting... irises, staring at their precision-made parts and electronic wiring that without explanation or warning adjust the shape and flow of light.

This is play of light and shade is pursued throughout the budding, with glass skins and translucent marble and criss-crossing open ramps and elevators, creating an effect of high-tech wizardry. But Nouvel is categorical: "I use technology for aesthetic ends." The Arab World Institute commission has proved the value his vision.

This article appeared on pages 20-29 of the January/February 1989 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1989 images.