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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Last year, the American Institute of Architects polled Americans about their favorite buildings. Top of this list: the Empire State Building, followed by the White House. These are old, iconic structures. Very few contemporary buildings made the list.

In France, it would be a similar story, old over new, but NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says one of France's most famous architects makes a mark with new buildings, even when he designs them to disappear.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Jean Nouvel is the 2008 Pritzker Prize winner. It's architecture's top honor. He is not that well known here. Nouvel did the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and a small condo in Manhattan, but in Paris, Jean Nouvel is famous. And his most recent building, a museum of primitive civilizations, is very controversial. It's on the Seine River near the Eiffel Tower, sacred space, so Nouvel made the museum low and set it back from the beloved waterway. And the wall that faces the river will, he hopes, eventually get lost behind a garden.

Mr. JEAN NOUVEL (Architect, France): The landscape is not completely done because we need some years, but at first, it will be a building be - you will not see the building after 10 years because with the trees around it, it's a kind of secret building in Paris.

STAMBERG: This is typical Jean Nouvel, not diverting attention from what Paris loves — its tower, its river — making a mark by fitting in.

Christine McEntee, head of the American Institute of Architects, says Nouvel does that with all his buildings.

Ms. CHRISTINE McENTEE (Head, American Institute of Architects): They're all unique to kind of where they fit and what the client or the city of the community is looking for and what that particular building is about.

Mr. RON BOGLE (American Architectural Foundation): I think he would argue that he has no signature.

This is Ron Bogle, who runs the American Architectural Foundation.

Mr. BOGLE: That he lets each building kind of express itself in its context.

STAMBERG: Quite unusual for an architect to not say me, me, me through his designs, but Jean Nouvel from Sarlat, a medieval city.

Mr. NOUVEL: It's a very small town. It's 10,000 inhabitants. Ten thousand inhabitants, sorry for my stupid English.

STAMBERG: Almost 63 years year old, tall and hulkish, Jean Nouvel's designs and manor seem modest despite the Pritzker Prize, the brace of commissions from various emirates, and the prospect of a 75-story glass skyscraper next to New York's Museum of Modern Art.

And what does it mean to an architect to be able to make a mark on the skyline of Manhattan?

Mr. NOUVEL: You cannot imagine what it is for a little guy of the southwest of France who wanted to become a painter and who became an architect by mistake.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NOUVEL: That is really something unimaginable for me before.

STAMBERG: Architect Jean Nouvel. He just won a competition for Las Vegas, a 4,000-room hotel with a casino, a convention center, a theater and mammoth aquarium with sharks and whales in the middle of an American desert. Vive la France. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Now you've heard what critics have to say about Nouvel's work. If you want to see it for yourself, go to NPR.org.

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