Iwan Baan for Fondation Louis Vuitton

The Fondation Louis Vuitton, designed by Frank Gehry, Paris, 2014


Strange as it may seem, Frank Gehry, the volcanic improviser of freeform structures unlike anything seen since the irrational fantasies of German Expressionists a century ago, has attained the stature of those visionaries’ contemporary, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the hyperrational codifier of modern architectural reason. Though Gehry’s precepts are not at all as regularized as Mies’s, Gehry Technologies—the computer-programming offshoot of the Los Angeles–based Gehry Partners—has disseminated the digital means for his coprofessionals to realize irregular structural shapes (colloquially known as blob architecture) of a kind once attainable only through laborious skilled craftsmanship, like that of nonconformist predecessors including Antoní Gaudí. The world today perceives architecture in an entirely different light thanks to Gehry.

His firm’s pioneering application to architecture of the aeronautical computer-design program CATIA en abled the construction of his masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao of 1991–1997 in Spain. The rapturous reception of that building led to the so-called Bilbao Effect, a salubrious influence on that city’s economy that in turn has spurred countless other municipalities to fund avant-garde architectural schemes to attract cultural tourism.

Gehry’s software has since made the creation of eccentric buildings economically feasible for clients of a sort who once would have rejected deviations from the cost-efficient regularity of Mies’s rectilinear modular formula. As a result, Gehry’s transformative contribution to the building art has become an intrinsic part of present-day practice, which makes it easy to take his revolutionary advances for granted, in the same way that Mies’s were by the end of his life.

Recognition of Gehry’s singular place in contemporary architecture was particularly evident in Paris this fall with the conjunction of his new Fondation Louis Vuitton of 2005–2014, which opened in October, and a retrospective of his six-decade career at the Centre Pompidou. This large show, which comprises 255 drawings and sixty-seven models covering sixty projects, traces his rise from a scrappy Los Angeles maverick with artistic hankerings to the most important American architect since Louis Kahn. It’s a thrice-told tale (if one counts the Walker Art Center’s reputation-making 1986 Gehry survey organized by the late Mildred Friedman, who also curated his attendance-record-breaking Guggenheim Museum overview in 2001) but one well worth reiterating given the impact he has had.

Looking back on the self-consciously artful designs Gehry began to produce in the 1970s, after he’d put in twenty years as a commercial architect for development firms such as the socially conscious Rouse Company (which promoted racially integrated communities when that was still rare), what stands out most is an essential and quite touching humility. That quality is present even in such radical proposals as his unexecuted Familian house of 1977–1978, a multiangular design for a Santa Monica site that evokes a veritable avalanche of lumber. But even though that client got cold feet, the project now looks perfectly plausible as a home because Gehry during the intervening decades has so thoroughly reshaped our basic notions of habitability.

However, Gehry’s postmillennial work tends to be anything but humble, especially the extravagant Fondation Louis Vuitton, which is the equivalent of fifteen stories high and from certain angles imparts the overbearing aggressiveness projected by the tilting Cor-Ten steel sculptures of his competitive friend Richard Serra. The Vuitton building, which occupies a verdant site in the northern part of the Bois de Boulogne, has been an instant popular hit. It continues a long history of Parisian modern wonders at once novel and bizarre, typified by the Montgolfier balloon, Foucault’s pendulum, the Eiffel Tower, and the Spirit of St. Louis, which combined technological novelty with conceptual audacity and drew tout le monde to gawk at the latest sensation.

The Pompidou’s Gehry presentation (which is accompanied by a compact but comprehensive catalog) suggests that if there has been a climactic year for him it may well have come with the completion of the Walt Disney Concert Hall of 1989–2003 in Los Angeles, which proved that he could continue his extraordinary level of success after the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.* Since 2003 he has executed some twenty-three commissions, but with several exceptions—such as his superb IAC Building of 2003–2007 on the West Side Highway in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, a mid-rise office building clad in curving white-fritted glass—few of Gehry’s post-Disney efforts are likely to be counted among the highlights of his oeuvre.

For example, the awkward Peter B. Lewis Science Library of 2002–2008 at Princeton University makes a disappointing memorial to its eponymous donor, who was Gehry’s most generous client. The architect has termed his unbuilt Lewis house of 1985–1995 for Lyndhurst, Ohio, “my MacArthur grant” because the $5 million in fees it earned him (on a budget that ballooned to an incomprehensible $82 million) subsidized a crucial phase in his creative growth. The seventy-six-story apartment tower in Lower Manhattan unfortunately named New York by Gehry at Eight Spruce Street (2003–2011) fulfilled the architect’s long-cherished dream of erecting a skyscraper. But rather than it being an extruded version of his cohesively biomorphic compositions, this stainless-steel-clad high-rise is voluptuously modeled with wavelike surfaces on only three of its four sides. The flat south façade, which seems to have been sliced off from the undulating portions, has the cut-rate appearance of a speculative office building.


Later proposals are even more open to question. Gehry’s LUMA Foundation/Parc des Ateliers project for an arts organization in Arles, France, scheduled for completion in 2018, brings to mind a stainless-steel tornado. This October, images of a design dubbed the Flower Building were released, his part of a joint venture with Norman Foster for the redevelopment of London’s Battersea Power Station site. Yet this galumphing oddity summons up not so much a bouquet of blossoms as it does the dancing hippos in the “Waltz of the Flowers” sequence of Walt Disney’s Fantasia.

Gehry has said in interviews that his museum commissions dried up after Bilbao, but the caesura was merely temporary, like actors who can’t find roles following an Oscar win. He has since done a boisterous 2004–2008 renovation of the Beaux-Arts-style Art Gallery of Ontario in his native Toronto; built the low-budget Ohr-O’Keeffe Museum of Art of 2000–2010 in Biloxi, Mississippi; and his Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is now under construction with a projected 2017 opening date. Earlier this year he unveiled a promising if uncharacteristically restrained master plan for reconfiguring and expanding the Philadelphia Museum of Art over the next decade and a half. Thus hopes were understandably high among Gehry’s admirers that his new private museum in the French capital would mark a return to the top of his game.


The Fondation Louis Vuitton is Gehry’s second work in Paris, two decades after his American Center of 1988–1994 opened in the city’s eastern Bercy quarter. That cultural exchange institution—with a playful limestone, glass, and zinc exterior that resembles a Cubist collage of a cityscape—closed nineteen months after the new facility’s completion because the overoptimistic client spent too much on it. (It was finally taken over by the Cinémathèque Française in 2005, when its interiors were extensively reworked.)

The Vuitton commission came to Gehry with an apparent element of rivalry behind it. In 2000, the luxury goods conglomerateur François Pinault (whose Kering group subsidiaries include Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, and Alexander McQueen) declared his intention to build a $195 million contemporary art museum designed by Tadao Ando on the Île Seguin in the Seine, southwest of central Paris. However, Pinault canceled the project in 2005 because of civic administrative delays and instead bought the Palazzo Grassi in Venice to display his extensive collection.

A year afterward, Bernard Arnault (chairman and CEO of LVMH Moët Hennessey–Louis Vuitton—the holding company for such prestigious labels as Dior, Givenchy, and Guerlain—who is generally considered Pinault’s principal competitor) announced plans to sponsor a cultural center in Paris by Gehry, an even bigger architectural star than Ando, a move viewed by some as corporate one-upmanship. There was a heated public debate over permitting the Fondation Louis Vuitton to build on a Bois de Boulogne site long owned by LVMH’s Dior subsidiary, but France’s National Assembly ultimately settled the matter. Mindful that Pinault had left for the Rialto, the legislative body declared Gehry’s building “a major work of art for the whole world.”

An admirable example of a contemporary art center built by a luxury goods purveyor is the Fondation Cartier, which was founded in 1984 and this year celebrates its twentieth anniversary in the wonderful building designed for it on the Boulevard Raspail by Jean Nouvel. One of his strongest yet most discreet designs, this rectilinear, multilayered glass-walled structure has aged exceptionally well. More importantly, the Fondation Cartier’s programming has been consistently excellent, as exemplified by its current show, “The Inhabitants” (curated by the artist Guillermo Kuitca with works by himself as well as Francis Bacon, Vija Celmins, David Lynch, and Patti Smith, among others), a juxtaposition of disparate works that make a great deal of subliminal sense when viewed together.

Using art and architecture to increase the cachet of expensive consumer goods is hardly a new idea. More than a century ago, Helena Rubenstein adorned her Paris cosmetics salon with sculptures by her protégé Elie Nadelman. In the 1930s, the couturiere Elsa Schiaparelli collaborated with Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dalí on designs for clothing and accessories, and after World War II the Czech-born entrepreneur Zika Ascher commissioned silk scarves from more than fifty artists, including Matisse and Calder. And since the turn of the millennium, luxury goods companies have been commissioning high-profile retail stores from prominent architects including Gehry as well as a host of other Pritzker Prize winners such as Ando, Zaha Hadid, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Toyo Ito, Rem Koolhaas, Renzo Piano, and Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA.


Particularly active in this sphere is LVMH, which has solicited handbag designs from such well-known contemporary artists as Yayoi Kusama, Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince, and Cindy Sherman, as well as Gehry himself, whose Twisted Box handbag is for sale in the new building’s gift shop for €3,000 ($3,775). As Jean-Paul Claverie, Arnault’s longtime art adviser and now head of the holding company’s cultural philanthropy, told The Art Newspaper in 1997, “LVMH is just a name. With art, we are building our image.” The Fondation Cartier has demonstrated over the past three decades that a commercially sponsored art gallery can add a great deal to the life of a city even as well endowed with cultural offerings as Paris. But where the line is to be drawn between beneficence and promotion is a big question.

It may have seemed a lighthearted jest to stack vintage Louis Vuitton steamer trunks on the walls of the Gehry building’s restaurant and gift shop in imitation of a Donald Judd shelf sculpture, but the gesture seems no more appealing than the nine-foot-high LV logo attached to a wall above the building’s main entrance. This is, to be sure, a private institution, but its credibility would be enhanced if such flourishes were toned down in the interest of focusing on the art within.


Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/French Select/Getty Images

Frank Gehry with a model of his Fondation Louis Vuitton building at the Centre Pompidou exhibition of his work, Paris, October 21, 2014


It is axiomatic among architectural editors and art directors that if a building is not very good, then one should use images of it at sundown; if it is worse than that, show it reflected in water at twilight. This perhaps explains why several publications, including Architectural Digest, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times, have depicted Gehry’s newest work in a dim crepuscular glow, rising above its shallow pools and dramatic stepped cascade. Recourse to special photographic lighting does address one of the Fondation Louis Vuitton’s basic shortcomings, however, for in a city where it is overcast much of the time, a glass-skinned structure such as this is bound to look rather dull quite often. Conversely, there is a predominance of blue-sky photos in the three new books that marked the building’s opening—the official catalog as well as two large-format photographic volumes.

The twin peaks of Gehry’s career—Bilbao and Disney—are both clad in the silvery titanium that has become the hallmark material of his career’s second half, superseding the chain link fencing that gave his early experimental work a louche, combative quality that repelled some potential clients but earned him street cred as a tough avant-garde artist. Although Gehry might now want to avoid titanium for fear of seeming to repeat himself, glass was chosen for Vuitton because of restrictions imposed by the city to keep the building from appearing too massive.

The new structure is enveloped by a dozen gigantic steel-framed, white-fritted-glass “sails” in a series of complementary arcs hoisted on an elaborate armature of 179 steel and wood tripods. These curving, billboard-like surfaces thrust outward from the “icebergs,” as Gehry calls the concrete-paneled internal gallery structures. The lifting looks very heavy indeed, and at points the concatenation of multiple support elements seems like a chaotic pile-up of Mark di Suvero sculptures. It then becomes easy to believe the astonishing statistic that this building contains more than twice the steel used in the Eiffel Tower.

By adopting such a costly and effortful dual structural system—there seem to be two buildings in one here, just as Santiago Calatrava’s overly complicated bridges are said to duplicate their task—Gehry was able to combine a sensuously sculptural carapace of glass with workable display spaces within (a format he earlier employed for different functions at his Hotel Marqués de Riscal of 1999–2006 in Spain). He was stung by criticism that his most famous structure is inimical to art—“Every museum director I know hated Bilbao,” he has claimed, with some hyperbole. Thus even though the eccentric interior volumes of his masterpiece are in fact wonderfully hospitable to certain kinds of art, such as the sculptures of Richard Serra (it also includes several conventional galleries), he clearly wanted to avoid organizational difficulties in showing the LVMH collection.

In its clear separation between freeform exterior and straightforward interior, the Vuitton building also recalls Gehry’s Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts of 1997–2003 at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. There, a utilitarian shed of the sort that might be used for a suburban big-box store is fronted with billowing titanium sheets, a contrast not unlike Palladio’s Venetian churches with their highly articulated stone façades and mundane brick side and rear elevations. Although hardly on a par with Gehry’s Experience Music Project of 1995–2000 in Seattle, arguably his worst building, the Fondation Louis Vuitton is notably lacking in repose, a quality not incompatible with dynamism, as Bilbao and Disney demonstrate.

The metal skins of the Bilbao museum and the Los Angeles auditorium conceal the necessary workings beneath serenely opaque surfaces. In contrast, the Vuitton building’s translucent exterior reveals a plethora of angular underpinnings that would have been best left hidden. As is said of sausage making and the legislative process, you don’t want to know too much about what happens behind the scenes. This building’s obviously high level of execution has caused some observers to question whether it could possibly have cost only $135 million, a widely reported figure that LVMH will neither confirm nor deny. As Claverie told The New York Times, “In philanthropy, we never express figures because we want the dream and the emotion to speak for itself [sic].”

On its south flank the Fondation Louis Vuitton fronts one of the undulating roadways that snake through the Bois in the English Romantic manner. Passing through the main portal on that elevation, one enters a vast, amorphous central court some thirty feet high. This space is surmounted by a flat ceiling with banal detailing more befitting a suburban outlet mall than a high-style art museum. Tilting outer glass walls offer views of the surrounding park, with a pleasant café on the north side enlivened by a swarming school of Gehry’s whimsical plastic-laminate Fish Lamps suspended from the ceiling.

Adjacent to this entry area is the upper level of a double-height auditorium. Oddly for an interior that frequently will need to be darkened for performances, it has two large glass window walls with blackout curtains concealed above them. Here is displayed one of several works the foundation commissioned for the building—a vertically striped rainbow spectrum stage curtain (easily confused with a gay pride flag) and five monochromatic panels by Ellsworth Kelly, which are positioned around the large room and double as acoustical absorption baffles. Moving outward from the building’s core one quickly becomes disoriented. For a structure with such a plethora of circulation—corridors, stairways, catwalks, escalators, and elevators seem to spring up at every turn—it makes it difficult to make your way methodically from gallery to gallery and from level to level.

Currently displayed in a ground floor gallery is an exhibition on the design and construction of Gehry’s building. The production values of this black-walled, theatrically lit installation could not be higher. Two vast screens on facing walls feature hypnotic videos, including a time-lapse record of the building’s emergence. But the dozens of study models that document the scheme’s slow evolution offer scant explanation—labeling is wholly inadequate—and thus the dazzling array of maquettes is more impressionistic than informative.

At least for now, the art on display in the rest of the building’s eleven galleries is for the most part disappointing. Emblematic of a questionable outlook is Bernard Lavier’s Empress of India II (2005), a replica in neon of Frank Stella’s multi-chevron-shaped 1965 canvas Empress of India, in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. One of the several installations commissioned for the opening is Taryn Simon’s A Polite Fiction, which fills a large gallery and, according to the American artist’s website,

maps, excavates, and records the gestures that became entombed beneath—and within—the Fondation’s surfaces during its five-year construction. Simon collects this buried history and examines the latent social, political, and economic forces pushing against power and privilege.

Symbolically chronicling four hundred interventions enacted in the building’s cavities by plasterers, scaffolders, engineers, masons, electricians, security guards, draftsmen, tile setters, interns, supervisors, and others, Simon documents discoveries that include a pack of Marlboro Lights with one cigarette left for a future smoke, concealed behind drywall in a service stairwell; a newspaper article about the 2013 murder of three Kurdish political activists in Paris, placed in the ceiling of an executive office; and a plastic bottle of urine hidden behind ceramic tile in the administrative restrooms. These markings have now been deleted by the polished surfaces of the museum.

There are several large galleries that screen rather indifferent video art. A huge space devoted to Gerhard Richter, an artist I greatly admire, seems bulked up with several examples from his Abstraktes Bild and computer-generated Strip series but contains only one truly memorable painting, Stag (Hirsch), a 1963 oil en grisaille.

The most enjoyable parts of the structure are its outdoor terraces, which encircle the “icebergs” at different levels. Some of them offer panoramic views of Paris beyond the treetops of the Bois. The upper reaches of Gehry’s vitreous spinnakers provide an intriguing frame for some of the vistas, though they occlude others and create landscape slivers that Manhattan real estate brokers would term partial park views. It was once said of the Eiffel Tower that it was the most agreeable spot in Paris because it was the one place where one could not see the Eiffel Tower. That is not at all the case with the Fondation Louis Vuitton, but it may take some time before it fulfills its ambitious mission to become an equal among the City of Light’s formidable cultural landmarks.