ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

If those high-priced homes are getting you down, consider this: architect Jean Nouvel's new branch of the Louvre Museum, now under construction in Abu Dhabi, is expected to cost around $108 million. The plans call for pools of crystal clear water lapping against walls of pearl white perfection; rectangular islands surround the main building, and above it, a latticed canopy allows intermittent shafts of light to stream down onto the museum's walls.

Jean Nouvel has just been named the winner of this year's Pritzker architecture prize. The Pritzker is often called the Nobel of architecture. Jean Nouvel has more than 200 buildings around the world, as Edward Lifson reports.

EDWARD LIFSON: Jean Nouvel's buildings provoke many moods. He does this by moving the visitor through darkness, through manipulated light and rich colors. He can confront you with graphic images, images of history, as at his Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where ghostly figures from Shakespeare and from the Guthrie's past appear, in the right light, on the wall.

At his Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris you look through wall after wall of highly transparent glass until your eye finds the back yard. In it soars an historic 200-year-old cedar tree. Nouvel's building nearly disappears. Reflections of tree and sky remain.

He tries to link to the past, much like his countryman Marcel Proust. Jean Nouvel says when he gets a commission, he surveys the site, learns what was there, what is there, how it was used, how it will be used and he tries to provide links.

Mr. JEAN NOUVEL (Architect): I think when you are an architect you have to work with the differences of the climates, of the visitation, of the color of the rock, of the sky and so on. And not always the same things. You have to invent small worlds. You have to invent surprises.

LIFSON: His approach to architecture was born in the radicalism of 1968 Paris. Now 62 years old, Jean Nouvel wears a lot of black, shaves his head, and he looks oddly like Dr. Evil from the "Austin Powers" flicks. He even made noise about wanting to be a filmmaker. Jean-Louis Cohen teaches architecture history at New York University. He says Nouvel's designs incorporate ideas from film, photography and other contemporary arts.

Professor JEAN-LOUIS COHEN (Architectural History, New York University): This is probably the reason why his architecture has taken new qualities. Because his designs are emerged in a much broader visual culture than the designs of many of his contemporaries.

LIFSON: In the Pritzker citation, the jurors wrote that they admire the risks that Jean Nouvel has taken for more then 30 years. And they went on to say that regardless of the varying degrees of success, he has greatly expanded the vocabulary of contemporary architecture.

He'll get a $100,000 grant and a bronze medallion. The executive director of the Pritzker Architecture prize is Martha Thorne.

Ms. MARTHA THORNE (Executive Director, Pritzker Architecture Prize): His work is important because on one hand it makes you aware of the architecture, of the spaces that he designs. In some ways it can be a little bit jarring. But on the other hand he makes you aware that you are in within an architectural space and you as a participant are very important in that space.

LIFSON: If you are in Paris, go to Nouvel's Arab World Institute. Walk through a mysterious exotic, erotic, shadow-filled space he created with a glass wall sandwiching a grid of gray camera-like apertures. They open and close with the strength of the sunlight.

For Jean Nouvel, architecture is not an intellectual pursuit in and of itself, independent from the other arts.

Mr. NOUVEL: For a long time people explained that architecture was an autonomous discipline. And I think really it's the opposite. Architecture is completely linked to the culture of our time.

LIFSON: Coming of age in the revolutionary days of Paris 1968, Jean Nouvel wanted to change the world. In his way, he is.

For NPR News, I'm Edward Lifson.

SEABROOK: And we've posted a few examples of Jean Nouvel's work at npr.org.

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