Right outside the périphérique in Paris, in the chic banlieue Neuilly-sur-Seine, lies the Fondation Louis Vuitton, an art museum designed by Frank Gehry, which is dedicated to the spread and cultivation of arts and culture. It is also the home of the personal art collection of Bernard Arnault, the chairman
of LVMH (Louis Vuitton / Moët-Hennessy).
Approaching Fondation Louis Vuitton through the Bois de Bologne (Boulogne Woods) is probably very similar to the experience of finding a shipwrecked spaceship in the forest. In one moment you’re walking through nature enjoying the simple comfort of trees and leaves, flowers blooming, birds chirping, and then you come upon a shocking and imposing glowing image. This might be a good time to remind yourself that you’re in Paris, and not the Yukon Territory.
In the distance as this structure becomes larger and more imposing, Paris’s financial district, La Défense, reveals itself to you with its futuristic skyscrapers. Really, if there’s anything that “works” in accordance with Fondation Louis Vuitton, it’s these images off at the edge of your vision. And while it is true that Frank Gehry’s design does not seek to blend in with its surroundings, but rather, tries to defeat them, it is still an elegant and fluid building. The movement of the fragmented outer shell created by the twelve glass sails gives the feeling of movement, as if the museum could fly away, and the system of steel and wood beams do give it a sense of calm. The most enjoyable experience as a viewer of this museum is certainly the top floor outdoor terraces with its patches of nature intertwined with sculptural art pieces. It’s a place of Zen where you can be in the city but away from it. You have the feeling of being in the middle of it all, yet completely separate.
Viewing art, on the other hand, can be a struggle. As I navigated through Fondation Louis Vuitton I found myself not knowing where to go, and a couple times I literally thought to myself, “Where is the art?” which is probably not a good question to be asking yourself in a museum. The layout is very unclear once you do succeed in finding art. Once I was walking through an exhibition space in the wrong direction and a guard stopped to tell me I should be going the other way. And finally, I lost the group of friends I was with.
Perhaps this was Frank Gehry’s intention when he designed the building. Maybe he didn’t want the art inside to take away from his elegance? Or maybe he wanted to design a building you could get lost in? Perhaps there is something kind of charming about that type of artistic experience.
When I exited Fondation Louis Vuitton I saw someone had written in the guest book something that best sums up this museum’s experience:
YOU NEED SOME PLACES TO SIT DOWN IN THE FOYER.
(sometimes it’s hard to think about the actual people inhabiting the building, but give it a try . . . )