For generations, the Jardin d’Acclimatation in Paris’s Bois de Boulogne park has captured imaginations with amusements both nostalgic and novel. Opened in 1860 by Napoléon III and Empress Eugénie, the Jardin, a zoological garden, has, at various points in its history, beckoned visitors with a house of mirrors, an enchanted river ride, a puppet theater, games of every description, and, of course, a merry menagerie. This fall it welcomes its most audacious and fantastical attraction yet: the Fondation Louis Vuitton. A dazzling center for contemporary art and culture, the project is the brainchild of Bernard Arnault, chairman and CEO of the French luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy–Louis Vuitton, and was brought to life by that most lyrical of architectural conjurers, Frank Gehry.
With its shiplike exterior of billowing glass sails, the 126,000-square-foot, 2.5-story building suggests an avant-garde update of the Jolly Roger, gracefully piloted by Peter Pan through the Bois’s verdant sea of centuries-old trees with a trail of pixie dust in its wake. Bewitching and majestic, the structure alights in the park with the delicacy of the Winged Victory perched at the head of the Daru staircase in the Louvre. Suffice it to say, it’s the kind of place that invites ecstatic odes and mixed metaphors.
The Fondation’s story began in 2001, when Arnault first met Gehry and proposed creating an institution that would house LVMH’s burgeoning art collection and provide a platform for diverse cultural programs. What was required was a truly visionary building, one that would reflect LVMH’s rich engagement with the arts across a variety of creative fields. Gehry recalls his first trip to the Jardin d’Acclimatation with Arnault as a watershed moment. "I thought of all the extraordinary people who must have played in the garden as children—first and foremost, Marcel Proust," the architect says. "Tears came to my eyes."
Conceptual designs began in 2004, and Gehry presented the first models to an enthusiastic Arnault later that year. "I knew Frank Gehry was perfectly suited to create a buil-ding that would stand for our artistic commitment and would stir the emotions," says Arnault, who, reached by e-mail, cited his admiration for the architect’s twin triumphs: the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
For this project Gehry found inspiration in soaring glass-and-steel structures of the 19th century, including the Jardin’s own Palmarium, a lavish showcase for exotic trees, plants, and birds that was built on the site in 1893 and demolished in 1934. The center’s design features a number of the hallmarks—voluptuous swirls, dynamic asymmetries, an irrepressible optimism—that characterize Gehry’s earlier groundbreaking works. Only here, glass replaced metal as the defining material. "The idea of using glass was a positive force in gaining support from the mayor of Paris," he says. "And it was essential in making the Fondation a true Bois de Boulogne building, in the spirit of a children’s park."
Of course, museums don’t hang paintings on glass walls, so the architect and his team essentially conceived a building within a building. The Fondation’s distinctive shell, which Gehry refers to as the Verrière, consists of a dozen of the monumental glass sail forms, all variously angled and overlapping. Underneath sits an assemblage of irregular volumes, known as the Iceberg, containing 11 galleries for art. The Iceberg is clad in luminous white panels of fiber-reinforced concrete, while the Verrière is held aloft by a network of steel trusses and wood beams in a bravura feat of architectural acrobatics. To observe city-mandated height restrictions, the architects excavated the site and erected the structure below grade, set within a reflecting pool that underscores its nautical air and suffuses the edifice with shimmering light. A terraced waterfall at one end adds a kinetic element.
Although the galleries vary in square footage, height, and architectural flourishes—some are extremely tall and capped by twisting light wells—the rooms all possess conventionally squared-up walls. Having suffered the barbs of critics who argued his Bilbao museum was inimical to the display of art, Gehry maintains that his spaces at the Fondation will ennoble the works they house. "My galleries are pretty damn good," he says. "They’re simple and not enfiladed, so the progression from one to another never feels monotonous. You always pass through a connective space with natural light."
Thus far LVMH has been tight-lipped about the works that will be on view, saving the specifics as a surprise for the building’s opening in late October. But Gehry has devised spaces sympathetic to art of almost every scale and medium. He’s particularly excited about the possibilities of installing sculpture in the areas between the Iceberg and the Verrière—a playground of breathtaking corridors, vertiginous stairwells, and secret gardens that amplifies the Fondation’s aura of discovery and delight. "It’s a complicated proposition, and artists have to be willing to engage in a meaningful way," Gehry says. "It’s possible that they could make a significant impact on the architecture and challenge me in a way that I might not be so happy about. But I’m not unwilling to be challenged."
One of the artists commissioned by LVMH is Ellsworth Kelly, who created a suite of paintings and a tantalizing candy-striped stage screen for the performance hall nestled into the Fondation’s lowest level. The broad array of programming options in this multifunctional space gets to the heart of LVMH’s aspirations for the Fondation as a locus of cultural activity. Also on this level are three massive galleries where fashion shows and other events can be presented.
"LVMH and its maisons have always stood for a certain art de vivre, founded on old-world craftsmanship in the service of an ever-evolving creativity and modernity," Arnault says. "For the men and women of the LVMH group, this new cultural institution will be a source of pride and a symbol of who they are and the work they do."
For his part Gehry sees the Fondation as an opportunity to expand beyond the scope of a typical art museum. "There are ways of exploring the relationship between fashion and art that don’t have to be about crass commercialism," he says. "This building has to be open to experimentation, so I hope Arnault is eager to play at that edge." After all, why do people come to the Jardin if not to play?
See more photos of the exquisite Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton arts center .