Tumescently emerging from the Bois de Boulogne, Frank Gehryʼs new Fondation Louis Vuitton is an architecture of perpetual indulgence
The city’s mayor may have welcomed it as ‘a gift for Paris’ but the Fondation Louis Vuitton is one present that a good few Parisians would sooner have sent back to the shop. Its opening this month comes seven years after the scheme was first made public − a gestation lengthened significantly by a campaign to prevent the building’s construction. On the face of it, it is hard to see where the objections might lie. Budgeted at 100 million euros − but reportedly costing a third as much again − the Frank Gehry-designed museum and cultural centre has been funded entirely by the luxury goods manufacturer LVMH. The company has assembled the world-class collection of contemporary art housed within and has committed itself to the Fondation’s running costs until 2062, at which point the building, although not the art, will be handed to the city.
However, it is the Fondation’s location that has proved the source of controversy. It stands within the Bois de Boulogne, the park established in the mid-19th century on the site of a former royal hunting reserve to the west of the city centre. While the larger part of this territory comprises dense woodland, a 20-hectare area to the north offers a different experience. This is the Jardin d’Acclimatation, a children’s amusement park and zoo that opened in 1860. Peppered with exotic follies and fairground rides linked by a miniature railway, it has long enjoyed a central place in Parisians’ mythology of childhood but by the turn of the millennium had fallen into disrepair. As part of its extensive programme of philanthropic activity, LVMH came to the rescue. It took over the concession for running the Jardin in 2004 and has now invested a large sum towards its ongoing restoration. Standing alongside the entrance to the Jardin, the Fondation forms the one major built addition. A number of existing structures − the largest of which was a dilapidated bowling alley − were demolished to ensure no loss of public land but Gehry’s design immediately attracted criticism on the grounds both of its location and considerable obtrusiveness.
Among the numerous stipulations restricting development in the park is a demand that buildings should rise for no more than two storeys above ground. It may meet the letter of that law but given that Gehry’s building rises to a height of 56 metres it is fair to say that it makes a mockery of the law’s intention. In part, the extraordinary height has been achieved by digging down. The building stands in a stone-faced excavation from which it is separated by water. A vast cascade − a feature that references the waterfalls found elsewhere in the Bois de Boulogne − drops down from the city-facing end of the site, ultimately discharging into a moat that tracks round the rest of the building’s volume. Gehry terms the covered walkway that extends alongside the water the Grotto and the illusionistic associations evoked by that billing are amplified by a kaleidoscopic installation created by the artist Olafur Eliasson. A run of mirror-faced columns of triangular section extend along the length of the space, each rotated fractionally in relation to the next. Stand at a designated point and you find 43 reflections of yourself looking back in a state of shared befuddlement.
While excavation may have increased the permissible floor area, the scheme can hardly be claimed as an exercise in discretion. One of Gehry’s central ambitions has evidently been to inflate the building to the point that it enjoys a presence above the tree-line − precisely the impact that the two-storey restriction was conceived to prevent. The above-ground storeys are accordingly of an absolutely monumental scale and liberally populated by ‘mezzanines’ that supposedly escape classification as floors in their own right. It may not be entirely uncoincidental that the Fondation has declined to issue sections to illustrate reviews of the building.
You enter in the middle of the plan by way of a large and characteristically dramatic foyer. However, this space functions in a significantly different manner from the atrium of Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim in that while you start and end your rambling journey around the building here, it offers no constant point of reference. To one side is the building’s largest volume − an auditorium that addresses the cascade through extensive glazing. Its floor stands a storey below but an automated system allows it to be reconfigured into a bank of seating. The space has been conceived as a venue for lectures, conferences, concerts and dance − a flexibility that will be tested in the coming weeks by performers ranging from Lang Lang to Kraftwerk.-
‘Canyon-like stairs follow the ascending massing ever upwards, cutting a picturesque route between multiple levels where sculpture can be installed. The views out are no less magnetic. The experience is akin to finding yourself on the deck of a ship anchored in a vast sea of trees’
The route through the exhibition spaces begins at the other side of the foyer. There are 10 galleries in total of which the largest − and most geometrically conventional − are stacked over three levels alongside a bank of escalators. However, by the time the visitor reaches the final floor the plan has become so disaggregated as to challenge description. In essence, it comprises three top-lit volumes cast adrift in an eddy of gyrating circulation. The smallest is situated over the lower galleries and because Gehry has already exhausted his allocation of above-ground storeys in this area of the plan, its skylight has been left unglazed allowing it to escape classification as a third level. All three volumes extend upwards in the form of light funnels − a format that lends them an ecclesiastical character while providing Gehry with the means of increasing the building’s height further still. They grow successively taller from east to west with the final gallery, which overlooks the cascade, rising to an epic 17 metres. Do they make for good exhibition spaces? Certainly they accommodate the video art and monumental installations that dominate the opening show effectively enough. You might not want to show work on canvas in every space in the building but the Ellsworth Kellys currently hung in one of the smaller and particularly chapel-like galleries look terrific. Gehry has always resisted axial arrangements of galleries, deeming such an approach overly prescriptive about where objects should be installed. The Fondation’s rooms are certainly idiosyncratic but they offer a promising range of scales and daylighting conditions and their wall surfaces are uniformly vertical.
The motivation behind the galleries’ escalating height becomes apparent when the visitor passes on to the building’s final space − an expansive range of roof terraces that weave between the light funnels. Canyon-like stairs follow the ascending massing ever upwards, cutting a picturesque route between multiple levels where sculpture can be installed. The views out are no less magnetic. The experience is akin to finding yourself on the deck of a ship anchored in a vast sea of trees. And yet, even having got this far, Gehry’s quest for height has remained unsated. Above you find, not the sky but an extravagant assembly of curving glass ‘sails’ supported on laminated timber beams. From a functional perspective, they are quite surplus to requirements but the treatment not only extends across the roof but down the building’s sides too, forming a secondary enclosure. The strategy belongs to a line of investigation dating back to the wrapping that Gehry applied to his own clapboard house in Santa Monica in 1978. As there, the layers cultivate both a rich layering of space and a sense of fluid incompletion.
‘One of Gehry’s central ambitions has evidently been to inflate the building to the point that it enjoys a presence above the tree-line − precisely the impact that the two-storey restriction’
The building proper − which Gehry has christened the iceberg − is faced in white glass reinforced-concrete panels but it is the sails that supply the Fondation with its iconography as a vast glass house in the tradition of Paxton’s Crystal Palace or Paris’s own Grand Palais. That association resonates strongly in this parkland setting but the building also suggests itself as the fulfilment of a long-held ambition on Gehry’s part to translate his curvaceous form language into glass. He first began exploring that possibility with the 1996 cafeteria that he designed for the offices of Condé Nast in New York. However, finding an affordable means of fabricating the Fondation’s 3,600 individually curved glass panels required a two-year period of research and development which resulted in 30 separate patents being filed. The solution, developed with the Italian manufacturer Sunglass, lay in heating tempered panels to establish a level of ductility before bending. The shape of each one corresponds to the surface of a cylinder but the mouldless process allowed for both the radius and the axis of curvature to be customised each time.
The panels are held only on their sides by white aluminium cover strips that dramatise each sail’s swooshing form. Originally, Gehry had wanted the walls finished in shotcrete, giving them something of the character of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp, but Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH, pushed for a panellised treatment. The result is that wall and sail maintain a common tectonic precision that doubtless better reflects the aesthetic sensibilities of a luxury goods manufacturer.
While the sails offer views out, the glass has been partly obscured by a white ceramic fritting that lends the building the nebulous character of a cloud. In a project that has gone to such lengths to assert its presence, this impulse towards ephemerality suggests a profound conceptual ambivalence. I don’t offer that as a criticism. Billboards advertising the Fondation’s opening depict the building as a Fata Morgana-like apparition disconnected from the earth and the reality proves scarcely less dream-like. Preposterous − even outrageous − as it may be this is still the work of one of the world’s great architects operating at the height of his powers.
Yet for many Parisians, the Fondation remains a building that should not be here at all. In 2011 a campaign group successfully challenged the city’s authorisation to build on the site resulting in the revoking of the building permit midway through construction. It was only when Paris changed its planning regulations to make special provision for buildings that fulfil a sufficient level of general interest that work was able to resume. If it had made its mind up earlier that Gehry was effectively to be granted carte blanche we would doubtless be looking at a very different building today. Certainly a cheaper one: his efforts to build a structure of the scale he desired within the regulatory constraints have resulted in a project as spatially and structurally profligate as any I know. For a client like LVMH, such lavishness is perhaps all in a day’s work but I won’t be the only visitor to raise an eyebrow on discovering the building glories in an address on the choicely named Avenue Mahatma-Gandhi.