By Vivian Corbin
Ever since it opened in fall of 2014, I have so wanted to see the latest project of architect Frank Gehry, the Fondation Louis Vuitton, in Paris. This fall, my husband and I spent a month in Paris exploring its new and newish examples of contemporary architecture.
The Fondation Louis Vuitton did not disappoint. As we walked up the Avenue Mahatma Gandhi, a dreamlike, magical structure suddenly arose out of the bucolic landscape of the Bois de Boulogne — an enormous ship-like form of 13 curved glass “sails” covered with colored filters by the French artist, Daniel Buren. Breathtaking in its beauty and astonishing in its audacity, it brought me to tears. While it was built to house the art collection of Bernard Arnault, the CEO of LVMH, the luxury goods conglomerate, the real star was the building itself. We spent hours exploring the museum with its numerous galleries and multi level roof terraces, all the while wondering how it could ever have been built. This dazzling structure seemed to defy all conventions of architecture and engineering.
Frank Gehry’s one other work in Paris — the Cinematheque Francaise, lies across the Seine from the BNF, in Bercy. An elegant structure of asymmetrical forms of limestone and glass topped by a billowing curved gable, it reminded me of a cubist painting.
Among my other favorites: Very much off the beaten path, is Paris’ newest architectural project, La Philharmonie, a très grand concert hall by architect Jean Nouvel, part of Cite de la Musique complex. Whereas the Louis Vuitton is airy and light, seemingly barely tethered to earth, La Philharmonie is solidly rooted to the ground. It’s a massive structure, clad in 34,000 aluminum panels in the form of birds in flight, in various shades of gray. In the sunlight, the aluminum tiles shimmer and dazzle. But like many innovative architectural projects, it has sparked controversy. One critic likened it to a gargantuan spaceship that had been battered by an intergalactic skirmish and crash-landed on the edge of the city. But then, the Eiffel Tower was once savaged by critics too, one calling it a “truly tragic streetlamp.” We zigzagged our way up (170 feet up!) to the rooftop for a panoramic view of Paris.
Somewhat off the beaten path, is another building on our wish-to-see-list, the Bibliotheque Nationale (BNF) which was one of former President Francois Mitterand’s “Grand Projects.” Four L-shaped towers, representing open books, each over 250 feet high, anchor the four corners of a huge esplanade decked in ipe wood. I thought it too austere and rather sterile — no vegetation, no sculptures — just a huge empty space. Astoundingly, there is a 2 1/2 acre sunken garden two levels below the esplanade. A forest, mostly of pines, birches and oaks, covers most of the garden area. The library has two levels of reading rooms below grade, which are the only public areas; the rest of the space is used for the stacks and offices. You can look out the picture windows in the reading rooms and stare at the tops of very tall trees. When you want a book, you order it from a computer terminal. A five mile network of suspended trolleys brings the book or document from the stacks to the reading room where the requester is.
In the heart of the city, along the Seine, we revisited the Arab World Institute designed by Jean Nouvel in the 1980s. A curved glass facade follows the sweep of the river while the northern facade gets its inspiration from Islamic architecture. A metallic screen of geometric forms lies behind a glass curtain wall. Some of the circles are photo sensitive, motor controlled, shutters which are supposed to open and close to control the amount of light; however many no longer work.
Of course we did not neglect the architecture for which Paris is best known. For one weekend a year, sites normally not open to the public open their doors. We chose the Palais Royal, which served as a royal residence until Versailles was built. Today it houses the Conseil d’Etat which advises the government, la Cour Constitutionelle which functions like our Supreme Court, and the Ministry of Culture. Unfortunately it was the choice of many others, too. We waited in line for 2 1/2 hours to get in. Verdict: it was worth it. A jewel of a palace and breathtakingly lavish. Nice digs for today’s bureaucrats. The next day we visited a number of 17th century mansions.
The following Sunday, the whole town was invited to a picnic by the Seine. And it was to be a “Journée sans voitures” — Day without cars. All Paris was closed to vehicular traffic except for emergency vehicles, buses, and taxis. The sudden silence was almost unnerving. People flooded into the streets — on foot, on bicycles, on skateboards, on roller skates, on electric scooters and on motorized one wheeled machines, called appropriately, Solo Wheel. Place de la Concorde, the Champs Elysées without cars! The people took back the streets, if only for one day.