Nouvel, 62, is known for a body of work that lives up to his name, a variant of the French word for "new."
His 1987 Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris uses a rich arabesque surface to reveal a Moorish compound behind its stark modernist facade.
The roof of his 2000 Lucerne Cultural and Conference Center extends far beyond the building, to the lake of the Swiss city, reflecting the movement of light on the water.
The windows of his darkly rectangular Guthrie Theater, which opened in 2006 on the Mississippi in Minneapolis, strategically frame the vintage industrial signs and soft silo curves of the architecture around it -- incorporating elements of classic Americana.
Nouvel says that for him each commission is a unique "adventure."
"For Nouvel, there is no architectural 'style' a priori," Pritzker jury Chairman Peter Palumbo said in a statement, quoting from the Pritzker citation. "Rather, a context, interpreted in the broadest sense to include culture, location, program and client, provokes him to develop a different strategy for each project."
Nouvel, reached by phone and e-mail in Paris, said he was "honored and surprised."
He said he hoped the prize would give momentum to his future proposals, which include a slender $400-million, 45-story Century City residential monolith that some have compared to the Le Corbusier-led design of the United Nations headquarters in New York.
"This is important," Nouvel said in heavily Gallic-flavored English. "This can strengthen confidence in your proposals. It is the kind of prize that can help you to propose the best building."
Nouvel said he was surprised because he believed he was a stronger contender in previous years. "I did not think this was my year," he said.
He felt honored "because among the club of Pritzker laureates are so many friends and architects who I admire: Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, Glenn Murcutt and Herzog & de Meuron -- obviously I cannot name them all."
"I take this prize as a strong incentive to continue increasingly demanding and ambitious work," he said.
The prize, established in 1979 by the Pritzker family of the Hyatt hotel chain, carries a $100,000 grant from the Chicago-based Hyatt Foundation. Nouvel will receive the bronze medallion June 2 at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Thomas J. Pritzker, chairman of the Hyatt Foundation, noted that the jury's citation acknowledged the "persistence, imagination, exuberance and above all the insatiable urge for creative experimentation" of Nouvel's work.
The citation says Nouvel "has pushed architecture's discourse and praxis to new limits. His inquisitive and agile mind propels him to take risks in each of his projects, which, regardless of varying degrees of success, have greatly expanded the vocabulary of contemporary architecture."
"For me, every building is an adventure," Nouvel said. "Every project is an adventure. I research every project. I talk to a lot of people. Every building has a relationship to the climate, to the wind, to the colors of the buildings around it. I arrive at a concept with all the parameters in place. When I have all of these constraints, I begin. Without constraints, architecture does not exist. You are a sculptor."
Designed for the setting
Nouvel said he is determined to resist what he views as the homogenization of world urbanism.