The Louis Vuitton Foundation is a new high-profile cultural offering for the city of lights, but art's higher calling becomes just a tool of luxury promotion for the ultra-privileged.
PARIS — Though Frank Gehry"s new Paris jewel hasn't finished surprising us with superlatives, it's worth noting that the just unveiled contemporary art museum designed by the California architect also has its detractors. They point to the incoherence of its location in a ghetto of the rich, its gratuitous monumentality, its old-fashioned and reactionary cultural program, its astronomical budget overrun, and the excessive remuneration of the architect.
Certainly, benefactor Bernard Arnault has the right to do what he wants with the money he legally avoids paying French tax authorities. But that won't prevent us from questioning the relevance of his latest investment in the Louis Vuitton Foundation, as the new museum is called.
According to Hal Foster, one of the most pertinent critics of Gehry's work, the American pioneer of deconstruction owes his architectural fame to the place he's forged for himself in a system ruled by self-congratulation, nepotism and collusion. From the undeniable innovator that he was in the 1980s, he has become in Foster's view an architect in the service of a certain kind of speculation at the crossroads of art and finance.
The foundation building, with its clever terracing, is ostensibly a deconstruction of the Parisian panorama — a fragmentation of the big picture, the parts ingeniously recomposed. Gehry's having drawn on a cubist-futurist aesthetic model is both a surprise and a disappointment. It's surprising because we'd like to see the connecting thread that goes from the constructivists to the critical deconstruction of the 1980s extended to include the deconstructions of late capitalism. Constructivism, which was political and subversive, was never mannered — but what Gehry does is.
The museum will be an additional port of call among the already abundant cultural offerings available to the millions of tourists strolling Parisian boulevards. It is located in the heart of the arrondissement that has the greatest number of wealth tax contributors.
The Louis Vuitton Foundation consciously cultivates an amalgam of art and luxury, artifact and merchandise. Its location is symptomatic of that. We are in a part of the city where those most likely to be clients — of both the museum and the company — live.
Missing a crucial element: public good
Using a cultural project to sell handbags and shoes would not be reprehensible per se if apologists didn't turn it into an ideological act. But that's what's starting to happen. A social mix, education, making knowledge available to the many — all of which are essential components of public cultural policy — are swept aside here in favor of the promotion of splendor and luxury for the ultra-privileged.
It's difficult not to succumb to the charms of the new building, meant to be emblematic. Flights of poetry fixed in matter, glass walls swollen like wind-filled sails and rising up to heights of over 60 meters. They interlace and surround without closing off the new museum's atypical volumes. And if the Gehry mark is recognizable, the use of wood and glass breaks with the metallic surfaces we've come to expect of him.
A furtive gesture fixed in time, a freeze frame of an ongoing act of morphogenesis, a kaleidoscope on an urban scale — metaphors abound to describe this unusual object.
But compare the new museum to its programmatic and morphological alter ego, the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. What's changed is that Gehry has chosen to use glass to do what he was used to creating with metal.
As in the Charles Perrault fairytale Peau d’âne (Donkey Skin), with each project Frank Gehry wants to give his buildings ever more elaborate robes. And he can, thanks to the outsized appetite of his patrons. The Guggenheim did it in titanium? Make me one in crystal! The wish of the prince that rings out in the immoderate rooms of the new museum meshes with the voice of the architect who acquiesces: Let's make glass waves, a crystalline storm for eternity!
Gehry's latest desire is to bend glass as one would metal. The result meets all expectations: It shines, it glitters, but does it bring anything to the project other than consecrating the architect as a master in his field? Virtuosity pushed to the extreme touches on indecency and easily tips into bad taste. Any musician knows that. Frank Gehry doesn't appear to.
The architectural folly also made itself felt in the project's budget. Gehry is no longer remunerated like a contractor but becomes a financial partner in an act that earns money. In a project whose value has been artificially inflated and is well in excess of 500 million euros ($626 million), 20% of the money spent was spent on studies. That's a very simple way to get a huge fee and still stay on the right side of the law. It remains to be seen if the public contribution to the budget, whether they be subsidies or tax exemptions, warrant judicial inquiry. Having practiced the same methods in a country that went bankrupt, Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava now lives in Zurich to escape the Spanish justice system.
Between Bilbao and Paris, what's different is the project's finality. With the Guggenheim, the ultimate objective was giving new life to a city that was losing its edge. The Bilbao effect has entered history as the method that uses a cultural apparatus to give new luster to a neighborhood, a city, a region. In Paris, the generosity of a patron contributing to something other than glorifying his own name is missing. Without a vision, without a function, this beautiful object parachuted into the city's Bois de Boulogne park radiates all the vulgarity of the intentions of its backers. Will the architect escape unscathed?