When I lived in the 5th arrondissement, I spent hours pounding the pavement (or the cobblestones, as it were) just exploring and trying to make sense of the diverse elements that make up the neighborhood: the historic Place de la Contrescarpe with its charming cafés, the lively market street Rue Mouffetard, the wild Jardin des Plantes, the magnificent blue-and-white-tiled mosque (La Mosquée de Paris), and the unexpected Arènes de Lutèce (a first century Roman amphitheatre). But more often than not, my walks ended with me staring up at the breathtaking Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute), my face tilted skyward as I struggled to take in the awesomeness that is this structure.
Against all of Paris’ historic architecture, the Institut is a welcome experiment in modernity, which is fitting since one of the Institut’s purposes is to promote scientific and technological exchange between France and the Arab world.
It’s a fascinating place that holds regular art exhibitions and events, but to be quite honest, I rarely get past the façade. I can’t count how many times I’ve stood motionless, staring up at it until my neck aches and I am on the verge of vertigo. It couldn’t be healthy, but somehow, I always end up there, my mouth agape as I take in the building, which reflects shades of light from the sky—gray, blue, gold, pink—depending on the time of day.
Designed by Jean Nouvel and completed in 1987, the building’s façade is almost entirely glass, behind which 240 motor-controlled metal apertures open and close every hour, filtering light in and out of the building throughout the day. It’s no wonder that this design helped put Nouvel on the map and took Parisian contemporary architecture to the next level. Architect Michael Herrman, who worked with Nouvel on the Musée du Quai Branly, recently told me that some of these apertures are beginning to break down. I suppose that’s what happens when you create a building that is part-robot. Broken or not, I’m still amazed.
And while I will forever be a sucker for Paris’ towering gothic architecture, my feet always seem to find the familiar path that leads them to the Institut, and no matter how many times I visit, I am always surprised at how new it feels.
L’Institut du Monde Arabe. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-6pm. Closed Monday.1 rue des Fossés-Saint-Bernard, 5eme arrndmt. Tel: 01 40 51 38 38. Metro: Jussieu (Line 10 or 7).