AD Classics: Institut du Monde Arabe / Jean Nouvel

© Flickr / Laura Manning

In the early eighties Jean Nouvel in conjunction with Architecture-Studio won the competition to design what would become the Institut du Monde Arabe. It was conceived during the Grands Projets, a major development initiative headed by the French government. The IMA was produced through collaboration with the countries of the Arab League and the French government.  Upon its completion in 1987, it quickly became a popular destination for the local populace as well as tourists. More details after the break.

© Flickr / b00nj

One of the main reasons behind the construction of this institute was to create a destination devoted to the relationship of the Arab culture with France. Located at the threshold of the historical peripheries of Paris along the River Seine, it responds to its immediate context both in plan and elevation. In plan it follows the curvature of the road, whose form is dictated by the river. Its 2 main volumes encompass an inner courtyard with the north mass rising 9 stories and the southern portion rising to 11 stories. A paved plaza provides an element of separation from the adjacent Universite de Jussieu and the main volume of the building. Further enhancing the outdoors spaces is the paving that mimics the patterning of the façade. Recessed ground lights complement the light play that emanates from the interior of the structure at night. The interior spaces house numerous typologies including a restaurant, museum, library, offices, and auditorium. A multi storey glass atrium is wrapped with a steel staircase featuring exposed elevator lifts on the interior. The library and northern portion of the 4th floor feature increased floor to ceiling heights as well as incorporating numerous terraces and a mezzanine.

© Flickr / Demarmels

Typical of Jean Nouvel’s work is his attention to façade detailing, and this design is no exception. A main feature and innovative element of the IMA is the advanced responsive metallic on the south façade. Nouvel’s proposal for this system was well received for its originality and its reinforcement of an archetypal element of Arabic architecture – the . He drew inspiration from the traditional lattice work that has been used for centuries in the Middle East to protect the occupants from the sun and provide privacy. The system incorporates several hundred light sensitive diaphragms that regulate the amount of light that is allowed to enter the building. During the various phases of the lens, a shifting geometric pattern is formed and showcased as both light and void. Squares, circles, and octagonal shapes are produced in a fluid motion as light is modulated in parallel. Interior spaces are dramatically modified, along with the exterior appearance. While these ocular devices create an incredible aesthetic, they are functional from an environmental controls standpoint as well. Solar gain is easily mitigated by closing or reducing the aperture sizes.

© Flickr / b00nj

Nouvel was able to synthesize traditional Arabic architectural elements into a modern design that is evocative of the architecture of the Middle East. His use of light as a building block and modifier of space creates a deeper sense of place and enhances the overall experience. It continues to serve as a great beacon and location for the interaction of Arab culture. As affirmation to the quality of the design, it won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1989, and the Equirre d’Argent for French architecture in 1987.

Architect: Jean Nouvel
Location: Paris, France
Project Year: 1987
Photographs: Wikimedia Commons user: Poudou99, Flickr user: b00nj, Demarmels, Laura Manning, Serge Melki,

Cite: Winstanley, Tim. "AD Classics: Institut du Monde Arabe / Jean Nouvel" 02 Oct 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed 30 May 2015. <>
  • Bálint Marosi

    Saw this building again this summer and after all the applauds I have to tell one big disappointment: though the text above is talking about double heights in the library, but instead I had experienced LOWERED heights on ALL the other floors…(2,20? 2,30?) It was just shocking that we could touch the ceiling everywhere (!), even in the entrance “hall” (main entrance is under the stairs!…), and it’s only the library and some other major parts that have “double ceiling” – hich means here only normal heights of maybe 4,5-5 meters.

  • Jaber Alqahtani

    Institut du Monde Arabe is considered one of the modern buildings in terms of architectural style, social and culture, and materials used. This building emulates the Islamic architecture and it reflects the architecture in Middle East styles, which used from the Old time to this time. Institut du Monde Arabe was designed in France in order to convey the Arabic culture of the Middle East to Europe and especially the France, in terms of thought and culture, religion and history. Jean Nouvel used the Islamic screens in his design to decorate the facade, but by using the modernism materials of architecture is different about what it was in the past, which they used the wood to make the screens.

  • steven fleming

    I took a group of students to visit this building in 2012. We were told the iris panels had stopped working a few months beforehand and were going to cost too much to fix. I was reminded of what Charles Jencks had once written, that it is not that Hi-Tech buildings have any more problems but that “people feel let down when, inevitably, some mechanisms fail”. Does anyone know if the panels are working again, or if they are on-track to be fixed?