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Frank Gehry's Fondation Louis Vuitton shows he doesn't know when to stop

Oct 21st 2014 at 7:12 PM

Ad hocism … A study model for Frank Gehry's own house in Santa Monica, 1978, is one of the highlights of the Pompidou show.

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At the exit of Les Sablons Metro station, in a well-heeled western suburb of Paris, stands a brown tourist sign that appears to have been misprinted. Next to the recognisable fairground silhouettes of merry-go-rounds and swings, advertising the nearby Jardin d’Acclimatation, is a mess of white blotches. If you screw your eyes up, it looks like a chrysalis, or a strange beetle. This way to the insect house, perhaps?

It is, in fact, a sign for the latest building by Frank Gehry – the Fondation Louis Vuitton, which has landed in the woodland park of the Bois de Boulogne as an avalanche of glass sails. Piled up in a staggered heap, these great curved shields twist and turn in the architect’s trademark style, their odd angles poking above the trees, visible for miles around. As if caught in a violent storm, the sails flare open in places to reveal an inner world of white walls, sculpted like whipped meringue, and a dense thicket of steel struts and wooden beams that have been forced into improbable shapes. For an architect often criticised for making “logotecture”, this is one tricky logo to distill – as the tourist board sign-writers have already discovered.

“It is a vessel, a fish, a sailing boat, a cloud,” says Frédéric Migayrou, architecture curator at the Pompidou Centre, who has organised a retrospective of Gehry’s work to coincide with the building’s opening. “It has all the metaphors of smoothness.” Sporting a glittering LV logo at the front door, it could also be a gigantic Louis Vuitton perfume bottle, smashed to smithereens.

Commissioned by Bernard Arnault, head of the LVMH luxury brand empire, whose personal net worth stands at £18.4bn, the complex is a palace for his collection of modern and contemporary art, a corporate cultural showcase. Built on public land, with private funds, it will be given as “a gift to the city” in 55 years’ time. But, like a loud LV handbag a glitzy relative might bring you back from a duty-free splurge, it is a gift the neighbourhood hasn’t seemed all that keen on receiving.

It is a grotesque imposition, in the eyes of some well-to-do local residents, standing as a brash monument to the fact that the country’s richest man can get his own way. Planning codes prohibit building in the protected natural site of the Bois, but structures are allowed under special circumstances, if they reach a height of no more than one-storey. A local campaign saw the project successfully halted in the courts, but then the National Assembly intervened declaring it was “a major work of art for the whole world” and must go ahead. A mysterious sleight of hand with the internal layout, using staggered “mezzanines” around a central atrium, means the building can claim to be just one storey tall – despite rising 50 metres into the air.

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