Review: Gehry’s Louis Vuitton Foundation museum is a triumph, but to what end?

Frank Gehry's effective use of glass and water for the Louis Vuitton Foundation makes for a dramatic yet refined interplay.
(Bertrand Guay / AFP/Getty Images)
Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic

The personal or private museum, built to hold the blue-chip paintings of a wealthy collector, is more of an American phenomenon than a European one.

In Los Angeles alone we have the examples of the Getty, the Huntington and the Hammer to look to, with Eli Broad’s Bunker Hill museum ready to join their ranks next year.

The new museum for the Louis Vuitton Foundation, designed by Frank Gehry for French billionaire Bernard Arnault, suggests that in an age of stratospheric personal fortunes and a hypercompetitive art market the model is ready to go global.


And who better to turn to as architect for this effort than Gehry?

Nearly 20 years after his Guggenheim in Bilbao gave revelatory form to the questionable idea that museums could expand across the globe like colonial empires, the 85-year-old architect has again provided a brilliant backdrop for a controversial art-world initiative: the personal museum for the new gilded age.

And the design is brilliant, a late-career triumph, whatever you make of the idea that the personal museum, once essentially domestic in scale, has now been inflated to meet the expectations of a new class of oligarchs and their high-paid art consultants.

Trading the shimmering metal panels that wrap both Disney Hall and Bilbao for huge curving sails made of glass, a material Gehry uses here in remarkable ways, it joins the Guggenheim and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles as the most impressive works of the architect’s nearly six-decade career.

The museum is as ambitious as anything Gehry has ever produced but also, surprisingly, as refined. Covering 126,000 square feet and holding 11 separate galleries on four levels as well as a sizable auditorium, it almost effortlessly translates his trademark form-making, which has often been eager to tweak bourgeois taste and flirt with ugliness, into something monumentally elegant and recognizably Parisian.

The site is near the northern end of the Bois de Boulogne, the extensive park on the west side of Paris, facing Avenue Mahatma Gandhi and backing up to the Jardin d’Acclimatation, a charming children’s garden where Marcel Proust played as a child.

Gehry has carved a kind of deep moat around most of the building, so that it seems to emerge like a giant iceberg. On its eastern end the museum is suspended over a large, cascading fountain, giving it a dramatic vertical energy it doesn’t have elsewhere.

The lowest level of the building, one floor below the street, is surrounded by narrow reflecting pools, creating a grotto-like space where the artist Olafur Eliasson, in a piece called “Inside the Horizon,” has wrapped a row of triangular columns in Murano glass.

At sidewalk level the museum has a ticket booth and revolving doors facing Mahatma Gandhi and another entrance on the park side. Both entries lead to an atrium that is a clear indication of the museum’s proper Frenchness, despite its dramatically American wrapper.

At Disney Hall, Gehry actively frustrates the idea that a concert hall should have a large lobby leading to a grand stair, saving the architectural payoff for the interior of the auditorium itself. Here the space, with white walls next to windows offering broad views of the park, is sensibly cosmopolitan, even rational: you immediately see that the auditorium is in one direction, a restaurant in another, the galleries in a third.

Clad in scored Corian walls and decorated with large pieces by the artist Ellsworth Kelly, the auditorium occupies the lowest level of the building, with tall windows opening toward the fountain.

For the most part, the galleries are restrained. The most impressive, on the upper floors, are lighted by recessed or partially hidden skylights and suggest that Gehry has been studying Le Corbusier’s famous chapel in Ronchamp, 250 miles southeast of Paris.

Atop the building is a complex, multilevel series of terraces. This part of the design, providing views of the Bois de Boulogne treetops and the skyscrapers of La Defense, is a coup in itself, suggesting a kind of open-air village.

If the building in places seems unusually refined by the standards of Gehry’s career, the sheer scale and the dramatic way the massive details of its construction are everywhere exposed keeps it from seeming muted. Gehry has taken the experiments in glass that his firm, Gehry Partners, tried in buildings for IAC in New York and Novartis in Switzerland and has streamlined and hugely expanded them. At the same time the design looks back to 19th-century precedents like London’s Crystal Palace.

What the finished product proves is something Bilbao and Disney Hall also make clear: that when Gehry uses a unified palette — instead of piling clashing materials and colors atop his familiar colliding forms — he doesn’t dilute the power of his architecture but clarifies and strengthens it. In Spain and on Bunker Hill, Gehry achieved that unity with titanium and steel skins, here with the interplay between glass, water and the white concrete panels that wrap the towers holding the museum’s galleries.

The designs that made Gehry’s reputation, beginning in the 1970s, distrusted the idea of unity as a relic of the Modernist movement he was eager to move past. His own house in Santa Monica, a modest bungalow that Gehry took apart and rewrapped in sheets of chain link and corrugated metal, was representative of this desire, much more about rupture and lively fragmentation than any sort of synthesis.

Over time he has slowly — and with some nostalgic backsliding to the older model, as in Seattle’s disappointing Experience Music Project — moved toward something more appreciably coherent. The overall composition of the Vuitton Foundation might appear chaotic to somebody who’d never seen his restless earlier work. By Gehry’s standards it is eager to look not just composed but beautiful.

What the museum means politically is a more complicated question. Since the company Arnault runs, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, controlled the concessions inside the children’s garden, he had a leg up in negotiating to build next door. In 2062 the building will revert to public ownership, becoming property of the city of Paris.

This has led some to media reports to describe the museum as a gift to Parisians and, indeed, all of France. But the arrangement also gives the 65-year-old Arnault, who is worth an estimated $30 billion, an astonishing site to build a museum celebrating the breadth of his corporate collection. (Elsewhere in Paris he might have faced far tougher design restrictions.) While he is alive, and likely for several decades after, it will function as a personal museum in most of the ways that count, holding big-ticket artworks in an impossible-to-miss building whose design he oversaw.

Though it carries the name Foundation, the museum is without doubt a promotional vehicle for LVMH — meant to extend haute couture into architecture, or vice versa. The side of the building facing Avenue Mahatma Gandhi, right above the ticket booth, holds a large stainless-steel LV logo designed by Gehry: way-finding meets bling, the architectural facade as magazine spread.

After finishing my visit to the museum, I took the Metro back to central Paris. I was staring absent-mindedly at the floor of the train when I noticed the shoes worn by the man standing in front of me. There was the same silver logo, the interlocking L and V. I was beginning to understand Arnault’s particular and aggressive version of architectural synergy.

The next day I was in Venice, Italy, to see this year’s Architecture Biennale. In late afternoon I walked past a Louis Vuitton shop on a narrow street near Campo San Moise. In the front window was a necklace suspended in front of three curving, shimmering metallic panels, immediately recognizable as Gehryesque forms reminded of Eero Saarinen.

A small line of text was affixed to the glass.

“Windows designed in collaboration with Frank Gehry,” it read. Arnault’s circle was complete.

Follow me on Twitter: @HawthorneLAT