Luma: Frank Gehry erects a “Mediterranean lighthouse” in Arles | Culture


Something has the French city of Arles that, for centuries, has been a powerful magnet of culture and the arts, as attested by its majestic Roman amphitheater or the works that this luminous Provençal city in the south of France inspired artists such as Vincent van Gogh or Pablo Picasso. A I do not know what (or perhaps it is known; its light, its landscape, its atmosphere) that also captured from very early the Swiss patron and collector Maja Hoffmann and, with her hand, the architect Frank Gehry. Together they have conceived the creative campus Luma Arles, which opens this Saturday as a “universe of cultural, artistic and intellectual expressions”. Its main attraction is La Torre, the spectacular building – a “Mediterranean lighthouse”, Hoffmann calls it – designed by the international Canadian architect, also creator of the iconic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

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At a time when cultural cities par excellence such as Paris reopen their classic art galleries and even expand their artistic offer – as with the recently inaugurated Pinault Collection -, 750 kilometers further south, the city of Arles, which already had a renowned photography festival , with a charming Van Gogh Foundation and which is even the headquarters of a renowned publishing house, Actes Sud, seeks with this new proposal to establish itself as an original cultural and intellectual counter-offer to large cities.

Luma Arles is a miscellaneous project —a “cultural utopia turned into reality”, as defined by Hoffmann— installed in the former repair shops of the French railway company SNCF and capable of seducing a general public with various proposals, from permanent and temporary exhibitions to concerts or workshops, beyond a well-kept four-hectare park that the Belgian landscaper Bas Smets has conceived as a “journey through the region through the fauna and flora” of the neighboring Camargue natural park. But it also seeks to attract to this “interdisciplinary interactive campus” the main artists and thinkers of the world to reflect on the “relationships between art, culture, environment, education or science” without having to stick “to the practices and structures of classical institutions ”.

The Tower is a spiral construction covered in sheets of aluminum sheets designed by the architect Frank Gehry that serves as the headquarters for the Lum Foundation in Arles (southern France).
The Tower is a spiral construction covered in sheets of aluminum sheets designed by the architect Frank Gehry that serves as the headquarters for the Lum Foundation in Arles (southern France).
Pascal GUYOT / AFP

“We want the visitor to see contemporary art as a creation that is a reflection of what happens today, but also with the hope that anything is possible,” explained Hoffmann, heir to the Hoffman-La Roche pharmaceutical laboratory, during the presentation. campus official, this Friday.

The first Roman building

The last element that was missing from a project in which the Luma de Hoffmann Foundation has been working since 2013 and to which it has dedicated enormous funds that it refuses to specify is also its soul: La Torre. Thus, to dry. “Neither the Hoffmann tower nor the Gehry tower”, says the Swiss with an Arlesian heart, in love with this city where she lived in her youth with her father, the ornithologist and environmental activist Luc Hoffmann, one of the founders of the NGO that defends the nature WWF.

A tower that, with its 56 meters high, imposes itself, to the chagrin of some Arlesians, in the physiognomy of this city until now remembered for its Roman architectural legacy. Gehry, however, defends the “cozy” character of what he defines as his “first Roman building” and fully integrated, sustains, in the essence of nature and the city that inspired him. “The fascination for Roman architecture and for this region was certainly in my mind” when creating a design that “is a tribute to that period”, explains the Canadian, who visited Arles for the first time in the 1960s.

The reflection that the Luma Arles creative campus seeks to provoke is not incompatible with playfulness, as shown by the slides that the artist Casten Höller has installed inside La Torre.
The reflection that the Luma Arles creative campus seeks to provoke is not incompatible with playfulness, as shown by the slides that the artist Casten Höller has installed inside La Torre. Pascal GUYOT / AFP

Although if something marks La Torre, it is the light and the sensation of open space that is achieved through a nine-story structure that stands on a “drum”, a circular and translucent base, also “inspired by Roman amphitheaters. ”. It is the same light that inspired Van Gogh and that Gehry has managed to capture through the metallic bricks specially created for covering the upper part of the building, which cause the Tower to change color at different times of the day.

In that “symbiosis” that is the Luma Arles campus, part of the works exhibited at La Torre have been specifically commissioned so that they “integrate into the DNA” of the building, like Danny, the immersive work of the French Philippe Parreno who plays with the weather in real time, or the large circular mirror by Olafur Elíasson installed on the ceiling of the double spiral staircase and slowly rotating on its axis.

The Tower also houses works brought in from the various collections of the Hoffmann family, as well as, among others, some surprising “living archives” with small but very special collections by artists such as photographers Annie Leibovitz and Diane Arbus. At the same time, empty, modular spaces have been left, ready to receive any type of project that helps to explore that future that Luma Arlés tries to understand and configure.

The Provençal city of Arles once inspired artists such as Picasso and Van Gogh.  Now he has inspired architect Frank Gehry and Swiss collector Maja Hoffmann to create
The Provençal city of Arles once inspired artists such as Picasso and Van Gogh. Now he has inspired architect Frank Gehry and Swiss collector Maja Hoffmann to create “a beacon of the Mediterranean.” Pascal GUYOT / AFP

“The ideas that we try to present always have to do with what is at the forefront of political events, of nature,” says Vassilis Oikonomopoulos, director of exhibitions and programs. Great ideas that, however, can also be read more easily in a space open to all audiences (admission is free). Like Carsten Höller’s playful slide or the phosphorescent skateboard track that Korean artist Koo Jeong A has designed for the terrace of Gehry’s Tower.

“The representation that people have of what a work of art is not necessarily something that requires a context,” says the deputy executive director of Luma Arlés, Mustapha Bouhayati, who ventures that “there will be people who use the track skate without knowing that it is a work of art ”.


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