Nouvel’s Law Courts or: the Re-writing of Modernity Frustrated: we see more than what is represented


One concept in the contemporary architectural field—function—still enshrines all architectural work in such a way as to legitimize form by asserting that: “…this is neither gratuitous (formal) nor fortuitous (decorative)”, without seeing all the difficulties that this type of sentence gives rise to.1 Out of habit, people go on justifying an architecture by way of these watchwords and slogans. The function and the rational discourse which underpin it have their laws, whose validity is no longer disputed either by the avant-gardes, who no longer give it any consideration, while it continues to busy itself beneath their ideas, or by the valiant champions of a modernism and its international style which its inventors have been forever causing to waver. Like Mies Van Der Rohe, some decades earlier, the French architect Jean Nouvel places architecture beyond functionalism by writing about a modernity “freed from the need and bondage of [functional] necessity”2. While Mies’s architecture posits the challenges of the boundary between outside and inside as decisive in the very essence of architecture3, Nouvel’s Law Courts in Nantes clearly posit another dimension to this boundary: that of a representation of power which an architecture symbolizes (symbolic function). Its will4 stretches the spatial form to give an effective semantic readability: the court building becomes the medium between a power (which communicates) and its subjects (who receive the information) in its intent to re-write modernity.
Nouvel conscientiously strives to respond to the functional demands of both orders. Physical uses—those functional end purposes—are the subject of a rigorous and trivial compatibility with regard to the programme, but their responses are not enough to describe the complexity of the spatial arrangements at work. To understand this, once the pitfall of an exclusively functional response has been sidestepped, the court building puts usefulness on trial in a chord other than that of needs—the chord of sense.

In the face of communicational action, we are asked to think about the useful5: re-writing modernity is to be sparing with performative communication, where the codes are immediately operative in the system that encompasses them with an unlimited amount of information. We are indeed facing the postmodern conditions of language which Lyotard did his utmost to define.6 In the age of the megalopolis, all there is is procedures of transparencies where there are no longer any secrets, deemed unacceptable by public opinion and the complex formed by the media and politics. These new conditions work inside the capitalist system which imposes no end purpose other than its own spread, endlessly pushing back its own boundaries by decoding all the ebb and flow of human activity. And the state apparatus focuses on inventing new codes (urbanism, civil…) for the wild and disorganized flows of the capitalist corpus7 (suburban extensions and public works, informal zonings and laws about travellers…). For the organ of justice, the law courts must be the physical inscription of watchwords and codes capable of abrogating, regulating, deciding and amnestying…Nouvel focuses on increasing the readability of spatial codes in order to bolster the symbolism of power: impressive scale, massive frontality, a framework which gives structures as much to architecture as to thought. We rediscover this concern with semantic effectiveness inherent in the exponential growth of new methods of information communication and storage in areas as removed from the world of construction as the film industry: during the making of the film Alien 4, the French director Jeunet admits that he was artistically challenged by the producers to meet the requirements of Hollywood canons governing the readability of visual and narrative codes.
“An aesthetics of accuracy and precision”: the architect’s voice was clear and understood, so that the codes would be as efficient as possible, i.e., capable of  being recognized as easily as possible and in a unilateral way by as many people as possible. It is at the price of this linguistic pragmatics that an aesthetics of the beautiful (compatibility between truth and form, the universal consensus of proper reception) has developed, so that the universality of the law echoes with all the subjectivities located in all the pores of the social corpus. To up the effectiveness of his signifying sequences, Nouvel has deliberately elected to work with a square framework which he has duplicated in many magnitudes, giving a structural and proportioned order to all the elements of the architectonic sequence, ranging from the most monumental scale to the most ornamental scale of detail. We are in the presence of an extensive8 multiplicity of a figure providing structure: the grid.

The abstraction of the law and its transcendent nature are expressed in the economy of a surface entirely consumed by a black cladding which extends institutional architecture a little further. A sophisticated presentation of a relentless justice illuminates civil chaos and all things disorganized. In the realm of reason, the conjugation of a framework, or grid, to infinite extensions and a black cladding which “vitrifies” (the architect’s oral intent) the slightest parcel of matter, forms a tremendously effective symbolic sequence: the usual codes of power are taken to the limit of their symbolic loads. Everything is said, the demonstration is sufficient unto itself, the aesthetics magnifies the law, and the whole matter seems buttoned up. But it just so happens that, in reaching this outcome, this court building has more to say. We see more than what is represented therein. This surfeit of meaning expressed by these inexorable spatial arrangements tosses us back into more troubled waters where the sense and representation of a power are no longer as effective and as sure of their effects, letting loose flows of signifiers and architectural expressions beyond the rational limit of the discourse and of the right form corroborating it.

Faced with the manifestation of this majestic frontalness, a feeling looms up, differing from the beautiful which should have gone hand-in-hand with the experience of this architecture like a free arbiter and a peaceful understanding between reason and imagination. This extensive multiplicity of magnitudes inundating vast spaces, and its divisibility right to the two poles of infinity brings into play another feeling. This beautiful logical machine is ambivalent and refers us towards something other than a reason which offers structure to the social corpus in its entirety, by lending the beautiful the value of truth. This court building shows more than in its initial public intent. The load of meaning and of functional laws complied with is no longer enough to de-limit form (space). By signifying the absolute nature of magnitude ad infinitum in an immense space, the building opens onto another aesthetic: that of the sublime. In thinking it is reaching the beautiful, the sublime surges violently forth. Borrowing Kant’s idea, abstraction alone can evoke the power of the absolute nature of magnitude, only a presentation which presents nothing manages to represent the extendable infinite. Kenneth Frampton sees in the suspended black metal structure of Mies Van Der Rohe’s new national gallery  in Berlin the expression of a “sublimeness” which the American avant-gardes of painting, and Ad Reinhardt in particular, were forever bringing to their consciousness. Lyotard emphasizes the preponderant theoretical and artistic character of Barnett Newman who, in a decisive way, was the receptacle of this vanishing line of art towards the sublime.9
Echoing the modernity of the architect of Aix-la-Chapelle, Nouvel puts on trial the vertical and horizontal tectonic limits by vitrifying it with this disconcerting black cladding (the solemn black of the duty of obligation imposed by laws and approved by justice). The German wanted to organize chaos by achieving order through his attentiveness to arranging suspensions in silence: “Less is more” was his invariable slogan, and suspensions were the state of matter which perhaps expressed this with the greatest veracity. Nouvel steers his thinking in another direction: he is keen to exhaust a geometry by an extension of proportions ad infinitum: the oriental experience of the modern Arab institute (in Paris)  undoubtedly blazed new experimental trails for the architect. Here, more than in any other court building, the power of justice is expressed in the hegemony of the spatial structure, and suspends the citizen on the judgement of universal law. Tireless and unwavering. But in an intense way blocks of sensations quiver and ricochet on the power of the state, and pour out over subjectivities. The emphasis on the pure abstract and formal figure (the square taken as a subdivision of the grid-structure) and the total vitrification of the dark cladding nurture the feeling that something in suspense is about to occur. Burke informs us about this mechanics of the sublime which is the conjunction of a terror experienced in the face of the immensity of the thing, in the face of nothingness and the darkness where nothing exists and from where nothing can come, followed—here and now—by a form of delight with the event which pierces the darkness and the nothingness. Whence the pleasure, that of the relief felt when the event has managed to come about in the split second of its upsurge (the flash)10. The dark cladding cuts out light, we expect a new luminous emanation which will surge up, and with it a block of sensations. And in the dark place, structured right to the emphasis of the courts, a suspension is felt even in the flash of a new beam, a new inspiration.
This dark cladding encompassing squares of all sizes which are hierarchically organized in accordance with a strict order of proportions (mathematical formalism) works wonders with reason. But once again, everything seems to be just a deceptive appearance, because the sensations become more intense when the eye alights on these extensive and all-encompassing frameworks and grids. Precisely where Mies’s minimalism found an echoing sublimeness, the Frenchman’s systems display the new: a strange impression of being peopled fuels eye and fingers. A population of thousands of compliant “small squares” posing as good neighbours to one another challenges our footsteps, invades the walls and covers the ceilings; a huge ornamental spatial organization which conjures up oriental arabesques11 and structures illustrating modernity and its contemporary re-writing.

This ‘populace’ remains invisible, and unreadable, because the black cladding makes it uncountable. It is no longer a space that envelops us and delimits the field of law and perception, but the place of a contamination of clad and undifferentiated figures in the uniform chromatic mass. More than an unlimited form, an imperceptible future development  singles this place out from any other space no matter how complex it may be  in its geometry (the architectural tendencies of an avant-garde arena): we are surrounded by a presence of silent matter, “petrified” by the architect’s avowal, but seemingly uncertain and oscillated, resulting from an albeit cold and abstract aura.
The grid-structures, seeing themselves filled with “small squares” with the aim of increasing the signifier and the communicational action (we are certainly dealing with a noteworthy example of linguistic performativeness undergoing a spatial expression), become grid-standards in this perceptible oscillation12. The grid or framework no longer structures a sense and no longer orders a totality, it assigns a perimeter, a boundary, it circumscribes a region of individuals (the squares) which are themselves in proportion with the scale of the grid or framework which delimits them. We are no longer in the presence of extensive multiplicities (where the ratio to the number is proportionate in accordance with a molar system), but in the presence of intensive multiplicities, topological in nature, where we no longer observe anything other than densities differing from the proximities of other masses of things.13 The calibrated structure tends to control a population taken to its highest density. The court building confronts us with its thousand and one populations like the much dreaded insurrection of those mobs14 which line the walls to the point where reason is asphyxiated. The work goes beyond the horizon of modern architecture and its contemporary re-writing, and lets blocks of new sensations experience freedom.15 While architecture was meant to symbolize a transcendent power , we remember the history of an undefined  populace circumscribed in regions (the standard-grids) with intensive scales (the multiplicities), announcing an underground world where the work is no longer the spatial expression of a mathematical order prior to the world stretched by a transcendent teleology16 recognized by the state.

The architect came up with a magnificent work for the Arab world by representing it as an equilibrium between technological modernity and Islamic lines of thought (ornamental arrangement). But at the time, the architectonic system was merely a celebration—albeit a complex one—of Islam and its incorporation within the contemporary history of the world. There was no slippage of thought and no struggle with insubordination, the silent thing which disconcerts symbol and power alike. The whole strength and force of this institutional architecture resides in this excess, this appetite for signifying, even to excess. The law courts with their spatial arrangements petrified in their masses and volumes by a cladding which renders them material to the point of sublimeness  dismantles the rational discourse and its intentions to signify. They over-impose it by their vibratory presence: matter finally gets the better of imperial form and the event of the word. From an architecture which was held in place by a signifier, everything has fled through excess of giving or Dionysiac inebriation17: meaning has toppled over into the event and pure sensations. The conscious modes of language and its pragmatic conditions are invaded by unconscious systems of desires; it is the history of peoples which is inscribed on the actual skin of the institution. Behind the subject which masters  the representations and the conscious realms of language, we can make out the inebriateness of this architectural writing, the shift of signifiers which are breaking up in order to take away the meaning of an institution and give full critical force (political and artistic) to the work. Under the individuation of a key subject of reason there is a procession of flows of desires wanting for nothing and shedding all intentions. This dismissal of the rational subject frees desires which make a populace delirious by plunging us into the thick of mobs; twofold reading of an unambiguous reality whose state-related representation of force has never vacillated quite so much between light and darkness, thanks to an architecture. The law courts see their architectural codes being deterritorialized18: the symbolic signifiers become liquefied before the power of affects by the transformation of the grid-structure into a standard-grid, by the uncladding of the form which ends up by being just the receptacle of a matter that vibrates (the cladding surrounding the innumerable people).
Behind reason and its functional systems (organizational and semantic) which the state proclaims and imposes, the imperceptible future development—of a formal architecture (structure and mathematics) fleeing towards a sublime architecture (population and matter)—brings in a radical liberation of affects: a breath of air between nothingness (the deprivation inflicted by the cladding and its procedural methods) and the liberation from what happens (event and sentence).

This austere place reveals to us behind its frontalness an agitation which few contemporary architectures show us: sublime black cladding of a framework taken ad infinitum and filled to a point of paroxysm. By fabricating the representation of a power and a universal abstraction which have no face, and this in a most serious manner (upping the performances of the representational codes of a power echoing the pragmatic conditions of language which have an effect on all communicational connections), Jean Nouvel’s Law Courts offer an opportunity to wield a libidinal machine which upturns the paradigms of architectural creation subject to the ordeal of modernity, and transports the institutional arena off towards rational areas which the state is trying to ward off with all its might. Schizo-architecture.


Translated by Simon Pleasance & Fronza Woods


1  Nietzsche, Deleuze and Guattari all overlap their ideas about the fact that an organ is not formed in the same way as it functions, and that an apparent causality cannot contain the absence of the useful in the natural order.

2  Francesco Dal Co, La culture de Mies considérée à traversses notes et lectures, p78, in the collective book Mies Van Der Rohe, sa carrière, son héritage et ses disciples, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1986

3  Hubert Damish, La plus petite différence, p 14, in the collective book Mies Van Der Rohe, sa carrière, son héritage et ses disciples, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1986: the German pavilion built for the 1929 Barcelona World Fair functioned like a  paradigm of  modernity by exploring the materiality of boundaries in a very radical way. The hole of the window is done away with, along with its function. What is involved here is an unmatched decipherment of space.

4  Jacques Derrida, L’écriture et la différence, Le Seuil, coll Essais, 1967, p 24: will is the stuff of freedom and duty when desire is an economy of affects.

5 Jean-François Lyotard, L’inhumain, Ed Galilée, 1988.

6 Jean-François Lyotard, la condition post-moderne, Minuit, Coll Critiques, 1979.

7  Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, L’anti-Oedipe, Minuit, Coll Critiques, 1972: pp 261- 262, pp 274- 276. In a similar order of ideas, Lyotard denounces a metaphysics of development which is not attracted by an emancipation of reason and the body. Development spreads in accordance with its own dynamic without any necessity other than cosmological chance in a field of pure immanence . (L’inhumain, Galilée).

8  Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Mille plateaux, Minuit, Coll Critiques, 1980: p 305

9  Jean-François Lyotard, L’inhumain, Galiléé, 1988: p101: Barnett Newman wrote the essay: “The Sublime is Now”. 

10   Jean-François Lyotard, L’inhumain, Galiléé, 1988: pp 110-111 

11 Georges Steiner, Grammaires de la création, Gallimard, nrf, Essais, 2001, p88: Islam was decisive in the flow of knowledge towards the Hellenic and later its rise exercised huge creative pressures on mediaeval Christianity.

12 Op Art describes the oscillation of an entire populace of simple objects ( like coloured surfaces ) with imperceptible differences (like the surfaces of surfaces) and indefinitely varying contiguities.

13 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Mille plateaux, Minuit, Coll Critiques, 1980: pp 292- 296

14 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Mille plateaux, Minuit, Coll Critiques,1980: the molecular character of number and quantity.

15 Jean-François Lyotard, La condition post-moderne, Minuit, Coll Critiques,1979: the postmodern condition of language is effective in very heterogeneous fields of human activity from economics to biology, and from marketing to architecture.

16 Georges Steiner, Grammaires de la création, Gallimard, nrf, Essais, 2001, pp75-78

17 Nietzsche, La naissance de la tragédie,  Folio, Coll Essais, 1977

18 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, L’anti-oedipe, Minuit,Coll Critiques, 1972: the deterritorialization of codes describes the inaptness of a flow (of thought, things, phenomena...) when it comes to recognizing its own codes which organize it within a system (capitalist, state-run, religious, cultural...).

19 The whole is erased behind the intensive multiplicities which will never grant their presence in an addition expressing one.