A gigantic glass-encased structure overlooking the Jardin d’Acclimatation, a popular children’s park, is coming up on the northern edge of the Bois de Boulogne in western Paris. Visible from far away sailing above the trees, the Fondation Louis Vuitton appears to be a ship floating on water, mirroring the river nearby. American-Canadian architect Frank Gehry, who’s heading the project, terms it an iceberg encircled by a cloud in what is a revolution in the use of glass in architecture, where translucent panels are positioned to reflect different colors and light patterns throughout the day. Having built a reputation in fashion, the French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH (Moët Hennessy – Louis Vuitton, which includes Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Givenchy among its many brands) desired a more permanent place in the art world and unveiled a striking design by the 85-year-old architect housing a new cultural foundation that Bernard Arnault, Chairman and CEO of LVMH, views as a logical follow-up to his company’s extensive sponsorship of the arts.
Mostly though, this monument dedicated to contemporary art (it includes a restaurant, 360-seat auditorium and forum and lower-level gallery that may be used for live fashion shows) will demonstrate Arnault’s role as the penultimate tastemaker and LVMH as an institution devoted to fostering high culture in France and abroad. The new building may also allow Arnault to score a publicity coup against his luxury goods rival, François Pinault, owner of Christie’s, Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, who abandoned plans to build a museum for his contemporary art collection outside Paris, after years of red tape, and acquired the Palazzo Grassi in Venice instead.
On site, the edifice soars 46 meters high, resembling a ship made from a confusion of wood beams, steel and aluminum, where we can see the complex fastening mechanism. Composed of a succession of white shapes punctuated by four tree-lined terraces, the imposing iceberg with a white concrete façade, strange and chaotic with its curves and angles, seems to disappear under immense glass canopies composed of 12 twisting glass sails that were subject to tests of high wind resistance and form the defining feature of the building, demonstrating esthetic audacity and technical prowess.
The unique characteristic of this architecture is that every element is different. A sub-layer of black insulating material, then 19,040 white custom-cut Ductal (ultra-high performance concrete, a ductile material that beautifully expresses shape) panels – a veritable conundrum of geometric precision to respect the imposed layout – covers a hull of 9,200 sqm comprising the iceberg’s facades. The 13,500 sqm of external glass surfaces are constituted from 3,584 panels of the same size, curved or fitted, installed on a structure of wood and steel. Each piece of glass has a unique shape, respecting the architect’s complex design.
This envelope will allow the creation of spaces housing a permanent collection formed from Arnault’s vast corporate and private collections of art, including 20th-century classics from Picasso, Yves Klein, Henry Moore and Andy Warhol and modern work by Agnes Martin, Frank Serra, Jeff Koons, Pierre Huyghe and Gilbert&George, and the organization of temporary exhibitions of the work of established and contemporary artists like Jean Dubuffet, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francis Bacon or Damien Hirst. Based on an art collection that is mainly contemporary, the Foundation’s purpose is to support art and creation and to promote its national and international outreach by welcoming all audiences. Its tasks include: exhibiting permanent collections, showcasing temporary exhibitions of modern and contemporary art, organizing multidisciplinary events, developing educational activities and programs – notably aimed at young audiences – and organizing meetings and talks with outstanding artists and cultural partners.