FOLLOWING THE GENESIS of Frank Gehry's projects is something of an exercise in futility. Drawing one is a giant squiggle, melded with more squiggles, finished off with a flourish and a squiggle. Drawing two – more squiggles. Drawing three, squiggles. Are these the progression of his thoughts? The building as visualised from different angles? An architectural Rorschach test?
In person, Gehry is considerably less ambiguous, a boldly blunt speaker who pulls no punches and cares little about the controversy that follows his projects. His latest work is Fondation Louis Vuitton, a gigantic glass structure commissioned by the French luxury brand to house permanent and temporary art and cultural exhibitions, planted in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris's Bois de Boulogne. A white box this is not – every nook and cranny, inside or out, is a talking point, carefully thought out and executed. Viewed from the sky, curved fins (or sails, or just plain panels, depending on who's interpreting) overlap and intersperse for a visually provoking spectacle. At ground level, it's an armoured behemoth offering sneak peeks into clean, asymmetric white edifices. Inside, it's a labyrinth of untold dimensions, with a multitude of levels, windows and walls creating an artistic matrix whose extent is difficult to fathom.
Its exterior alone has stirred up some amount of noise, what with unsuccessful lawsuits seeking to impede its construction, much in the manner iconic predecessors such as the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre Pyramid were once opposed. But even the internal structure of the building was contested after exploiting a loophole in planning codes – structures built in the Bois can reach no higher than one storey, a rule that was adhered to by strategic use of multiple “mezzanine” floors. “You couldn't build a warehouse in the Bois de Boulogne, that would be an insult to the Bois de Boulogne,” explains Gehry. “So you need to make a building with some gravitas, some resonance with nature, some beauty, if you may.”
Beauty, Gehry accedes, is in the eye of the beholder, but like those hotly debated steel edifices of yore that became paragons of forward-thinking design, the Fondation Louis Vuitton will no doubt become an architectural darling as the controversy fades – particularly when, in 50-odd years' time, the entire structure is donated to the city of Paris.
So important did Louis Vuitton consider Gehry's vision that the opening temporary exhibition at the Fondation was dedicated entirely to the architect's conception of the building – a dark and dramatic hall filled with his jumbled sketches, various stages of renderings and scale models, and a wall-to-wall time-lapse video that shows the structure being erected.
But it's not the only selfreferential showing – seven special commissions include two works directly linked to the creation of the building. The first is English artist Sarah Morris' video installation, Strange Magic, an almost documentary-like music video documenting the construction site in a purposely cacophonous manner. Scored by Liam Gillick, the music is created without any reference to the visuals, which Morris describes as “an atlas, a manifesto of everything I am interested in: production, cities, creating situations, politics, the psycho-geology of the map, spectacle, and, of course, colour.”
On the opposite side of the spectrum is American Taryn Simon's more underground investigation of the site, A Polite Fiction – an integration of the construction team's remnant emotional debris into a clean and clinical photographic composition. Art frames cover all four walls in the exhibition hall, each canvas encompassing multiple black-and-white photographs demanding to be individually examined. A photo of a toilet is captioned: “Makeshift prayer room. During Ramadan, xxx prayed every day in the restroom. He wanted to be alone while performing his prayers.” Another, of a wall, is marked, “Drawing of a goat. xxx drew over 100 goats on the construction site. He longed for his goats on his parents' farm in Portugal.” A set of found objects – from phallic concrete sculptures to discarded ashtrays – accompanies the photography. The captions are by turns nostalgic, funny, creepy or sad, a way of humanising this building that has become larger than life, larger even than its creator.
Neither of these artists, it's important to note, were asked to create a brand-oriented work. And though the pieces function best in their current context, they could equally stand tall in any other location. In some ways, the choice of subject matter is as telling as anything the oeuvres seek to communicate – an acceptance of the role of luxury brands in the art world, or perhaps a conscious revocation of the glamour associated with a house such as Vuitton, whose artistic claims to fame come more from fabric manipulations courtesy of the likes of Takashi Murakami, Stephen Sprouse and Yayoi Kusama.
Gehry, too, has contributed more than his architectural sense to Louis Vuitton. As part of the brand's Iconoclasts collection celebrating the LV monogram, he designed a miniature trunk whose curved and contorted shape echoes one of the sails atop the Fondation. He also designed the shop windows for Louis Vuitton boutiques this season (sails, once again, make up the backdrop). But for a man whose year has included quite a bit of Louis Vuitton, word is that he took very little direction from the brand in creating the Fondation, receiving general input and direction from Bernard Arnault but little else.
Over the years to come, Gehry's mark – now almost omnipresent – will fade, and the building will grow into itself. The sliver of window behind Mann im Matsch (Man in the Mud), an installation by Thomas Schütte, for example, will register as a natural light source to be taken advantage of, rather than a glass exit option through which more of Gehry's complicated architectural details can be viewed. “There's a lot of folklore about the white cube,” Gehry says. “Museum directors seem to only want the white cube, which for a lot of art doesn't work.” But just because it isn't a blank canvas doesn't mean it can't be changed, adapted, updated.
Even the exterior, he says, is far from precious. Those glass-paned sails could become canvasses for children's drawings, an idea with which he seems pleased. But just as Louis Vuitton has agreed to give up ownership of the museum to the city a few decades from now, Gehry happily concedes the creative direction of the museum to the brand, now. “The outdoor spaces, Suzanne [Pagé, artistic director of the Fondation] will figure out how to use that. That's going to be different, that the building can become changeable from the outside. France has a history of putting sculptures on buildings, on the outside. I hope they'll do the same here. You could do anything.”