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Frank Gehry drops a spaceship in Paris

Legendary architect flashes defiant middle finger to his critics with new Fondation Louis Vuitton art museum

Iwan Baan / Fondation Louis Vuitton

A minibus studded with fake diamonds and Louis Vuitton branding curled around a busy traffic circle at the top of the Champs-Elysée before escaping into the Bois du Boulogne, an enormous forest on the outskirts of Paris. Everyone’s gaze turned outward as we meandered through the woods, passing playgrounds and lunch break joggers, looking for a hulking white oasis that was impossible to miss.

I was on my way to see Frank Gehry’s latest work, the sprawling new Fondation Louis Vuitton. The $130 million building, affectionately dubbed “the glass cloud,” was commissioned in 2006 as a contemporary art and performance space for the Fondation, which is the philanthropic wing of the LVMH luxury goods conglomerate. It opened to the public Monday, after a week of media buzz and star-studded galas. French President François Hollande was on hand for the building’s inauguration last week, where he described the building as a “cathedral of light” and a “miracle of intelligence, creativity, and technology.”

The museum certainly cuts an imposing figure, with its galactic glass "sails" standing in cold contrast to the pastoral children’s park that neighbors it. From afar, it looks equal parts spaceship and sailboat — maybe even a bird. Twelve diaphanous sails encase the 126,000-square-foot building, shielding an oblique, undulating white exterior that the Fondation likens to an iceberg. The design was inspired, Gehry said, by the glass architecture of the late 19th century, as well as the children’s park it empties onto. Water cascades into a lower-level "grotto," illuminated by the soft yellow hues of a light installation by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. Louis Vuitton branding is sparse, but hardly subtle: an enormous shining "LV" brooch looms over the entrance.

Inside are 11 gallery spaces, a 350-person auditorium, and an upscale restaurant. The lobby’s soaring ceilings distill ambient chatter into a soft buzz, with giant windows framing the lush lawn outside. Navigating through the galleries can be a winding and sometimes disorienting experience, but you invariably end up at one of the site’s tree-dotted rooftop terraces with gorgeous panoramic views of the city — Eiffel Tower and all.

This week’s opening caps a busy month for Gehry, who, at 85, is still among today’s most celebrated and recognizable "starchitects." His career is the focus of a major retrospective that opened this month at the Centre Pompidou museum in Paris, and the Fondation has reinvigorated debates about his work.

"98 percent of everything that is built and designed today is pure shit."

There are of course some who criticize his buildings as excessive and over the top — the Fondation faced stiff opposition from local groups before being greenlit by the French government — but Gehry has brushed them aside, sometimes with vigor. At a press conference in Spain last week, Gehry flashed his middle finger to a journalist who asked him to comment on those who say his works are just "spectacle."

"Let me tell you one thing," the architect replied. "In this world we are living in, 98 percent of everything that is built and designed today is pure shit. There’s no sense of design, no respect for humanity or for anything else. They are damn buildings and that’s it."

"Once in a while, however, a group of people do something special. Very few, but God, leave us alone."


A model of the building is on display in one of its 11 gallery spaces. (Gehry Partners LLP)