By Robert Such. Published in Blueprint.

Paris has many presidential ‘grand projets’ – including the Musée d’Orsay, the Opéra Bastille and the arch at La Défense – and now work has begun on a new one. President Jacques Chirac’s ‘grand projet’ is also the first museum of the 21st century to be commissioned for Paris and will be designed by top French architect Jean Nouvel. The Musée des Arts et Civilisations du quai Branly, or Musée des Arts Premiers (Museum of the Early Arts) will become an important landmark to fill a vacant 2.5 hectare site near the Eiffel Tower, which is just a short walk away.

Not only did he carry off the Paris prize, but Nouvel has also won the chance to build the extension to the Reina Sophia contemporary art museum in Madrid.

Nouvel’s design for Madrid fought off some top-class talent. Dominique Perrault, Juan Navarro and Zaha Hadid were among those who put forward plans for the triangular plot.

He described the work as a natural and gentle intervention in the shadow of the museum itself. It will consist of a pierced, floating ‘wing’ above a series of terraces and three pavilions for galleries, a library, an auditorium, a restaurant and offices. ‘‘I chose to build a small quartier beneath the wing,” explained Nouvel. “Each represents a different function, so creating a place that is both open and closed.’’

Nouvel’s dream for the French capital, however, focuses on the fact that he feels the museum should be “a place of welcome, respect and expression of civilisation’’.

Under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and Communication and the Ministry of Education, Research and Technology, the ethnology laboratory of the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind) and the National Museum of African and Oceanic Arts will merge into a collection of 270,000 artefacts on a prime tourist spot near to the Eiffel Tower, gouging a 168 million-euro hole (around £106 million/$164 million) in the state purse in the process and should finally be completed in 2004.

In the new museum, artefacts from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas will be exhibited throughout four levels. The central section, which is perched on piles with a sinuous ramp leading up from the garden, will hold the inevitable rooftop restaurant. Works in the bookend-type blocks at the western and eastern ends, as well the sub-level reserves department, will all be on display.

A screen-printed glass wall will run parallel to the Seine and the busy, bank-side expressway. It is a curved and longer version than the one at the Fondation Cartier on boulevard Raspail and will link up the Haussmann-type frontages on either side. It will also separate the noisy road from a quiet area planted with Magnolias, Oaks, Rose trees and other greenery that will change with the rhythm of the seasons. Nouvel is collaborating with well-known landscape gardener Gilles Clément on the park. Sculptures in the shadows will also share a role in the formation of the 40 m thick vegetal façade.

Randomly arranged pilotis of various thicknesses and materials will blend so closely with the tree trunks that the terrain will appear to be empty. Nouvel imagines that the wooden grille and sunshades, all fitted with photoelectric cells, will be just distinguishable through the foliage, thus evoking a sense of mystery.

‘‘The garden is an opportunity for drama and has an architecturally fundamental role,” said Nouvel. “The idea was to consider that the museum and garden were inseparable. The objects have a special force. They’re not merely works made to be put in a museum or to be looked at, and are not aesthetic or decorative.

“Most of these objects are sacred in the true sense of the word and are intimately tied to people’s beliefs, their gods and their ancestors,” he added. “There are bones and objects that still have meaning for the living.’’

At night, small bouquets of LEDs, which will sprout from the tops of long thin rods, will glow in the shrubbery. Designed by the artist Yann Kersalé, they will resemble outsized electric snowdrops. As the temperature drops, their white light will turn bluish. As the temperature rises, they will become redder. Whatever the temperature, they will cast a shifting glow on the underside of what Nouvel terms the main ‘‘primitive shelter’’ or tree house.

Another development is that while he used glass in the Cartier building to reflect the changing images of the outside world, this time he wishes to use large, untinted panes to create an invisible façade.

‘‘I don’t want anyone who is inside to be aware of the limit between the outside and the inside. While there is also superposition and succession…it’s not a confused, mixed-up modern presentation of these objects,” Nouvel explains. “It should provide one which corresponds with our epoch. Visitors will find computers, images, interactivity…but not in conflict with the works.’’

Of the 14 high-profile finalists — which included Peter Eisenman and Felice Fanuele, Renzo Piano, and Foster and Partners — in the Musée du quai Branly competition, the most interesting were MVRDV/Périphériques. They were concerned with the power of the media, and according to Nouvel, theirs was a daring vision. The Franco-Dutch scheme was composed of 12 towers enclosed by a skin, or information-based hoarding. ‘‘Everything is carried by the message and the image, and the objects are only objects — just a pretext to hold a great debate, which is based on the image and conditions of these countries that will be on show,’’ said Nouvel.

‘‘My projects are the limit of my imagination,” he said. “The problem for an architect is to go to the limit of feasibility, to touch it, but not to go over the edge, otherwise the project is finished. One must be sure that it can be built.” Nouvel’s unrealised Tour sans Fins (Endless Tower) for La Défense and his winning plan for the Stade de France that never saw the French side lift the World Cup testify to architecture’s uncertainty. Now, however, Nouvel has another two chances to test both his limits and to make history.