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Foundation louis vuitton in Paris

The work of ‘starchitect’ Frank Gehry is an exemplary piece of architecture amidst the greens of Bois de Boulogne, dedicated to host exhibitions, support artists and educate the public.

March 2015

Most major museums today are financed by municipal or national initiatives perhaps supported by private funds. But the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris is different. Like a Medici palace, it represents one man’s dream, a masterwork from a contemporary art lover and collector.

Bernard Arnault has been the Chairman and CEO of the LVMH Group since 1989.  Already in 1990 he started the activities that led to the creation of the Fondation Louis Vuitton, organised to host exhibitions, support artists, and educate the public. However, it was a foundation without walls and without a name until he met Frank Gehry in New York in late 2001 – after having visited the architect’s dramatic Guggenheim Bilbao museum.

The dream site in Paris was already available to Arnault. Located at the edge of the Bois de Boulogne – the famous green space depicted in many Impressionist paintings – next to the Jardin d’Acclimatation (a 19th century amusement venue popular with French families) – the space was owned by the House of Dior that Arnault acquired in the 1980s.

All that remained was to show the site to Frank Gehry in early 2002, and the architect’s imagination took over. On the 11-hour flight back to his home in Los Angeles, Gehry drew and drew and filled a sketchbook with his ideas. Later the ideas were subjected to technical requirements and finally drawn to specifications by proprietary computer software.

The Fondation Louis Vuitton was established in 2006. Two years later with permits acquired from local authorities work began at the site. The museum opened officially in October 2014 under the patronage of French President Francois Hollande.

The Fondation was intended and designed to be another of the great monuments of Paris. It is much easier for an architect to create a signature structure in a newer and less known city with fewer major landmarks familiar around the world. Paris has been an inspiration to artists and revolutionaries for more than 200 years. To add another structure to its assemblage of beautiful buildings, one must be brave and daring.


Gehry integrated the Fondation into the greenery of the Bois de Boulogne and the Jardin d’Acclimatation by taking advantage of the location between woods and garden and adding water, embedding the museum in a huge artificial pool. Twelve enormous glass sails above the structure and the pool beneath play with light and mirror effects.

Interestingly, in Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island, it is Foster & Partners’ Zayed National Museum that uses sails as part of the design while Gehry’s Guggenheim there seems more static with cylinders and blocks firmly fixed on the sand.  The Abu Dhabi Guggenheim is also somewhat reminiscent of the Bilbao museum. The Fondation Louis Vuitton goes in a different direction.

The Fondation covers 11,000 square meters of space with 7,000 for public use. There are 11 galleries for the permanent collections, artists’ installations, and travelling exhibitions plus an auditorium with modular sections to seat from 360-1000 people. Visitors soon realise that from the terraces extending from the building are some amazing views of Paris from the Eiffel Tower to La Defense.

When Frank Gehry and Bernard Arnault met for the first time in Paris, Arnault was surprised and impressed by the architect’s knowledge of Proust’s novels and the environment of glass structures in gardens typical of late 19th century elegant social life.

Apparently, that was at least part of the inspiration for Gehry’s version of the Fondation Louis Vuitton.  As he told an interviewer from Architecture magazine, “It was clear that this would have to be a garden building—something that fits into a garden. I did some sketches and showed them what that would be like, with the glass— the metaphor is Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace [in London], those recognised 19th century park buildings which are made of glass.”

From the sketches by Gehry, more than 400 people were involved in making mock-ups, testing engineering rules and materials constraints. All was introduced to a common web-hosted 3D digital model. The 19,000 concrete panels and 36,000 glass panels were simulated and produced by industrial robots – everything according to the 3D model. It was a revolutionary way to handle the problems posed by a complex design that will influence future projects by other architects.

As always in adding a new building to an existing site, there are restrictions. According to local authorities, the museum could not be taller than two stories. Actually, the Fondation is as much as five stories high in some sections, something achieved with glass. The solid opaque parts of the structure are not more than two stories, but the use of glass sails supported by wooden beams allows both light and height to increase gallery space.

The overall impression is of transparency. Glass surrounds blocks that Gehry calls icebergs, continuing the metaphor of a ship sailing on the water, its sails unfurled to the wind and shining in the sun.

As well as beautiful, the Fondation structure is energy efficient. Rainwater is collected on the roof and reused to clean and cool the building. The commitment to environmental sustainability has been recognized by France’s equivalent of LEED Gold – the new HQE (Haute Qualite Environmentale) certification. The Fondation is the first recipient of HQE.


Gehry who will celebrate his 85th birthday in September is one of the world’s so-called starchitects who received the Nobel of architecture, the Pritzker Prize, in 1989, the same year he completed the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

Among the many signature buildings designed by Gehry Partners are Dancing House in Prague, Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, IAC and New York Tower in New York, and Biomuseo, Panama. To this collection the Fondation Louis Vuitton was added in 2014.

The completion of the other major Gehry museum is now planned for 2017. With exhibition space of 12,000 square meters, the Abu Dhabi structure is bigger than the one in Paris. While the Fondation Louis Vuitton lies in a pool between the woods and the garden, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is in the desert surrounded by water.  Three sides of the Guggenheim will create a breakwater to protect the north side of Saadiyat Island.

Unlike in Paris where the sun’s heat is welcome most of the time, in Abu Dhabi, the powerful gulf sun will be filtered through canopies, cylinders, and galleries that allow light but control its impact. In Paris visitors will use external stairways and gardenlike outdoor paths. In Abu Dhabi visitors will be inside protected from the heat.

Finally, of course, the differences in conception and ownership: Fondation Louis Vuitton represents the vision of Bernard Arnault who is contributing parts of his private art collection as well as the building itself. Eventually, the Fondation will become the property of the city of Paris.

The Abu Dhabi Guggenheim will become the biggest branch of the world-renowned Guggenheim. It is a project of the Abu Dhabi government and represents a huge contribution to the creation of the arts district on Saadiyat Island. The Guggenheim will focus on Islamic and Middle Eastern art.

In Paris the Fondation Louis Vuitton will reflect the taste of Bernard Arnault for works of art in many forms and mediums since 1960.  The Fondation will show works from the permanent collection, exhibitions, and installations – especially works that were shocking at the time and have proved seminal for the artists that followed.

Like the Medicis and other famous supporters of the arts in other times, Bernard Arnault showcases his tastes and urges the rest of the world to experience them at the Fondation Louis Vuitton.