Architecture vs. Art at Gehry’s Fondation Louis Vuitton

Fondation Louis Vuitton - Gehry
Frank Gehry’s Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris
(Click to enlarge.) / via

Paris—Frank Gehry’s Fondation Louis Vuitton, the new museum directly next to the Jardin d’Acclimatation in the Bois de Boulogne may be his most spectacular building yet. I can’t, however, offer a definite opinion because I haven’t seen all of them. In particular I haven’t seen the Bilbao museum, which set a venerated museum style.

I can say this Gehry edifice, which opened in October 2014, is the most spectacular work of his that I’ve seen. I was taken with its magnificence the instant I turned on to the Avenue du Mahatma Gandhi and caught sight of it at the park’s edge. He has said his vision of it—when the commission was finalized with LVMH-Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton chairman and chief executive officer Bernard Arnault—was as “an iceberg surrounded by sails.” And indeed, when it hove into my view from the shortish distance, it did look like a ship moving towards me with all 12 sails filled by a benevolent wind.

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I was immediately reminded of Manhattan’s IAC building, which when looked at from the north appears to be sailing up 11th Avenue. But walk around Barry Diller’s completed commission or look at it from the High Line and you notice it’s nether quarters are commonplace, something that can also be said of Gehry’s Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts on the Bard campus.

But as the Fondation Louis Vuitton rises with elegant pride in the beloved park and is intended to be seen from every side—that’s if the building could even be said to have sides in the conventional sense—it’s like Audrey Hepburn’s face: It has no bad angles.

The closer you get to it, the more that wrapped iceberg can be perceived. It does resemble a multi-faceted iceberg in that it, too, is constructed of what look like (perhaps) 10-inch square white tiles shaped into many facets. And although the tiles have right angles, the building they enclose doesn’t seem to have many—or any.

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Not incidentally, Gehry’s initial drawing for the museum has absolutely no 90-degree angles. As with all his seemingly impromptu sketches, his proposal looks more than anything like a Cy Twombly doodle. (Did they know each other? Did they see each other as influences?) The closest thing to a right angle in the drawing is a wobbly rectangle at the top.

Frank Gehry - Fondation Louis Vuitton
Frank Gehry’s sketch for the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris / via

When I entered the museum, I was in a spacious and high atrium, where the reception desk and the museum shop were prominent. Only slightly less prominent, was the partially walled-in restaurant, The Frank. Hanging over it is a whimsical lighting fixture made up of plump fish, fish being a favorite Gehry symbol.

But I was on the wow-inducing premises to look at art as well, wasn’t I?—and went right for it. The only gallery on the ground floor was closed for an installation. So I walked downstairs to the lower level where the first work I encountered was Olafur Eliasson’s outdoor piece, Grotto, a curving series of triangular columns featuring mirrors and yellow panels—the panels glowingly reflected in the glass windows they faced.

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The next work I encountered was another architectural triumph. It’s a pool into which water burbles down approximately 40 long and shallow steps. Constantly appearing to change shapes, it’s a mesmerizing example of architecture rivaling art. In the large lower level gallery are imposing Ellsworth Kelly canvases in solid colors. The longest of the half dozen is a solid yellow column-width canvas that must have been made for the space (as have its companion pieces?). It’s unlikely it could be hung very many other places.

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And it’s that play of architecture in relation to art—I might say architecture in competition with art—that began to catch me up in its thrall and take me over increasingly as I continued through the 10 other galleries Gehry provided on the upper levels, excluding the top two.

The art contained in the eleven galleries is choice contemporary, although if there are 50 in the entire building, I’d be surprised. Works by Wolfgang Tillmans, Tacita Dean, Nam June Paik, Sigmar Polke and Akram Zaatari—often only a single one—are displayed, but I can’t go so far as to say they fill the spaces. Often only three or a few more in the Tillmans display are in a room.

Thomas Schutte’s mammoth Man in Mud, the all-white statue of a contented fellow holding a diving rod and surrounded at mid-legs by a circular white patch of, apparently, mud, is the main attraction. An extended Ed Atkins video that incorporates the artist lip-synching to Victor Garber’s rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “Joanna” dominates a small area. A single Alberto Giacometti (Grand Dame II) stands in a hall. A layered asteroid-shaped sculpture sits on a terrace.

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I won’t go on about the art for the simple, complex reason that Gehry doesn’t go on about it either. Without question, he’s supplied rooms where it can be shown, but as I traveled, I had a stronger and stronger impression that he considers art works as, at best, no more than half the point of an art lover’s visit. This, of course, could have been Arnault’s dictum based on a small collection from which to cull, but if so, there are other ways to achieve the requirement.

Repeatedly, someone journeying through is pulled from appreciating the art and towards appreciating the building—to revel in the building’s structure and placement. Wooden and steel beams are exposed and so beautifully juxtaposed that they become Richard Deacon-like sculptures in their own right. Windows in innumerable nooks begging to be approached face Paris and adjacent Neuilly.

The terraces are so important to Gehry that they’re more like promenades for patrons. They’re stretches of space on which to see and be seen. The architect is sold on the notion to the extent that the top two levels are almost exclusively only terraces—the Central Terrace and the Upper Terrace.

By the time I’d reached the Upper Terrace, I wasn’t so much contemplating the view(s), as I was wondering what drove Gehry as he developed Fondation Louis Vuitton. There tend to be two kinds of architects who design museums—those for whom the building is intended to focus on the art contained in it and those intent on emphasizing the building in which the art is contained. I wouldn’t immediately categorize Gehry in the former contingent.

Gehry’s seemingly off-hand attitude towards art in favor of celebrating architecture wasn’t making me happy. Maybe the opposite. I felt a growing anger over my delight in the building when my longing for a lengthy exposure to art went unfulfilled. In short, I was thrilled with Gehry’s accomplishment at the same time as I was annoyed with him.

I wondered how Arnault takes the building in. You’d think that if he hadn’t liked what Gehry’s designs implied, he wouldn’t have gone ahead with he project. Was he possibly even pleased because he suspected the building’s beauty would disguise the collection’s size, if indeed it is limited? (It’s probably not that limited, since billionaire Arnault is often considered France’s richest man.)

Whether the impetus behind the building is a conscious or unconscious decision on Gehry’s part, I am in no position to speculate. Either way, I remain uncomfortably conflicted about the result. As it happens, I’ve met Gehry but only once. I spoke to him briefly a few years ago when he led members of the press on a tour of the Pershing Square Signature Center, which he designed, just prior to its opening. As we talked, I asked how he liked his handiwork. He replied, “I can only see the things I’d change.”

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I suspect when he looked over Fondation Louis Vuitton at its break-the-Champagne-bottle-on-the-ship’s-bow opening day, it didn’t occur to him to change the ratio of art to architecture.