How did you get involved in this project?
Frank Gehry, FAIA: I have met Bernard Arnault [the chairman and CEO of LVMH Moët Hennessy-Louis Vuitton] before and talked to him about another project, about which we didn’t hear from him. He then called and invited me to see a site for a museum he wanted to build for himself. The site is a hinge point between the Bois de Boulogne and the Jardin d’Acclimatation, so it’s a pretty powerful site. I was heavy into Marcel Proust that week or something—I go back in and out of Proust over my lifetime. I like to read Remembrance of Things Past over and over again. The visit brought tears to my eyes because I realized it was a pretty emotional site and he wanted to do something special, so that’s how it started.
Did the site itself influence the design of the building?
The heights we were allowed to use had to do with an existing bowling alley, which we could tear down to build the museum. It was two stories high, and that was the legal height we could have if we made a solid building. We met with the mayor at one point, Arnault and I, and we talked to him about the site. 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, those recognized 19th century park buildings which are made of glass. We did five or six very small models—maybe a foot long. He picked one and I said: ‘Don’t pick it, just look at them. We’ll discuss them and then we can work and create solutions.’ I never trust the first sketch, although sometimes, like for the Guggenheim Bilbao, it’s pretty close, pretty resonant.
So it had to be a glass building because it’s a pavilion that is appropriate for a garden?
In order to go higher than the two stories allowed for a solid building, it had to be glass. We have the gallery structure with its solid walls that is two stories, so then you had two buildings in one: a pavilion and galleries. And you can imagine, you do a sketch of a solid building and then you do a sketch of a glass building over it. And you know, there are 50 different ways you could do that, but the first five or six models did it similar to what we ended up building.
You’ve always said that if you already know what you’re going to do, why do it? What was new for you with the design of this building?
I don’t ever know where I’m going to push it. I start and I just work intuitively along the way. I don’t have a prearranged destination, which is complicated for the French because the Beaux-Arts way is that you fix on the model and then that’s it. That is not the way I work, but we managed to work within both his discipline and mine in the end.
You mention this two-story height limitation, but some of the galleries are much taller than that. How did you find loopholes to allow you to develop the structure vertically?
Because of the glass enclosure, we were allowed to go to the height we did. Once we had the big, basic premise that there was a solid piece (which we started to call the icebergs) and then the glass sails, we started to work them independently. The reality was that the galleries had to be classical because the curator wanted the simpler galleries that people usually want in art museums. Once the galleries became what they were, the structure became clunky, but the metaphor of the icebergs allowed us to rationalize the shapes. We developed the glass sails independently and then we spent time getting the forms to dance together.
This project marks one of the first times that you’ve used a ground plane very actively as part of the building. Why did you go into the ground?
We were only allowed to have two levels of galleries above grade, but there’s a total of three levels of galleries. We dug a hole and made a grotto level to house the third level. A lot of the development of the concept grew out of those first sketches, which Arnault loved—the program, the reality of being in the park, and then the reality of galleries. In the case of the galleries, we pushed the variety, using the skylights and circulation, so you have different heights in the galleries and they don’t all look the same. I love the grotto as that evolved. I was worried about going down there, but the potential of it for art is great.
Paris is such a rich context. It is intuitive to build the Fondation Louis Vuitton with these design aspirations, but Parisians have their own expectations as well. How did you address that context?
The only thing that we were thinking about with the height of the glass sails was that it worked beautifully in the park. From a distance, you can see the glass coming up through the trees, and I think that worked—we emphasize the relationship with that context. We didn’t think there was going to be anybody viewing it from above, so we prioritized putting the money on the elevations, and not on what it looks like from 10 stories up.
Tell me about the introduction of the wood into the structure supporting the glass sails. How did you develop that materials palette?
Well, that was complicated: Here’s an all-field structure and there’s a kind of a purity to it. And the client was very involved with the decisions for the color of the mullions and the clarity of the glass—he was involved with all of it. So when I proposed the wood, it was a kind of a shocking intervention to that whole aesthetic that we were developing. It took awhile, but he got it finally. And thank God we did it: It makes a whole hell of a lot of difference. You can imagine if the wood hadn’t been there, that it would have been a more sterile building. They all love it now, but it was precarious at first—it wasn’t a slam dunk to get that decision.
Well, and so was there anything new that you developed in this building that was surprising to you?
I was surprised at what I would call the chaotic circulation. The French have a kind of a detail thing—when you get into the bureaucracy of the way the stairs work, and the distances between things, and the building codes—it’s not clear. I worked on other buildings in France, and it was always like that. Wherever we had to have an opening, or a stairway, we built them into the icebergs or into the glass. We had this sort of chaotic dance going on and we just let the stairs and stuff happen. I was very worried about it, I didn’t think that it would come together like it did—but I’m quite pleased with it now.
France has brought Baroque and Neoclassical tradition to such a refined level. Where does your building, with its episodic promenade and the asymmetries, fit into that context? Is it just different?
[Laughs] Wow! You’re going to open 10 doors. Oy vey! I do not consciously try to create disorder, however, I think disorder has its own order. I said that once: The new order is disorder. Nature has an order, but it doesn’t all look like Greek temples. And I think since a human being is designing a structure, that, for me, it has to do with humanizing and engaging the user and being episodic instead of singular in its experience.
Project Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris
Client Fondation Louis Vuitton—Bernard Arnault (president)
Architect Gehry Partners, Los Angeles—Frank Gehry, FAIA (design partner)
Consultants Gehry Technologies
Executive Architect Studios Architecture
M/E/P Engineer Setec Bâtiment
Lighting Design L’Observatoire International; Ingélux
Civil Engineer Setec Bâtiment
Building Façade Consultant RFR; T/E/S/S - atelier d’ingénierie
Acoustical Engineer Lamoureux Acoustics (base building)
Sound Designer Nagata Acoustics (auditorium)
General Contractor Vinci Construction
Landscape Architect Atelier Lieux Et Paysages
Theater/Audiovisual dUCKS sceno
Sustainable Building Consultants S’Pace; Terao
Building Maintenance TAW
Size 125,938 square feet (building floor area)