The Fondation Louis Vuitton is one of those landmark buildings that will remain an iconic monument long after the controversy around its conception is forgotten.
The building looks like an enormous ship stranded in a forest, a dozen glass sails, billowing in the wind. A shimmering explosion of glass, light, and reflection that is as intimidating as a battleship and could easily leave a young deckhand lost, wandering aimlessly between thousands of wooden beams, open roof pathways and white mezzanines.
Docked at the southern corner of the Jardin d’Acclimatation in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, it took Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry nearly a decade to see it to completion and is thought to have cost US$143 million dollars.
There has been no shortage of objections from Parisians about the ultra-modern style and over-size building of the Fondation. The 50m-tall museum cleverly circumnavigated a number of local height restrictions that eventually saw new laws passed in France to ensure the building went ahead, being described as “a major work of art for the whole world” by the French government.
The Fondation Louis Vuitton is the brainchild of Bernard Arnault, CEO and chairman of LVMH, who first discussed creating a non-profit museum and arts centre with Gehry back in 2001 after he saw Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao. The building was commissioned in 2005 and it has been a labour of love for the veteran architect and France’s richest man ever since.
In October 2014 it finally opened is doors with an architecture exhibition showcasing the 10 years of architectural genius that went into the Fondation, alongside a retrospective of Frank Gehry’s work. It is now being featured in an exhibition in Beijing — located beside the Louis Vuitton Maison in Beijing’s China World Mall (until 9 August 2015) — that has been curated by Frédéric Migayrou, deputy director of the Pompidou Centre.
“As with all Gehry projects he started with boxes. Normally people might think of the external shape but he thought to have boxes, representing rooms,” explains Migayrou. “There is no façade, the building is organised, dynamic and cinematic.” Cinematic it may well be — alien would be a better way to describe it. Gehry prides himself on breaking convention and with the Fondation he has exceeded even his own wildest dreams.
Like all of Gehry’s work he wanted the building to not just be in keeping with its natural environment but to play off the original 19th century Parisian park that it is sat in. Therefore wood, stone, metal and, of course, glass were essential. Located in a park and surrounded by woods, Gehry created ‘circulations’ — pathways where people could move vertically, around, and through the building.
Views of the city are disturbed by a complex grid of thousands of wooden beams that hold the 12 glass sails afloat, leaving the visitor feeling he is lost in the woods. The sails have been made from 3,584 individually created glass panels that reflect, filter and defuse light throughout the day, giving a dappling effect, while the 19,000 ductal panels, made from a unique form of reinforced concrete, hark back to the white-stone buildings of centuries passed.
The exhibition shows the complexities of an architectural project, one that saw more than 400 people working on computer programmes and engineering projects so complex that it led to 30 patents being registered.
Bernard Arnault gave Frank Gehry a limitless scope to create what Gehry called “a magnificent vessel symbolising the cultural calling of France”, and Arnault can now rest assured he has created his cultural legacy in France for generations to come.