And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Paris to be born? Frank Gehry’s mad landmark for Louis Vuitton, of course, says Owen Pritchard. Photography by Iwan Baan
The Bois de Boulogne in the west of Paris is a public park twice the size of New York’s Central Park. The former richest man in France, Dior owner Marcel Boussac, had a house nearby, and became increasingly annoyed with the lions that lived in the park waking him each morning with their dawn roar. So, as you do when you are the richest man in France, he bought the part of the park where they lived and had the lions shipped off to the zoo. When the current richest man in France, Bernard Arnault, acquired Boussac’s companies, he also acquired the lionless park, and it was here that he chose to build the Fondation Louis Vuitton.
Arnaud called upon Frank Gehry in 2007 to design a new institution that would house the art collection his LVMH company had been acquiring over the past decade. The octogenarian architect has created an explosion of glass, concrete and glulam sitting among the dense woodland once famous for activities slightly more salacious than a teddy bears’ picnic. It is, despite the constant overexposure to Gehry’s work, quite startling.
The exterior glass ‘sails’ sweep, overlap and pull away from each other, forcing the eye to skip across the facade. Thrusting up through these curved planes are the ‘icebergs’ - solid twisted lumps that house the circulation spaces and galleries. There are more than 19,000 individual fibre-reinforced concrete panels covering these parts of the building. The sail and iceberg analogy is a little confused maybe - common sense would dictate that the iceberg is translucent and the sails are solid. But Gehry is an architect, not a linguist, and to dwell on such matters would detract from just how gloriously deranged this project is. The stretching of the landscape reflected in the textured glass and the reflections of the light across the hyperactive geometries demand attention.
You enter on the ground floor between the auditorium and the galleries. Sails soar above as visitors pass through some hefty revolving doors into the single most mundane moment in the building: the entrance lobby. With its obligatory bookshop and café, it is a charmless space - all sense of the scale and wilful shape-making disappears in this gloomy space.
To the right you can descend into a Corian-clad auditorium, decorated with huge works by Ellsworth Kelly. His bold panels and technicolour backdrop bring the severity of the space to life. It can comfortably hold 300 guests, and will be inaugurated with a concert by pianist Lang Lang, swiftly followed by a gig by Kraftwerk. The glazing that flanks the stage opens out on to the grotto with a mesmerising fountain beyond - a vast set of steps that syncopated waves lazily flop down. It’s all a bit Zen, but feels, to continue Gehry’s nautical analogy, as if you are at the bow of the building.
At this basement level there are offices and service spaces, tucked away out of sight. Outside is the grotto which provides a colonnade currently occupied by a work by Olafur Eliasson. The building climbs high above, but this space seems bereft of purpose, a leftover space created by the need to get light into the basement. Besides that, who - apart from Santa Claus and Hugh Hefner - has ever found a practical use for a grotto?
The second route to the galleries is far more interesting, it is the start of the journey down Gehry’s rabbit hole. It’s here that the art is found in generous white cube galleries that sometimes unexpectedly soar up to heights of 70m. Gehry has close associations with many modern artists - occasionally he forgets he is an architect and produces work such as his ‘fish’ in Barcelona - but he has provided spaces of varying intensity, from the expansive to the intimate. Crucially, the walls are parallel to a height of around 3m before they wobble upwards diffusing the light and creating different moods.
On the first floor is an exhibition about the project’s design and conception. The historical context of the park is revealed in maps and etchings and then the design process of the building is laid bare. On show are models that explore the arrangement of the programme, and there is a sense of the rapid and carefree days of architecture school - it’s all glue gun and wooden blocks. There are also sketches and the refinement of the design of the glass sails, concluding with 1:1 mock-ups. The rigour behind the design is abundantly clear, although the initial concept remains elusive.
It’s outside the galleries on the route to the roof terraces where Gehry excels. On stairwells contained within the icebergs, a peek over the handrail shows the structure distorting and bulging. Snaking between the spaces for art are corridors framing the bafflingly complex structure that holds the glass sails off the ground. A window frames a huge nodal junction with the backdrop of the park and La Defense on the horizon. Arriving up on the stepped roof terraces, you can get up close and personal with the structure. The glulam beams arc above your head, supporting the massive expanses of glass. The layering of the views between the fusion of steel, glass and wood with the Paris skyline beyond makes for a special indoor park, pretty much devoid of art.
But it is also here that the sense of quality is compromised. Here you can see that no effort has been made to try and align the joints on the grey pre‑cast concrete panelling, and the Pierre De Rocherons floor slabs are shoddily laid traps for unsuspecting high-heeled victims. But then this isn’t a building to be inspected closely; it’s an image and statement.
Gehry and Paris have history. In the 1960s he worked with Andre Remondet in the city, and made contact with Ivan Jankovic and Robert Auzelle. He returned to the city in the 90s to build the American Centre, but it wasn’t a happy solo debut. The institution closed within four years. Later it was gutted and turned into the Cinémathèque Française. When he started discussions with Arnaud about the project, there were a number of factors that preyed on the architect’s mind.
‘I was freaked,’ he says. ‘I studied enough French literature to know Proust must have been here. When I lived here in 1960 I brought my girls here, and one of them is no longer here [Gehry’s daughter Leslie died in 2008]. It is touching for me to be here. She was still alive when I started this. The Bois de Boulogne is a holy place, you can’t just plonk something in it.’
The foundation will, over its 55-year tenure and backed by Arnaud’s wealth, hopefully spark a renewed Parisian interest in flamboyant works. Meanwhile, Gehry’s return to the city is being marked with a major retrospective at the Pompidou, which will then travel to LA. Here you can see the obsessive investigations into programme that characterise the architect’s early work; then the Gehry Residence in 1978 and the Edgware development in 1984 where the obsession with deconstruction becomes apparent; and on to his greatest hits - Bilbao, Disney, New York. On show is the Novartis campus in Basel, completed in 2009. It is the foundation’s lumpier, clumsier cousin. In Paris, the glazed forms have been refined and pulled apart for a more ostentatious result.
The Fondation Louis Vuitton is the type of building Gehry has been repeatedly criticised for. It’s a bling edifice for a wealthy brand, with bags of swagger; a nonsensical sculptural building that will be loved and loathed in equal measure - it’s either too vulgar, or not enough. It should be expected that an architect famous for sculptural flamboyancy would produce something so theatrical for the richest man in France and the philanthropic arm of his trashy luggage and fashion company. It’s a return to form in a city with which the architect has a troubled, and personal relationship. Oscar Wilde once wrote that ‘when good Americans die, they go to Paris.’ In 1998 this was true, but in 2014 Frank Gehry is having a Lazarus moment. We won’t get too many more of these.