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View from Paris - Gehry mania and the most preposterous handbag in France

As his Louis Vuitton branded bauble plops into the Bois, Andrew Ayers finds Gehry mania gripping the French capital

While Ebola was ravaging West Africa, Gehry fever hit Paris this autumn. The first to succumb were the fashionistas, after Louis Vuitton launched its new capsule collection of canvas bags, one of which was designed by Gehry — ‘an orthogonal volume caught in the movement of a crashing wave so that not a single straight line is left’, as Vuitton’s executive vice-president helpfully explained to fashion glossy Numéro.

The next to catch the malady were the intellectual types that frequent the Centre Pompidou, which launched a major Gehry retrospective (the first in Europe, which the AR will review in December) at the beginning of October. By the end of the month, it was almost the whole country that had been infected, following the official launch of the spanking-new, multi-million-euro Fondation Louis Vuitton, whose glass sails now billow above the verdant swell of the Bois de Boulogne.

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Frank Gehry’s talent for the pointlessly overengineered finds its ultimate expression in a wonky handbag for Louis Vuitton, part of a range designed by ‘iconoclasts’ including Karl Lagerfeld and Cindy Sherman, who ought to know better

The foundation’s opening lasted a whole week, the biggest of the bigwigs getting first dibs (President Hollande, Mayor Hidalgo, Karl Lagerfeld, Anna Wintour), while over the days that followed the invitees became progressively less important until, at the weekend, the hoi polloi was finally allowed in for a three-day inaugural free-for-all (the foundation began charging a rather steep €14 entry fee as of 27 October). Media praise has been nigh-on unanimous, although no one was as gushing as the President of the Republic himself, who spoke of ‘a cloud of culture that has appeared in the Parisian sky’, a ‘palace of crystal’ that is ‘a miracle of intelligence, creativity and technology’, a ‘cathedral of light’. Has any foreign architect ever been so fêted on Gallic shores? Bernini’s design for the Louvre was unceremoniously dropped after his return to Italy, while I.M. Pei was famously reduced to tears by the French press when his pyramid plans were unveiled…

Nobody knows exactly how much Paris’s newest art museum has cost, with estimates ranging between €100 and €500 million. When pressed, the staff at Louis Vuitton reply that the foundation is a gift to the people of Paris, and that it wouldn’t do to divulge the price of a present (constructed on land belonging to the city, the building will be become municipal property in 50 years’ time). But we do know that the man behind it all, Bernard Arnault, self-made head of luxury-goods group LVMH, is France’s richest, with a personal fortune estimated at €32.6 billion. (France’s richest person is a woman, Liliane Bettencourt, the L’Oréal heir.) And it is clear that the foundation is another salvo in Arnault’s long-running battle with François Pinault (France’s third richest person, also self-made), whose fabled collection of contemporary art is now housed in Venice’s Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana (converted by Tadao Ando). We also know that local residents tried to stop the Fondation Louis Vuitton’s construction, that it took a special act of parliament to get it built, and that officially it is considered a two-storey structure, in line with the local planning code for its site. Where even presidents have failed — François Mitterrand’s final grand projet, an international conference centre, was scuppered due to neighbourhood hostility — Arnault has prevailed.

A Fabergé egg on steroids, Arnault’s new bauble not only confirms his clout but also helps to redeem the reputation of a man caught out last year applying for Belgian nationality, a move probably intended to reduce his tax bill (although he vehemently denies this, and dropped his application after the headlines hit the newsstands). And, as a French acquaintance who moves in official cultural circles suggested to me, it is probably also intended to redeem the image of Paris itself, by countering, at least in the minds of the mandarins that waived it through, the city’s image as a ville-musée. ‘Look how cool and trendy we can be when we want to’, is apparently the message, although no one seems to see the irony in building yet another museum in museum-city, moreover one designed by an architect who has been thoroughly — if idiosyncratically — mainstream since the 90s.

On top of it all, everyone seems to have forgotten that Paris already has a Gehry, which this year celebrates its 20th birthday: the former American Centre (now Cinémathèque Française) in the 12th arrondissement. If it is unloved and unremembered, it is because on that occasion Gehry was forced to abide by the planning regulations, which condemned him to disappoint those who admire his freestyle, as well as those hoping for subtle contextuality. But contextual it is, nevertheless, a considered response to Haussmannian codes, from an era that predates Bilbao bling. But it is because of this that it doesn’t quite have the authentic look of a Gehry — or, to put it another way, it lacks the instantly recognisable luxury branding that even back then everyone was hoping for, because the idea was that the American Center would help kick start redevelopment of a former industrial area. This was something French politicians knew all about, since long before the ‘Bilbao effect’ people used to talk about the ‘Centre Pompidou effect’. What has changed is the scale: Pompidou and the American Centre were figureheads for the rebranding of neighbourhoods, where Bilbao and Vuitton are held up as mirrors to entire cities, and even, if one credits French media hype, entire countries.

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