Gehry's LUMA Opens in Arles

Ulf Meyer
28. junio 2021
Photo © Adrian Deweerdt

For a small town like Arles, not far away from the Cote d’Azur, Frank O. Gehry’s tower is a landmark because of its height and twisted shape; yet even without its shininess, the building at the heart of the new art campus in France would stand out. The 11,000 stainless steel panels that cover the tower make it a true attention-getter.

The Gehry-designed tower for the LUMA Foundation houses galleries, project spaces, and research and archive facilities, alongside workshop and seminar rooms. It is the pinnacle of a larger arts campus occupying seven former railway factories, four of which have been renovated by Selldorf Architects from New York and now function as exhibition and performance spaces. 

Neither architect was new to the task: While Gehry has designed some of the most recognizable art museums of our times, such as the Guggenheim Bilbao Vitra Design Museum, Annabelle Selldorf has renovated the Neue Galerie in New York and has designed art galleries in New York, London, and Venice.

Photo © Adrian Deweerdt

The tower's shiny facade resembles the limestone peaks of the Alpilles, the nearby mountain range that rises from the Rhone Valley. The tower rises from a circular glass drum that is transparent and porous. Traversed by a monumental, double-helix staircase, the tower's twelve levels opened on June 26th with The Impermanent Display, a new exhibition of artworks from the LUMA Foundation.

LUMA's historic industrial buildings have been revitalized Selldorf, who gave the sheds flat, cast tile roofs as "a subtle nod to roman clay tiles" once used around Arles. Steel columns, brackets and trusses inside the halls have all been preserved and restored, and skylights have been added. To capture the quality of light, "it needed to be controlled," she argues. Her choice of materials allows spaces to remain intact and quietly authentic, balancing a 19th-century industrial vocabulary with contemporary purposes.

Photo © Victor Picon

The landscape of the surrounding art park was designed by Bas Smets from Brussels. Smets transformed the former repair yards for the SNCF, the French railway company, into a Mediterranean garden with five hundred newly planted trees. Soil was added on top of concrete yards to create a new dune-like topography, while a pond serves as a water reservoir for irrigation and a cooling device.

Photo © Remi Benali

The Parc des Ateliers is the brainchild of Maja Hoffmann, who established her LUMA Foundation in 2004 and four years later selected Gehry to devise a master plan for the campus. He says he wanted "to evoke the local, from Van Gogh’s Starry Night to the soaring rock clusters in the region." The central drum — atop a plinth and below the tower — is meant to echo the plan of Roman amphitheaters around Arles. But really Gehry’s work does not need any such comparisons: it works (and fails) on its own terms.

While some artists complain that Gehry's Deconstrutcivist spaces make it hard for art to develop any aura, curators and collectors love the guaranteed attention that derives from his unique designs. Only when comparing the art center in France to an earlier building that Gehry designed in Düsseldorf (called Neuer Zollhof), it becomes apparent that the tower in Arles is far from unique. While Selldorf‘s designs are more understated and do not always make into the international spot light, they might at least hold equal value in the medium term.

Photo © Adrian Deweerdt

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