In DESIGN, STYLE

Frank Gehry’s latest signature project, the Fondation Louis Vuitton, has opened to the public and it’s like nothing he has ever built before

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“How can a person imagine such a building?” asked Bernard Arnault, chairman and CEO of LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton), the world’s largest luxury goods conglomerate, when visiting the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Designed by the Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, he immediately knew that Gehry would be the architect capable of turning his vision into reality. For in Arnault’s mind, the planned Fondation Louis Vuitton would not only be a contemporary art museum, but a “haute couture” building, befit of the Louis Vuitton brand and the city of Paris. Arnault, himself an avid art collector, had already commissioned the Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima for the Dior building in Tokyo (completed in 2003), and the French Architect Christian de Portzamparc for the LVMH Tower in New York (completed in 1999). It was about time that Paris got its own landmark.

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The choice of site for the future building was already made: the Jardin d’Acclimatation, a children’s park in Bois de Boulogne on the western edge of Paris. Aside from LVMH owning the concession for the public park, Arnault also hoped his choice would free him of the constraints of building within Paris proper and having to face an immeasurable amount of regulations and restrictions, especially when implementing the type of modern architecture he had in mind.

“How can a person
imagine such a building?”

 

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Fondation Louis Vuitton

Fondation Louis Vuitton

 

[two_columns_one] Thirteen years later, walking up the road in Bois de Boulogne, one cannot but stand in awe while contemplating these exquisitely detailed volumes of glass – “la Verrière” as Gehry likes to call them – hovering over a reflective surface of water, as if blown by some gusty winds. While reflecting the sky and the magnificent surrounding trees, they make the building look like a giant vessel about to take off on a journey around the world. No wonder tourists and residents taking a stroll amidst the lush greenery stop to admire a building that looks like nothing they have ever seen before. This only demonstrates how the 85-year-old Pritzker Prize-winning architect continues to push the boundaries of his genius and creativity.

Gehry, himself a Francophile, worked in Paris for a year as an architect early in his career. His first project in Paris was the American centre, now Cinématheque Française, which was completed in 1994. Today, he offers the city of Paris a ‘tour de force’. The Fondation Louis Vuitton is the most significant building Paris has seen since the Centre Pompidou was completed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano.

The building houses, along with a bookshop and a restaurant, eleven galleries and a 350-seat auditorium facing an exquisite stepped waterfall. The ground floor is designed to facilitate social interaction, with its transparent lobby having the park as a natural extension.

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Designed from the inside out, the white blocks (baptised ‘the icebergs’ by Gehry) that contain the galleries are clad with Ductal panels, a fibre-reinforced concrete material with a distinctively smooth finish. A total of 3,600 panels of St Gobain glass, all different, were manufactured in Italy by means of custom made ovens. The monumental curved beams are made out of timber from the Black Forest in Germany and were manufactured in Austria. The pavement around the perimeter of the project is covered with stone from Bourgogne. Although not obvious to the viewer, this deliberate choice of sourcing the materials deeply roots the project in its region and context.

It is worth noting that the project boasts a large number of patents and its construction is an achievement that would not have been possible without the use of highly sophisticated software from Gehry Technology, a branch of Gehry’s studio.

With an estimated cost of $166 million, the building will become property of the city in 55 years’ time, which prompted the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, to call it “a gift for Paris”.

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Fondation Louis Vuitton entrance

Fondation Louis Vuitton entrance

“To make a building in this park, it had to be kind of a Grand Palais, a glass kind of thing”

 

For anyone now visiting Paris, Gehry’s presence is not only felt in the Bois De Boulogne. The Centre Pompidou is showing a retrospective of his career until 26 January. It includes an unprecedented number of hand sketches, models, and screen projections, all offering an in-depth look into the master’s career. During a recent interview, Gehry explained how he first imagined the project: “To make a building in this park, it had to be kind of a Grand Palais, a glass kind of thing.” And a Grand Palais it is.


A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Rose Tinted  Issue #28, on page 96.

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