Why is the Frank Gehry Foundation Louis Vuitton building considered a masterpiece?
Photo: Bertrand Guay/Getty Images
In 1860, Napoleon III opened the Garden of Acclimatization, on the posh western edge of Paris, as a place where exotic animals could become accustomed to urban life – or rather, where savages and bourgeoisie could get to know each other in quiet and pleasant surroundings. . The park was also used, at times, as a human zoo, where black and brown people were placed in live models for the ethnographic “enlightenment” of visitors such as Marcel Proust. Now a new wild form of life has found a home next to the park, and it will take some time to adapt. Frank Gehry’s stunning Louis Vuitton Foundation – located just outside the park’s kid-friendly (and now lion-free) grounds but inside Paris’s massive park, the Bois de Boulogne – is both quaint and local, a fanciful museum emblazoned with a familiar logo. With its white body covered in a cloud of pearly gray glass, it borrows the silent painting of the Sixteenth Circle, but its abundance of forms expresses a strange abundance. Jerry said when he first saw the site vogue magazine, I cried because I felt the history of the place. I had the feeling that Proust had walked through these gardens, and I felt a responsibility to create a design that could be part of the garden’s amazing legacy. A group of Parisians responded by trying to cancel the project for years. Some critics wish they had succeeded.
However, if you want to make an architectural case for overkill, this is the way to do it. Complaining that a building is overly designed and flashy is a bit like complaining that the champagne has too many bubbles: theatrical extravagance is not an accidental quality, it is the essence of this $135 million tour de force. Fantastically complex iron filaments of curved white volumes, lift the glass away from the interiors. The materials are superficially simple—white precast concrete slabs, steel beams, wood trusses, and resin floors—but they are arranged in a work of engineering so elaborate that it is practically mesmerizing. Instead of forming a taut skin over the structure, the outer glass shield inflates the building like a complex balloon. It explodes above the trees of the park, echoing the Grand Palais, another vast crystal creation flowing above the low-lying Parisian skyline.
The objections are easy to understand. Vuitton’s billionaire chairman Bernard Arnault ordered the construction of the place, gobbling up a valuable plot of garden land. The museum is open to the public, and the building will return to the city of Paris in 2062, but this does not remove the insult to a private entity that includes public spaces. Imagine if Ralph Lauren tried to install his art collection in a pavilion in Central Park: the howls would be audible in Oklahoma, and the idea would vanish in minutes. (It’s another matter entirely for a billionaire’s penthouse to overshadow the garden.) However, in the end, the Parisians got a Gehry project of the kind that New York had missed for years. He built a corporate headquarters, a residential tower, a theater at the base of a skyscraper, and a now-shuttered employee cafeteria for Condé Nast here, but not the large, free-standing public monument the city deserves.
Opinions about Jerry tend to have a tinge of moral outrage. Austerity advocates view him as a megalomaniacal, budget-busting showman who sprays the world with flimsy structures that serve his own agenda better than those of his clients. Buildings like this widen a 20-year gap in architecture. On the one hand, there are those who believe that the future lies in the ability of software to perceive any amoeboid form the mind can conjure (and the expense be damned). On the other hand, there are architects who feel that stylistic flamboyance undermines more important concerns, such as sustainability, context, social justice, and urban planning. British critic Peter Buchanan refers to the Vuitton building as a model of decadence, a trinket extracted by a wealthy individual from a bankrupt profession. He writes that the Gehry Museum is “a visible monument to the anti-democratic neoliberal ethos of our increasingly unequal times when wealthy individuals and corporations feel entitled to trample us with architectural trappings.” I sympathize with his argument and nod to some of his examples, but not all gaudy buildings are frivolous, just as not all elegant, simple boxes are virtuous. At 40, Frank Gehry was a pioneering genius. He is 85 years old and a very experienced genius. The Louis Vuitton Foundation is not the product of an exhausted mind that rediscovers and forgets old habits. It is the work of an artist who has honed his skills and expressive gestures to the point that throwing money at him and giving him freedom is something worth doing – at least in this case.
More than a decade ago, when Arnault asked Gehry to create a private museum, Paris already had an art institution with a fashion brand: Jean Nouvel’s 1994 Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporane, which shines in a crowded building on Boulevard Raspail. In one of his quieter buildings, Nouvel designed an ultra-clear glass façade, the exterior of which was surrounded by greenery, and the interior was devoid of columns, stairs and even elevators, all of which were pushed out to the ocean. At a recent opening, groups from the art world clutching cocktails silhouetted in front of Bruce Nauman’s massive video loop of a pencil levitating. The architecture is a bowl of stunning transparency.
Gehry’s Vuitton is the anti-Cartier, flashy in a very different way. The galleries are located indoors and out of sight, theatrical stairs wind their way through the structure, and the glass skin is freed from the structure. Instead of laying out huge, clear panels at 90-degree angles, Gehry bent and ribbed his glass and covered it with a pattern of frit. (When I visited, the place was also caked with a premature layer of grime that didn’t look like Vuitton; what good are luxury customers if they can’t keep their clothes clean?)
The building seems crazy at first, but that’s only because it’s impossible to understand its logic at once. In photographs, it is divided into a combination of wild angles and sharp curves. In the real world, architecture becomes terrain, shaping the itinerary. You start on the upper terrace and make your way around the chimney-like exterior of the triple-height gallery, admiring the interplay between curve and landscape. From a distance, the Eiffel Tower appears in an opening between the wall and the sail. You feel that the architect was here, saw this view, felt this breeze, even before the building was constructed. You descend a staircase, turn a corner, and find a huge, magnificent beam, bolted to the building at an eccentric diagonal, supporting a pane of mounting glass. Find another leaning mast. And another and another. You can touch the parts, but how they fit together remains a mystery. Allowing you to be behind the scenes doesn’t spoil the magic. The wizard has nothing to fear from exposure.
This proximity to architecture is what gives the Louis Vuitton Foundation its soul. Many architects take pride in exposing the canals and steel columns and highlighting the structure. Jerry is selectively honest. It hides some things but not others. It allows visitors to turn around momentarily, for example, and refuses to make it clear that turning left or right will lead to the same place. It offers the childlike comfort of being safely lost.
One of the reasons the design is both confusing and illegible at the same time is that each floor feels like a viewing platform on another level. Inside, narrow vistas open up like open canyons so you can look up at the sky or down at the crowds several levels below. Outside, overlapping terraces surround four chimney-like cylinders containing the galleries. The stairs that lead up and down also pull you from the stern to the front. The outdoors is always present, and the river that flows down a set of cliffs in front of the building also flows through the base, so that the museum appears to be floating on a lily pad.
Since Gehry upended the art world with his Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, museum architects have been regularly attacked for competing with art, elevating the container to the status of contents. This is often a fair criticism, but not here. The beautifully proportioned galleries vary in size from spacious white boxes to intimate rooms. You can lose yourself in the building and then lose yourself in the art, without the two being in conflict. On the lower floor, Olafur Eliasson lined the pool with orange light and vertical mirrors, blowing up an already fragmented building, and pushing the whole arrangement to another level of magic. What’s Jerry like saving the best views for the basement? Instead of scanning the rooftops of Paris, we look up from this sunken spot to the ring of trees that surround the sky. The museum is shown above, showing the masts, rigging and the lower part of it. Gehry claims that he had Proust in mind while designing the institution, but Melville’s presence was stronger. The architect has integrated… Little And Moby Dick in one body, a collection of planks and tightly connected frames, disguised by enormous muscles and rippling skin.