Star architect and Guthrie Theater designer Jean Nouvel flared into a supernova Sunday, winning his field's highest award, the Pritzker Prize.

The honor, comparable to a Nobel Prize, came in no small part from his work on the blue-clad complex in Minneapolis' mill district, Nouvel's first U.S. project.

The six-member jury discussed the Guthrie design "at great length," said juror Victoria Newhouse.

"The building is theater in itself -- exciting, contextual and relates well to the city and to the [Mississippi] river," she said.

Reached by phone at his Paris office, Nouvel declined to rank it or any of his other projects, but said the Guthrie was a "wonderful experience" and a "great adventure."

"I cannot imagine this building in Paris or in New York City," he said. "It would be ridiculous. It is completely linked to the specifics of the program, the situation, the dialogue with existing buildings and the river. And it is for me great memories."

The Guthrie is now the fifth Minneapolis building designed by a Pritzker winner. Others are Philip Johnson's 1974 IDS Tower, Kenzo Tange's 1974 addition to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Frank Gehry's 1993 Weisman Art Museum and Jacques Herzog's and Pierre de Meuron's 2005 addition to Walker Art Center.

Imaginative problem solving

Awarded for lifetime achievement, the Pritzker includes a $100,000 cash grant from the Hyatt Foundation established by the Pritzker family of Chicago, which owns the Hyatt hotel chain.

The jury of architectural practitioners, historians and writers cited the French-born Nouvel for a 35-year career distinguished by "persistence, imagination, exuberance and ... creative experimentation."

"We all agreed that he is one of the most daring architects in practice today," said Newhouse, a New York-based architectural historian. "He never takes the safe route; he is always pushing the envelope."

Tom Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota College of Design, concurred. He sees the Guthrie as the "premier new project of the past several years" in the Twin Cities.

Finished in 2006, the $125 million, nine-story complex has a dramatic open-air balcony -- the "endless bridge" -- overlooking the Mississippi. Its towers and curvaceous profile echo and update the shape of historic flour mills nearby.

Nouvel "quite literally thinks outside the box," Fisher said. "In the case of the Guthrie, he put the ramp/bridge outside the building, the scenery shop atop the parking garage across the street, and stacked the theaters up in the air. Those are indications of the way he thinks; he comes up with surprising, innovative solutions to common problems."

Guthrie director Joe Dowling praised Nouvel's design for its innovative mix of artistic and public space.

"Nouvel created a place where we can do great plays that also has a great social aspect to it," he said.

International career

Nouvel has designed more than 200 buildings throughout the world, including courthouses, cultural centers, exposition halls, office and condo towers from Japan to Kuwait, Russia, Brazil and Iceland. The highest concentration is in France, particularly Paris, which is home to the Arab World Institute (1987), the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art (1994) and the controversial Branly Museum (2006), widely criticized as excessively dramatic and condescending to its ethnographic content.

Though Nouvel generally wears black and has a penchant for dark interiors -- as evidenced at the Guthrie -- Newhouse said that most of his buildings "are very transparent and flooded with light." Among his innovations are mirrored windows in a Barcelona high-rise and lens-windows that automatically respond to light at the Arab World Institute.

Asked if he had any regrets about his work in Minneapolis, Nouvel said, "What I regret is that you don't have an opera house to build now. If you have need of an opera house, you telephone me."

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431