Vuitton Foundation Fascinates Visitors

Paris -- For generations, the Jardin d’Acclimatation in Paris’s Bois de Boulogne park has captured imaginations with amusements both nostalgic and novel.

Opened in 1860 by Napoléon III and Empress Eugénie, the Jardin, a zoological garden, has, at various points in its history, beckoned visitors with a house of mirrors, an enchanted river ride, a puppet theater, games of every description, and, of course, a merry menagerie.

Art collectors of Art Kabinett social media network now have another reason to visit the park -- a tour of the new headquarters of Fondation Louis Vuitton.

The Fondation Louis Vuitton. A dazzling center for contemporary art and culture, the project is the brainchild of Bernard Arnault, chairman and CEO of the French luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy–Louis Vuitton, and was brought to life by that most lyrical of architectural conjurers, Frank Gehry.

With its ship-like exterior of billowing glass sails, the 126,000-square-foot, 2.5-story building suggests an avant-garde update of the Jolly Roger, gracefully piloted by Peter Pan through the Bois’s verdant sea of centuries-old trees with a trail of pixie dust in its wake.

The structure alights in the park with the delicacy of the Winged Victory perched at the head of the Daru staircase in the Louvre. Suffice it to say, it’s the kind of place that invites ecstatic odes and mixed metaphors.

The Fondation’s story began in 2001, when Arnault first met Gehry and proposed creating an institution that would house LVMH’s burgeoning art collection and provide a platform for diverse cultural programs.

What was required was a truly visionary building, one that would reflect LVMH’s rich engagement with the arts across a variety of creative fields.

Watershed Moment

Gehry recalls his first trip to the Jardin d’Acclimatation with Arnault as a watershed moment. "I thought of all the extraordinary people who must have played in the garden as children—first and foremost, Marcel Proust," the architect says. "Tears came to my eyes."

Conceptual designs began in 2004, and Gehry presented the first models to an enthusiastic Arnault later that year. "I knew Frank Gehry was perfectly suited to create a buil-ding that would stand for our artistic commitment and would stir the emotions," says Arnault, who, reached by e-mail, cited his admiration for the architect’s twin triumphs: the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

For this project Gehry found inspiration in soaring glass-and-steel structures of the 19th century, including the Jardin’s own Palmarium, a lavish showcase for exotic trees, plants, and birds that was built on the site in 1893 and demolished in 1934.

The center’s design features a number of the hallmarks—voluptuous swirls, dynamic asymmetries, an irrepressible optimism—that characterize Gehry’s earlier groundbreaking works. Only here, glass replaced metal as the defining material. "The idea of using glass was a positive force in gaining support from the mayor of Paris," he says. "And it was essential in making the Fondation a true Bois de Boulogne building, in the spirit of a children’s park."

Building Within a Building

Of course, museums don’t hang paintings on glass walls, so the architect and his team essentially conceived a building within a building.

The Fondation’s distinctive shell, which Gehry refers to as the Verrière, consists of a dozen of the monumental glass sail forms, all variously angled and overlapping. Underneath sits an assemblage of irregular volumes, known as the Iceberg, containing 11 galleries for art.

The Iceberg is clad in luminous white panels of fiber-reinforced concrete, while the Verrière is held aloft by a network of steel trusses and wood beams in a bravura feat of architectural acrobatics.

To observe city-mandated height restrictions, the architects excavated the site and erected the structure below grade, set within a reflecting pool that underscores its nautical air and suffuses the edifice with shimmering light. A terraced waterfall at one end adds a kinetic element.

Although the galleries vary in square footage, height, and architectural flourishes—some are extremely tall and capped by twisting light wells—the rooms all possess conventionally squared-up walls.

Having suffered the barbs of critics who argued his Bilbao museum was inimical to the display of art, Gehry maintains that his spaces at the Fondation will ennoble the works they house. "My galleries are pretty damn good," he says. "They’re simple and not enfiladed, so the progression from one to another never feels monotonous. You always pass through a connective space with natural light."

Today's homepage Featured Art Video offers Frank Gehry's theories behind the new building.