Driving along the Riviera coastal road of Menton, you’ll see a shimmering white mirage on the edge of the sea suddenly swing into view. As you get closer to the port, the vision morphs into shape: a low-slung trapezoid building hugging the earth like a mythological creature—a mix of undulating and jagged lines of white concrete that play with light and shadow, set against a frequently flawless blue sky. Designed by French architect Rudy Ricciotti, the stunning new €12 million Musée Jean Cocteau-Collection Severin Wunderman was inspired by Cocteau’s 1946 film classic Beauty and the Beast.

“I work mostly from instinct,” says Ricciotti. “I wanted to evoke the dreaminess of Cocteau’s forms—the long wavy hair, the chandeliers, the tentacles, but I also tried to preserve a certain fluidity and transparency inside.” The spacious split-level interior houses an enormous collection—a donation made to Menton by the late, renowned American watchmaker Severin Wunderman that includes more than 1,800 works, some 990 of them by artist/writer/director Cocteau.

What is so surprising about the building, perhaps, is the way that poetry meets solidity. When Ricciotti talks about “transcending” his favorite building material—concrete—he isn’t only talking about an esthetic question, or the technical challenge of transforming cement into graceful curves. “I work with concrete because of its durability. I’m all for an architecture that creates jobs, territorializes, fixes a memory. Concrete is clean and it stays put. Plus, I love masons,” he adds with a smile.

And he’s dead serious—he speaks eloquently about his admiration for the artisans who build his buildings. At age 59, with his thick mane of dark graying hair, flashing eyes, effusive gestures, the pronounced accent of southern France and a predilection for floaty sleeveless muscle shirts and baggy pants, Ricciotti cuts a flamboyant and youthful figure. He is doggedly against all that he thinks is banal and ordinary, and he needs little encouragement to say why.

Sly humor, no doctrine

Frequently labeled by the French press as the “bad boy of architecture”, Ricciotti is known both for his originality and his provocative, eloquent tchatche—Marseille slang for glib or rapid-fire speech—laced with sly humor. Awarded France’s Grand Prix National d’Architecture in 2006, Ricciotti says he was pleased to have been selected, because—unlike the Pritzker Prize, he claims—it represents “an obsession and relentless service to architecture” in a body of work. “No dogma, no doctrine attached,” he declares. “You don’t have to fit into an international trend.”

Although he’s unquestionably unconventional and outspoken—sometimes in very plain terms—he’s also been awarded the Légion d’Honneur, the Order of Arts and Letters and the Order of National Merit. Along with Frank Gehry and Shigeru Ban, he’s on the editorial committee of the prestigious revue L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, and on the side, he runs his own small publishing company, Al Dante.

With the Musée Cocteau completed, Ricciotti has two other major projects that will be opening soon—one at the Louvre in Paris and the other a colossal cultural complex in Marseille, slated to open in time to coincide with the city’s turn as an annual European Cultural Capital in 2013.

Marseille is where we met for lunch, on the outdoor terrace at the Cercle des Nageurs, a 1920s multilevel club for sports champions and private members, built on the edge of a seaside cliff. “I’m here every Saturday,” Ricciotti says. “I swim a kilometer systematically, either in the indoor pool or the sea. That’s how I unwind.” Sitting in the warm, midday winter sun, dressed in his trademark casual attire—tee shirt, shorts and flip-flops—he holds forth on everything from his favorite poets to the current climate of cultural impoverishment.

Mediterranean mystery

Born in Algeria in 1952, Ricciotti says he has no recollections of North Africa, since his family moved to France when he was three. “I spent my childhood in the Camargue—the mosquitoes, the port, the crabs,” he says, with a sweeping gesture. “But I must be carrying a bit of that earlier memory inside me, because most of my friends in France are immigrants, Provençaux, Camarguais, or Pieds Noirs [French citizens who lived in colonial Algeria]…it’s almost the same thing.”

And of course, he adds, he feels a real tie with Marseille, “a city subjected to the pressure and terror of the color cobalt blue,” as he describes it, because it epitomizes France’s unique Mediterranean mix of cultures.

Which brings us to the subject of Ricciotti’s most ambitious work-in-progress, the MuCEM—Musée des Civilisations Europe Méditerranée. The huge, nearly four-acre complex devoted to Mediterranean art and culture is under construction at Marseille’s historic Fort Saint-Jean, a fortress built by Louis XIV to guard the entrance to the Old Port. The MuCEM will include a new multilevel museum and vast gallery space, an auditorium, a bookstore, and a panoramic terrace restaurant, all slated to open in December 2012. Built at the water’s edge, the building will have a facade “like concrete lace”, he says, or a “fishnet veil” and, as always with Ricciotti’s buildings, a certain transparency. But a giant glass window was out of the question, he explains, since it would hold no mystery.

The magic of words

Even earlier, in September, Ricciotti is bound to be in the limelight with the opening of the Louvre’s new underground pavilion devoted to the Arts of Islam, housing more than 15,000 works. They will be displayed in rotation under a spectacular floating glass and metal “veil” roof covering the Cour Visconti, one of the Louvre’s inner courtyards. Ricciotti teamed up with architect Mario Bellini for the project, and Ricciotti says that the “veil” roof was designed as a free-flowing, golden form that “talks to the sky”—something between a silk handkerchief drifting above the courtyard and a nod to Montesquieu’s epistolary novel, Lettres Persanes (Persian Letters).

When asked about his pet peeves, Ricciotti launches into a long explanation about how minimalism in architecture has become “pornographic”, and conceptual art “an empty trap”. “I’m not talking about American minimalist art, like Donald Judd, or Robert Ryman, who are superb,” he adds. “But these days, minimalism is the esthetic of cowardice, amnesia and laziness, for people who all dream of having the same chair in white polyester and molded plastic.”

“I read a lot of works by Blaise Pascal when I was young, and I was very influenced by him. I’ve always loved dialectics and the magic of words. Recently I read an article that said Steve Jobs was the ‘hero of the futile’—giving us a technology that led to cell phones and Internet games—and I have to agree. My heroes are still the great writers like Voltaire and Victor Hugo.”

By the same token, Ricciotti has little patience for political agendas, or for suffering fools gladly. “The other day, in a press conference for the Arts of Islam project, a journalist asked me rather aggressively how much I actually know about Islam to be involved in these projects. I told her that to build a psychiatric clinic, you don’t have to be a shrink, to build a hospital you don’t have to be a doctor, and to design a cemetery, you don’t necessarily have to be dead. She got up and left,” he says with a shrug.

“I can be corrupted when it comes to food, sex and money, but not culture,” he grins, pouring another glass of Bandol rosé. He gazes out at the sea and heaves a theatrical sigh. “My only arrogance is that I am intellectually incorruptible, and always will be.”

Originally published in the March 2012 issue of France Today

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