America’s most famous architect of the late-20th century (extending as it has into the 21st) is Frank Gehry; after all, stylistic eras rarely coincide exactly with the calendar’s measure of time. Now, one of his most audacious and long-awaited works, the fondation that opened to the public less than three months ago, finds itself in a suddenly turbulent Paris.
For nearly two generations now, Gehry’s imprimatur has guaranteed the collective approval of international tastemakers, united by the force of shifting prejudices defined as progressive and thus praiseworthy. Never in history has this category of artistic impact crossed borders with such instantaneous and sustained fixity. The results are creative commodities of shared value capable of transcending politics and even religion and thus bestowing prestige on all those associated with it. These are the brands of immutable excellence that transcend the very products that bear their marque, evoking Jean Cocteau’s aphorism, “ The only thing that never changes is the avant-garde.”
Photo © Iwan Baan
It is only fitting that today’s brander in chief, Bernard Arnault — whose vast wealth and commercial power is based squarely on amassing companies already associated with products of distinctive refinement — has added Gehry to his according roster. As the founder and president of the LVMH Moët Hennessy, Arnault commissioned the 1989 Pritzker laureate to design the new headquarters of his Foundation Louis Vuitton, which opened last October to assured acclaim in Bois de Bologne park of Paris’s affluent 16th Arrondissement.
So too is the art on display from the Fondation’s collection a safe bet: Current and upcoming exhibitions invariably feature blue-chip artists, securely ensconced in the bubble of global art fairs, auctions, and galleries. And as in those venues, the artists summoned here are subsumed as brand names mutually reinforcing the new building’s place as the best evidence to date of Warhol’s adage that “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”
© Ellsworth Kelly © Fondation Louis Vuitton Marc Domage
Although its formal merit will be determined only with time, the Fondation’s significance for architecture and contemporary practitioners is its place as the built manifestation of one man’s will in the public realm and his power to enlist even stars of the arts and design as a means to personal reverence. The narrative here is set in stone and the story told is one of capitalist gain. No risk has been taken; rather, it is a case of strategically imparting a lingering veneer of risk, pioneered and perfect by others across many years. It is meant to lionize, not to explode — the edgy haute couture of Gehry’s origins reduced to ready-to-wear.
Unlike many Paris landmarks that first sparked outrage, this one may remain unloved due to the fact that it alone is set aside as a thinly veiled private enterprise of predetermined meaning. As we saw last week, French culture is skeptical of proscribed assertions: the Fondation is but a fanciful diversion in the face of the terror incident at Charlie Hebdo and reaction. Architectural skeptics of the last few years, who have ceded a precedent of gradual embrace (Beaubourg, The Louvre Pyramide, the Grand Palais for starters), may discover that their first dubious instinct holds true after all.
Gehry's overt allusions, both whimsical and majestic, to the Eiffel Tower (whose view from here is largely and curiously denied) are ultimately superficial links to the Fondation's place-making forebear. Eiffel’s charge, after all, was to celebrate France one hundred tumultuous years after its Revolution, along with the advances in industry that the nation saw as the key to its social and economic future. Such a supreme gesture of shared purpose — inviting successive generations to ascribe meaning to the beloved 1889 World’s Fair marvel of engineering — seems diametrically opposed to the individualized vanity and temporal specificity of the Fondation Louis Vuitton.
By turning off the Eiffel Tower lights on the night of January 8 in mute observance of both the slain cartoonists and a country in mourning, its capacity to collectively embody this sentiment is precisely what an extravagant private landmark like the new Gehry building lacks. Only in the public realm can the City of Light go dark with legible potency.
Photo by Dursun Aydemier / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
In fact, the same disconnect from intended public benefit optimistically fueled Gehry’s previous Paris project: The 1994 (pre-Bilbao) American Center, informed as it was by the namesake’s culture as a platform for education abroad. Doomed, perhaps, by a fuzzy and overly ambitious building program defined by a board of directors gripped by France’s historic affliction of la folie de bâtir, Gehry himself made his contribution as ordered. When the American Center closed, the structure evolved to accommodate a new home for the Cinemathèque Française. In hindsight, it is sobering to imagine its vulnerability to attack if in fact it had remained as first conceived. The Fondation Louis Vuitton, then, is certainly a success for Gehry, if not exactly the proverbial best revenge.
Photo via Forbes
Architects should take note and watch carefully if such patronage is the new paradigm in what seems like a second Gilded Age — or just the pinnacle of a passing moment in the design continuum, when creative excellence for the public square is harnessed to individual will. Perhaps a complex modern society faced with grave decision-making cannot afford that sacrifice of commonwealth.