Since 2005, Frank Gehry’s only building in Paris has been home to France’s national library/museum/theater celebrating the history of film. But Gehry was commissioned by a different organization, which occupied the structure only briefly.
In 1991, the American Center in Paris, a decade-old cultural institution, saw an opportunity for a more prominent presence. The old wine-market district at Bercy was being redeveloped for a variety of uses including a new public park, and a prime site was made available for the American Center. By commissioning Gehry, then a rising star, the client meant to add its architectural stamp to a city that already boasted iconic works by Piano and Rogers, Pei, Tschumi, and Nouvel.
Gehry’s design visibly displayed a theater block, an exhibition volume, stacks of offices, and artist-in-residence quarters. Sculptural as it was, his proposal respected the urban context in its scale, its limestone cladding, and the way it hugged its property lines. The broad curve of its lobby, facing the park, was mandated by the city. French critics called the design “too Parisian;” it was not the bold Gehry for which they had hoped.
After opening in 1994 with shaky funding, the American Center closed in 1996, and for the next nine years, the structure stood empty. Before it could house the Cinémathèque Française, internal changes were needed—to provide storage for collections, for instance, rather than rehearsal studios, and while these changes were not carried out by Gehry, he did help to select local firm l’Atelier de l’Île. But the exterior and key public interiors are virtually unchanged, and the building serves its new program as if designed for it.