This extraordinary, poetic building in the Bois de Bologne was commissioned by Bernard Arnault as an art space for the 21st century. He gave architect Frank Gehry carte blanche to create a building which, originally conceived as a cloud floating above water and among trees, encapsulates light and motion while merging harmoniously with the 19th century park. It is a luminous building, perfect for the City of Light. Once again Gehry has pushed the limits of what an art gallery can be.
Who was the designer?
The brainchild of LMVH’s CEO Bernard Arnault, the Fondation Louis Vuitton is a cultural initiative aimed at supporting contemporary arts (Arnault is a major patron of contemporary art, so exhibitions will make use of his breath-taking collection). The building was first discussed with Gehry in 2001, Arnault stating, “We wanted to present Paris with an extraordinary space for art and culture, and demonstrate daring and emotion by entrusting Frank Gehry with the construction of an iconic building for the 21st century.” There was also a deliberate aim to make it child-friendly, as it sits on the edge of the Jardin d’Acclimation, a much-loved children’s park and an area with exceptional cultural and historical heritage.
How is the concept played out?
This was an important project for Gehry, who loves Paris. His quote is written on the wall of the gallery: “I dream of designing a magnificent vessel for Paris that symbolises France’s profound cultural vocation.” Gehry’s initial concept was of a cloud floating in above water and among trees. This grew into a building that both references the park by nodding to gorgeous airy 19th century glasshouses, but is also unapologetically contemporary and daring. Sitting in a slight basin created for the building, and on the edge of a water garden also constructed specially, the building comprises an assemblage of blocks (‘icebergs’) clad in pure-white panels of Ductal – fibre-reinforced concrete. These icebergs are surrounded by twelve immense glass ‘sails’ supported by wooden beams, and held away from the main fabric of the building by airy steel girders. The sails, which are all angled differently, give the Fondation Louis Vuitton its transparency and sense of movement, while allowing the structure to reflect the water, woods and garden and change with the light. The park has also been transformed, its historical features restored, new plants reflecting its botanical heritage and new walks allowing visitors to come upon the building’s sails from unexpected angles.
How does the flow work inside?
The bright entrance hall serves as the entry to both the museum and the Jardin. It is designed as an active space, featuring a restaurant and bookstore. The large, multi-purpose space adjacent to the entrance hall can be used as an auditorium, exhibition space or event venue. There is a central ‘grotto’ – a network of small paths around reflecting pools echoing the central staircase which is designed to look like a permanently cascading fountain. The icebergs contain 10 galleries, and as visitors move from one to another, the large expanses of glass provide wonderful views across the park to Paris, integrating the landscape into the experience of the museum. Visitors can climb exterior stairways underneath the glass sails to reach roof-top gardens and exhibitions. It probably goes without saying that the interior is incredibly light and airy.
Where are artists involved in the project?
As well as Arnault’s spectacular personal collection, the Fondation’s artistic director Suzanne Pagé offers some fascinating opening exhibitions, both commissioned and retrospective: a show of Gehry’s work (naturally), an overview of five decades of Gerhard Richter and Olafur Eliasson’s row of mirrored yellow columns among many others. In the auditorium, Ellsworth Kelly has created a permanent installation consisting of a rainbow stage curtain, with five monochromatic canvases reflecting its colours.
Was this a complicated project?
By some order of magnitude. New software had to be developed to allow Gehry’s complex sketches and models to be realised and designed at full-scale. The elements had to be assembled on site using intelligent, adaptive 3D modelling. The sails are made from 3,600 glass panels and the icebergs from 19,000 pieces of ductal, each one unique. A special furnace had to be created for the glass, which exceeds environmental guidelines. The building has already won several engineering awards in the US and France.
How does the building work from a sustainability perspective?
The structure and shapes of the roof and sails allows rain water to be recovered, stored and filtered so it can be used cleaning, in fountains and lastly to water the plants and terraces. Its angles also improve the building’s geothermal power.
Like Thomas Heatherwick’s distillery, the Fondation Louis Vuitton has received an HQE (Haute Qualité Environmetale) certificate for its sustainability.
This feature was written for the design and architecture website Arkitexture.