Galeries Lafayette – How to Embody the Franco-German Friendship

by Solene Mendras

After frequently walking past world famous buildings designed by Jean Nouvel such as the Arab World Institute or the recently opened Philharmonie in Paris, I started wondering if he had done any project in Berlin. It turns out that he did realize one and that I had walked already past many times and even entered it. After the reunification of Germany, Berlin had to be entirely rethought because of its dichotomous situation for about forty years. One of the districts that were voted to be redesigned was Friedrichstadt, evolving around the picturesque Gendarmenmarkt and crossed by the large avenue of Friedrichstrasse. That is along the latter that the construction of Nouvel’s Galeries Lafayette started in 1992. This was the first building to start the renewal of the famous avenue.

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The French architect Jean Nouvel is now considered one of the world famous starchitects. His international recognition started when he was selected for the realization of the Arab World Institute, which was completed and opened in 1987. Most of his buildings have been realized in France but some can also be found around the world such as the Torre Agbar in Barcelona or the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. In 2008, he was awarded the Pritzker Prize, which is considered by most as the highest achievement for architects, for his tremendous work on more than 200 projects. Shortly after the completion of the Arab World Institute, Nouvel was selected in an international competition for the Quartier 207 to realize the building that was soon to shelter the Galeries Lafayette on Friedrichstrasse in Berlin.

The Galeries Lafayette were officially opened in 1996 and finished to mark the real change that had been taken place in the relationship between Germany and France. With its big sister located on Boulevard Haussmann in Paris being one of the main symbols of the capital along with the Eiffel Tower and the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, it was thus not only an architectural occasion but also a historical event after so many decades of tensions between the two countries. But how was the whole structure conceived and what made this construction different from what was built at the time? The building is composed of twelve cylinders and cones of glass, giving a very specific look to it and making it stand out from the usual Berlin blocks found all around the city. This often referred to as ‘glass temple’ is axed inside around a gigantic glass cone resembling the world famous cupola of the main Galeries Lafayette in Paris.

Spread on four floors for a total of over 8000 squared meters, the shop offers a very varied selection of goods ranging from clothing to food including also books, restaurants and a spa. It is now also often used for events, mainly fashion shows. On the façade, a massive vegetal wall was realized by the artist Patrick Blanc to complement the refined look that was given by the architect.

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Ignoring the fact that I find the shop’s inside really badly disposed making its visit unpleasant, I would say that the ideas of Jean Nouvel to play with light and glass really works. There is a clear contrast between this building and the rest of the street. However, I do not think that the building particularly attracts attention as I walked past it. It is very easy not to notice it. The inside is not particularly impressive and has nothing of an architectural masterpiece. It is far from the splendor of the Galeries in Paris, which attracts millions of tourists each year.

I truly appreciate the curve of the building when looked from the opposite corner, as well as the reflection of the other buildings that it gives. Nevertheless, I think that it doesn’t look any different from many other office blocks when just looking at one side. To me, there is a lack of unity and a lack of creativity for the three superior levels. There was a vain attempt to rekindle the tedious and plain façade with a plant wall, which I found a lot too small compared to the size of the construction and lacking of originality as it is just a simple square not composed of varying plants. The cone really brings something special but it is to be deplored that the rest of the inside and the other floors lack of reminding and resounding elements in their conception.

To conclude, Jean Nouvel has brought interesting ideas to this realization such as the relation between light and the glass structure, the reversed mirror cone and the curve of the building’s corner. However I deplore the lack of creativity that can so often be found in other buildings realized by Nouvel. This missing ingenuity renders the building very common and similar to many others.

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