The Fondation Louis Vuitton sits at the edge of Bois de Boulogne in Paris.
Phil Beard / Flickr via Creative Commons license The Fondation Louis Vuitton sits at the edge of Bois de Boulogne in Paris.

When I was in Paris last week, I stayed—like so many tourists—near the Opéra, Charles Garnier’s tour-de-force performance hall, completed in 1875. I also visited the new Fondation Louis Vuitton, which is set to open October 27 and was designed by Frank Gehry, FAIA (and which will be reviewed in Architect’s October 2014 issue). What struck me was how differently these two structures fit in the city, and what different messages they give about the role of culture in our urban lives.

Alessio Bragadini / Flickr via Creative Commons license

The Palais Garnier (how many great buildings are officially named after their architects?) is a masterpiece of urban place making. It organizes and beautifies its environment, taking its place at the intersection of several of the major boulevards created by Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s grand plans of 1853 and responding to each of its sides differently: The main façade faces a plaza, holding its expanse as a picture of important art, not only larger than the apartment blocks that surround it, but also articulated with bigger and more sculpted elements, and festooned with painted and sculpted decorations that all work in harmony. To the rear, an apse—originally Napoleon III’s salon—projects into a tangle of streets that come in from the outer edges of the city, and then internalizes those lines into the sweep of ramps that once allowed the carriages of the richest patrons to enter the Opéra. The sides are symmetrical, each made up of blocks that build down the taller mass of the fly-tower and respond to the surrounding buildings into which Paris has fit its apartments, offices, and stores. In the middle of it all you can see the glass dome over the auditorium, signaling where Parisians gather for High Culture of the High C variety.

The Louis Vuitton Museum matches the Opéra’s animation, though in a different style and situation. Sited at the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, Paris’ traditional park, it rises above the tree line with glass billows supported by laminated wood arches and wood struts. Hidden within the translucent sails and the 200,000 square feet of space they shelter is the ship of culture itself: 30,000 square feet of white box galleries for an international collection of art held by LVMH, Vuitton’s parent company, and its majority owner, Bernard Arnault.

The Vuitton Museum responds to its setting by abstracting and enlarging the volumes of the trees and shrubs that it borders, while also offering an animated version of the blocks of apartment buildings that overlook the park’s edge. It is more of a suburban building, one that gestures to an open territory and gives it an anchor. It has two long, more or less symmetrical sides, but only one of them faces a public street, while the other looms over an adjacent children’s park.

The nature of these two buildings is obviously different. The Opéra was created to fix Paris’ role as a cultural capital, and to do so with a building that represented the state of the art in design. It was also meant to anchor the redevelopment of this part of Paris that Haussmann’s interventions had made possible. The Louis Vuitton Museum is a private collection that operates within an international circuit of such structures, designed by a foreign architect who has created other, and larger, museums elsewhere. Arnault could only find this site, and that with difficulty. The Museum is also private, and will charge €14 (about $18) to enter, with the expectation that people will come as much to see the spectacle of the building and its many plein air terraces as they will to experience the art.

Section model of the Palais Garnier.
Alan Rothar / Flickr via Creative Commons license Section model of the Palais Garnier.

In its time, the Palais Garnier Opera House set the tone at an international level, becoming a much-imitated standard for cultural monuments that served to fix urban complexity into art—both as architecture and in what it contained. The Louis Vuitton Museum adds to Paris’ array of cultural monuments, but neither sets the standards nor adds that much to our understanding of how to respond to complex urban conditions. The days of looking towards the City of Light as a beacon producing the best contemporary culture and architecture are long gone. Now it has to import its best of such work, and can only make room for it at the edge of town.

Beyond this specific situation, however, there is a larger message. We rarely make space for art in the center of our towns these days, nor do we make space for architecture that changes and improves what is around it. At the same time, we have not developed a suburban architecture or culture to fix the character of where more and more of us live. It is time for the bold, the beautiful, and the meaningful, both in an urban (or suburban) sense, and in terms of our culture.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.