Step Inside Frank Gehry’s Newest Tower in the South of France

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Luma Arles, a 27-acre “creative campus” funded by the Swiss pharmaceutical heiress Maja Hoffmann, will open to the public on June 26, marking the culmination of a seven year construction process.

Set within a former rail yard and factory area known as the Parc des Ateliers near the heart of Arles, the campus includes a group of industrial buildings that were renovated by architect Annabelle Selldorf, a 10-acre park designed by landscape architect Bas Smets, and, dwarfing everything else, a 11-level tower (two below ground, nine above) designed by “starchitect” Frank Gehry that covers roughly 160,000 square feet.

Step Inside Frank Gehry’s Newest Tower in the South of France

“There wasn’t the space to go horizontal,” says Gehry, in an interview. “We made about 50 models of it—we had two towers at one point, because the program seemed to divide itself, but in the end all that got baked into one tower.”

The campus, which reportedly cost $175 million to build, is intended “to create a space that would help artists create and produce,” says Mustapha Bouhayati, the chief executive officer of Luma Arles. “It’s a multiplicity of buildings that offer diverse capacities and a diversity of conditions” in which artists can make art. Hoffmann will host yearly artists in residence.

It’s also a space where that art, plus Hoffmann’s existing collection and curated exhibitions made up from loans, can be shown in galleries that Bouhayati says are “up to international museum standards.” 

The campus is opening with 12 concurrent exhibitions. Admission will be free through December. “What we’d love to do is a subscription,” Bouhayati says. “At a low rate—to make sure people come back and build a relationship with us.”

Step Inside Frank Gehry’s Newest Tower in the South of France

The centerpiece of the park is Gehry’s glistening tower.

“I looked at all the Roman buildings in Arles, and I was so fascinated by ‘How do you make a new building that kind of talks to all of that and isn’t decorative?” Gehry says. “I wanted to get to that kind of aesthetic toughness.”

His solution was a cascade of 11,000 hollow stainless steel blocks intended to reference the masonry construction of surrounding romanesque buildings. 

Step Inside Frank Gehry’s Newest Tower in the South of France

“We started playing with those panels out in my backyard at the office,” Gehry says. “We set them at different angles so the sun could reflect them. It was quite beautiful, and a moment of excitement.”

When they tried the panels in Arles, he discovered that “it captured light from many different directions, so at any point in time you’re not getting the same reflection. From morning until night, the facade changes. It has a life of its own,” Gehry says.

Step Inside Frank Gehry’s Newest Tower in the South of France

As a bonus, Gehry found that “the greatest thing was that at night, it reflected the night sky,” he says. “You caught [Van Gogh]’s Starry Night color from the painting, which is there. I didn’t invent it. [The facade] just reflected that,” he says, referring to the fact that Van Gogh painted Starry Night nearby. “When you go to Arles, you look at it differently because you can see where Van Gogh got his colors,” he says.

Step Inside Frank Gehry’s Newest Tower in the South of France

Gehry’s tower is built in three tiers. The first is a roughly 25-foot-high plinth, which raises the tower from the ground and houses the Foundation’s “living archive” program, its main exhibition gallery, and its “glass room,” where artist Christian Marclay’s spectacular 24-hour film montage The Clock is exhibited. The second is a nearly 180-foot-wide glass “drum,” which serves as a reception area, and which Gehry intended to be reminiscent of nearby Roman arenas. The tower contains offices, artist commissions, and a multipurpose event space.

The building is broken into a combination of archives, exhibition spaces that include a 10,764-square-foot exhibition hall devoid of columns. There’s also a cafe-restaurant, a 150-seat auditorium, workshops, a library, and a series of event and seminar rooms.

Step Inside Frank Gehry’s Newest Tower in the South of France

Not including this year's exhibitions, there are permanent installations by artists throughout the campus. In the Drum, visitors will be able to slide down a double helix of slides by artist Carsten Hoeller; a similar installation was temporarily installed in the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern in 2007.

Luma Arles is part of Hoffmann’s Zurich-based Luma Foundation, which she founded in 2004. “She decided to create some sort of vehicle that would bring together her multiple commitments with the art, environment, and so on,” Bouhayati says. “And since then, she’s been interested in finding the intersection between art, the environment, education, and research in any form of discipline—be it art, architecture, film, and so forth.”

Step Inside Frank Gehry’s Newest Tower in the South of France

The point of Luma Arles, Bouhayati continues, isn’t simply to showcase art, or even create it. “It’s not always the result, it’s the research,” he says.

The idea took shape after the financial crisis of 2007-08, when “we were saying we’re going to build a production platform,” he says. “More conventional institutions were looking at us, probably with some doubt and skepticism. But we didn’t want to put a collection in [the building], the idea was to produce whatever it is we’re going to show.”

Step Inside Frank Gehry’s Newest Tower in the South of France

That isn’t a hard and fast rule. For starters, the opening exhibition in the main hall is composed of work from Hoffmann’s collection. Even that, Bouhayati says, is in keeping with the foundation’s mission. “For the opening show, we’re presenting a selection of artworks she’s produced over time, because for us they’re relevant and resonate,” he says.

“So they are from Maja’s collection, but when she’s [helping to] produce artwork, she’s more like a project person that someone just collecting.”

Step Inside Frank Gehry’s Newest Tower in the South of France

All of the permanent artworks, with the exception of an outdoor sculpture by Franz West, were commissioned by Hoffmann, Bouhayati says. “They’re embedded in the structure of the building.”

One example is the (very functional) Drum Café, conceived by artist Rirkrit Tiravanija and intended to make its visitors consider, or reconsider, notions of hospitality, friendship, and communality. The design uses materials from the area’s bioregion, such as sunflowers, merino wool, and dye from area plants; the latter two can be found in a massive, 32-foot-long tapestry Tiravanija commissioned from the Aubusson atelier.

Step Inside Frank Gehry’s Newest Tower in the South of France

Bouhayati declines to give an official cost for the entire project. “You can’t put a number on something that’s this holistic,” he says. “It’s something that reflects a lifetime of engagement.”

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