The new skyscraper by Jean Nouvel in New York City should have been as high as the Empire State Building. But its proximity to Central Park – and the shadow it would have cast over the green space – forced the French architect to limit the building’s height to 1,050 feet. The size is no less impressive, though, and the skyscraper is the sixth highest in the city. Officially named “53W53” but nicknamed “MoMA Tower” due to its location next to the Museum of Modern Art, the building features three floors of art galleries and was inaugurated in the fall of 2019.
Commissioned by a real estate developer from Texas, this spire of glass, concrete, and steel is Jean Nouvel’s sixth project in the United States. The architect designed a theater in Minneapolis in 2006 and an apartment building in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan in 2007. But his U.S. career really took off after winning the Pritzker Prize – considered the Nobel Prize of architecture. He also delivered a stilt-supported luxury residential complex in Miami in 2021.
Jean Nouvel is not the only French architect to have made a name for himself in the United States. Others include Christian de Portzamparc, the only other French person to win the Pritzker Prize, as well as Bernard Tschumi, Dominique Perrault, Jean-Paul Viguier, Jean-Michel Wilmotte, Anne Fougeron, Olivier Touraine, Françoise Raynaud, and François Leininger. “The French are part of the wave of European and Japanese architects designing buildings in all the big American cities,” says Jean-Louis Cohen, professor of architectural history at New York University [who passed away on August 7, 2023]. “American architectural production is starting to open itself up to the whole world.”
This is a recent phenomenon. The renowned Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier designed a building in Harvard in 1963, the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, but his other projects in the U.S. were never built. The same thing happened to Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. But over the last 20 years or so, Jean-Louis Cohen believes the innovative work by European design firms has inspired American business leaders and museum directors. “Just like they purchase the finest artwork, they are now recruiting the best architects.”
Christian de Portzamparc
In 1994, Christian de Portzamparc was hired by the French group LVMH to design its New York headquarters on East 57th Street. The architect had to avoid copying the neighboring Chanel offices, and so went in another direction by designing a façade with interplaying sides that resemble a precious stone – something that architecture historian Jean-Louis Cohen refers to as “a new crystalline geometry.” Christian de Portzamparc caused a stir once again with the One57 Tower, inaugurated in New York in 2014. At more than 1,000 feet high, it launched the trend of tall, slim skyscrapers known as “pencil towers.”
Famed for his work in Europe, Jean Nouvel took advantage of former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s pro-development policies to establish himself in the United States. At the time, developers working with well-known architects were granted increased height limits. But Jean-Louis Cohen believes his finest American project was more modest, at just 165 feet high. “The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis integrates beautifully into the banks of the Mississippi,” he says. “Jean Nouvel’s working styles are extremely diverse, but his buildings all highlight and are responsive to their surroundings.”
Born to a French mother and a Swiss father, Bernard Tschumi won a 1983 international competition to design the Parc de la Villette in Paris. The project went on to launch his career. He then worked as the dean of the school of architecture at Columbia University from 1988 through 2003 and delivered three projects in the United States: the school of architecture at Florida International University in Miami, the athletics center at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, and his first skyscraper, a 16-floor building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
The ancient technique of weaving helped kickstart Dominique Perrault’s career. The François-Mitterrand Library inaugurated in the 13th arrondissement of Paris in 1996 featured the first large-scale use of stainless-steel mesh in both construction and interior design. Dominique Perrault went on to make it his trademark. In a testament to his relationship with GKD, the German supplier of his woven metallic mesh, he designed the company’s headquarters and the production site of their U.S. subsidiary.
Until the 1930s, some 20% of students at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris were American and went on to design classically-inspired buildings in the United States, such as Grand Central Terminal in New York City and the Boston Public Library. “Jean-Paul Viguier represents a reversal of this trend,” says Jean-Louis Cohen. “He learned how to build skyscrapers at Harvard and then used his skills in France.” Among others, he designed the headquarters of the Alstom, Esso, and France Télévisions groups in the Paris area, and was then recruited by Sofitel to develop a hotel in Chicago. The result was a prism-shaped tower lauded by the American Institute of Architects.
Trained at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and at Berkeley, Anne Fougeron founded her own firm in San Francisco in 1985. Her hallmark soon became “glass, minimalism, natural light, and stainless steel.” After designing several houses, a public library, a cultural center, and four Planned Parenthood clinics in the Bay Area, her firm recently delivered two buildings in the new Transbay neighborhood that form the base of a skyscraper designed by renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.
This architect decorated the private quarters of then-President François Mitterrand at the Elysée Palace before installing golden onion-shaped domes along the banks of the River Seine and turning a 1920s railway depot into a start-up incubator. Following on from the Russian cathedral and Station F projects, Jean-Michel Wilmotte inaugurated in 2019 a 33-floor residential building in Dallas, heralding his very first work in America. Featuring 158 luxury apartments, two 80-foot swimming pools, a spa, and a panoramic terrace, the tower has been nicknamed the “palace in the sky.”
Françoise Raynaud is the first French woman to design and build a skyscraper in New York City. Her 27-floor apartment building was inaugurated in the Hudson Square neighborhood in southwest Manhattan at the end of 2020. Formerly employed by Jean Nouvel, Françoise Raynaud founded her own agency, Loci Anima (“the soul of place” in Latin), in 2005. She promotes the concept of “buildings designed like living beings,” sustainable and sensitive to their environment. The Greenwich West tower is built with clay bricks that reflect light, and includes a living green wall created by French botanist Patrick Blanc.
Previously employed by Jean Nouvel, the 46-year-old architect helped build the 53W53 tower in New York City and the Guggenheim Museum in Rio de Janeiro before founding his own firm, Post-Office Architectes, with David Fagart and Line Fontana. Their first project in the United States was inaugurated in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York in 2020. Instead of designing “another glass box,” they developed a building whose façade is covered with concrete panels set on corrugated cardboard molds. The result integrates elegantly into the local architecture.
After working in Japan with Italian architect Renzo Piano, in Lille with Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, and in Paris with Jean Nouvel, Olivier Touraine moved to Los Angeles in 1999. He has since completed a number of projects, including a villa in Hollywood for filmmaker Wim Wenders and the Silverwood Lake Visitor Center in the mountains around San Bernardino. “Not all French architects in the United States design skyscrapers,” says Jean-Louis Cohen. “Many of them take part in competitions, develop small-scale projects, and gradually build up to bigger creations.”