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Gehry Does Paris: Late Capitalism’s Theme Park

Paris.

The Louis Vuitton Foundation, on the edge of Paris’s Jardin d’Acclimatation (Bois de Boulogne), was officially opened last October, ending a long legal-political saga. In 2007 the mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoë — whose head of culture also worked for the foundation’s parent conglomerate LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) — had granted a building permit that was only approved with the help of a legislative trick. (A special law was passed by the National Assembly to get the building through.) This saga has been forgotten in media praise for the foundation, unsurprising given the financial clout of the project director, LVMH chairman and CEO Bernard Arnault (France’s richest man), the fame of the brand, and the stature of the architect, Frank Gehry.

The foundation, whose focus is contemporary art, is the creation of a group which is active in the fields of luxury goods and the media (1), and knows how to blur boundaries: it was able to command coverage for the building in the newspaper fashion, culture and celebrity pages, and also generate political and economic analysis. But above all, Frank Gehry — a “creator of dreams” according to the foundation’s website — had designed a building that was compared to a huge sailing ship, a great bird taking flight, or a shining cloud. President François Hollande paid tribute at the opening ceremony to the building’s sponsor, for providing “contemporary art for all” — although the building’s main sponsor is technically the taxpayer, since 66% of investment in foundations is tax exempt (and the foundation is built on public land, though it will eventually pass to the city of Paris). He called it “a crystal palace for culture”.

Not everyone has been quite so enthusiastic. Behind the philanthropy, the foundation, like many others, is out to enhance the LVMH brand image, though it aims to produce “not economic returns but emotional ones,” to quote Arnault’s adviser, Jean-Paul Claverie. Visiting the place reveals two — imperfectly aligned — Louis Vuitton Foundations. It is difficult to recognise in the actual building the marvellous structure that appears in the photographs (and the metaphors). This may be what happens with star-system architecture — it is only fully realised and consumed through photography. As the Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson wrote, interest in postmodern architecture expresses an “appetite for photography”: “what we want to consume today are not the buildings themselves, which we scarcely even recognise as we round the freeway, … it is the value of the photographic equipment that you consume first and foremost, and not that of its object” (2).

You feel the same disappointment when you compare the final building to Gehry’s many luminous and crystalline models, which have a fragile vitality the building itself can never attain: when scaled up, the architecture is taken over by Nietzsche’s “eloquence of power” (3). In this context, the foundation is not only the cultural alibi of an economic logic, but a symbolic manifestation of financialised capitalism and a public demonstration of its power.

 

A cloud or a sailing boat

Gehry’s architecture uses fluidity: the Guggenheim Foundation in Bilbao resembles waves on a river; the future Luma Foundation building in Arles (commissioned by pharmaceuticals heiress Maja Hoffmann) claims inspiration from Van Gogh’s brushwork; the Louis Vuitton Foundation, a cloud or sailing ship. The Vuitton building’s elastic structures and aerial armature, inspired by the location’s glasshouses and park pavilions, are the opposite of the imperious architecture of 20th-century capitalism: it is very different from the bulky Rockefeller Centre. Gehry says on the foundation’s website: “To reflect our constantly changing world, we wanted to create a building that would evolve according to the time and the light in order to give the impression of something ephemeral and continually changing … This architecture should be like a dream” (4). Fluidity and aerial momentum fit well with capitalism’s current keyword, mobility, and its urgent appeal for continual reinvention as opposed to the “rigidity” of structures.

Even the interior manifests this aspiration: having crossed the monumental glass atrium, the visitor comes, via a perplexing series of ramps, staircases and corridors, to vast exhibition spaces still mostly empty. There are some disturbing angles, though the foundation insisted that the walls should be vertical, so as to be able to hang its collection when it arrived. From the stacked terraces, visitors can see the exterior of the twisted cubes that make up the gallery’s rooms, and a panorama of Paris including the Bois de Boulogne and the Eiffel Tower, which appears in the gaps between the sails. The building itself seems to stand in a sunken lake.

The real exhibit is not the art collection but the building in its totality, with its reflections and labyrinthine structure: the old language of stability, the solidity of the classical order of the 19th and 20th centuries, when stock exchanges, banks and museums all over the world copied the Parthenon, has become outmoded. Gehry’s baroque theatricality elegantly reflects the “new spirit of capitalism” (5): it is no longer about embodying security and dignity, but perpetual movement and daring. The powerful are fond of Gehry’s creations partly because of their ability to “perform the rituals of a culture of circulation,” as architectural historian Joan Ockman puts it (6), in which “the speed, extent and intensity of global economic transformations have overturned the previous logic of representation.”

Through this aesthetic, it is not only “the brand which is speaking” but, more profoundly, late capitalism’s fantasy of “liquidity” (7), championing the uninterrupted flow of capital — and the “desire which engages in the knowledge that it can disengage, which invests with the guarantee that it can disinvest, or hires knowing it can subsequently fire” (8).

Floating in a miraculous stasis

Rowan Moore, The Observer’s architecture critic, was one of the few to express some reservations about the building: he criticised the way in which the glass sails make it hard to “read”, and break the rapport between structure and façade. Without them, he said, the foundation could have been “a magnified, adult version of the petit guignol of the children’s park” (9). Moore wished the building had adhered to the rational logic of a functional project. But Gehry’s architecture had to exceed these limits. The building’s sails, which are useless, costly and perhaps even harmful structurally, do convey a meaning. They are the “emblem” LVMH wanted, enabling the building to show an order of things that can ceaselessly be rearranged. As Jameson wrote, the elements “float at a certain distance from each other in a miraculous stasis or suspension which, like the constellations, is likely to come apart in the next minute” (10). The foundation is perceived in a series of profiles and fragments, which succeed one other but do not form a whole. Gehry wrote: “I think of this in terms of controlled chaos. I always relate it to democracy. Democracy is pluralism, the collision of ideas” (11). Victor Gruen, the inventor of the shopping mall, with whom the young Gehry worked in the 1950s, declared he wanted to make the mall a “modern agora” (12).

But this sort of architecture subjugates more than it liberates. The spectator never masters the process of incessant recomposition. As in a fantasy tale in which the walls constantly move, robbing the characters of certainty about where they are, the visitor becomes a plaything of the special effects created by the architect, caught in someone else’s dream. As art historian Hal Foster says, creative freedom for the architect does not result in a parallel freedom for the visitor (13).

If the building is an emblem, as the reception it got suggests, it is to the client’s power rather than his generosity, to spectacular consumption rather than democracy, to a luxurious manifestation of the values of financial liberalism rather than art for all. At this point of liquid utopias and dream architectures, we can only hope that public cultural institutions can recover their autonomy, that artists will organise themselves on a cooperative model where democratised commissioning replaces the monopoly of patrons (14), so that there are alternatives for art that don’t lead to capitalism’s theme park.

Notes.

(1) Including Les Echos, Connaissance des arts,Classica, Radio Classique, etc.

(2) Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press, Durham (North Carolina), 1991.

(3) See Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols,1889.

(4) “Frank Gehry: ‘Je n’aurais pas fait un tel bâtiment ailleurs qu’à Paris’” (I wouldn’t have made a building like this anywhere other than in Paris), Le Figaro, Paris, 2-3 June 2012.

(5) See Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, Le Nouvel Esprit du capitalisme (The New Spirit of Capitalism), Gallimard, Paris, 1999.

(6) Joan Ockman, “Postface au-delà de Bilbao” (Postface beyond Bilbao), in Luis Miguel Lus Arana, Jean-Michel Tobelem and Joan Ockman, Les Bulles de Bilbao: La mutation des musées depuis Frank Gehry, Editions B2, Paris, 2014.

(7) See Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Life, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2005.

(8) Frédéric Lordon, Capitalisme, Désir et Servitude: Marx et Spinoza, La Fabrique, Paris, 2010.

(9) Rowan Moore, “Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris review — everything and the bling from Frank Gehry”, The Observer, London, 19 October 2014.

(10) Jameson, op cit.

(11) Quoted in Anne-Marie Fèvre, “Gehry dans tous ses fracas”, Libération, Paris, 19 October 2014.

(12) Victor Gruen, “Shopping Centre of Tomorrow”, Art and Architecture, January 1954.

(13) Hal Foster, Design and Crime (and Other Diatribes), Verso, London/New York, 2011.

(14) This is the project the Nouveaux Commanditaires programme promotes; www.nouveauxcommanditaires.eu/en/

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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Johan Popelard is a lecturer in the history of art at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne.

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