The Tower by Frank Gehry.
Adrian Deweerdt The Tower by Frank Gehry.

The Frank Gehry–designed tower is not the point. Or rather, it is the point, the spire, or the beacon that announces to the surrounding countryside and, through countless social media posts, the world that the LUMA Foundation has arrived in Arles, France. A corkscrew of stainless steel plates that condenses the expressive qualities of Spain's Bilbao Guggenheim into a vertical construction that contains a few awkwardly configured gallery spaces, Gehry’s building is the only new part of LUMA Arles, a sprawl of former warehouses now turned into places to show, discuss, and celebrate art. The complex also includes a research and design lab for the future of building materials that are much less damaging to the environment than the tower’s metal panels, which let the building catch the light that artists from Cézanne onward made famous.

I visited LUMA specifically to see that lab, called Atelier LUMA. While most of the former railroad depot buildings that make up the LUMA Foundation’s operations in Arles were renovated to designs by Annabelle Selldorf, FAIA, and are perfectly fine in the bland, but correct manner that is Selldorf's default mode, the materials research studio—housed in a building called Le Magasin Électrique—was renovated by London-based Assemble (about which I am writing a book) together with the Belgian firm BC Architects. It is intended to be a place that promotes research into how agricultural waste products can be repurposed into building materials. Its first product is actually a part of the tower: locally produced salt blocks that front the elevator core.

Le Magasin Électrique, which houses Atelier LUMA.
Adrian Deweerdt Le Magasin Électrique, which houses Atelier LUMA.

The Atelier, which describes itself as being “dedicated to exploring new ways of using natural and renewable resources in design and architecture on a bioregional scale” is an homage by LUMA’s founder, Maja Hoffmann, to her father’s efforts to preserve the ecology of the Camargue, the area of marshes and low-lying pastures that extend from Arles down to the Mediterranean. Luc Hoffman gave up his work for the family drug company, Hoffmann-La Roche, to pursue this passion, while Maja has spent a good part of her adult life collecting, showing, and promoting contemporary art. She, in turn, brought these two concerns together in 2016 at LUMA, which she named after her two children, Lucas and Marina.

While the tower delights in developing a vertigo-inducing set of effects, the newly completed Atelier is all orthogonality, highlighting the existing structure while converting the former warehouse into usable spaces for research, display, education, and public discussion. Like the tower, though, it still seems to be growing into all that space. Hoffmann kept the top floor of Gehry’s building empty, choosing to let future uses develop there and, similarly, the Atelier seems to have more open space than concentrated work areas. Unlike in the tower, however, it does not feel flabby and meandering, but rather seems more like the workshop it both replaced and potentially is, waiting for a big order to come in.

 Rammed-earth and CEB block walls inside Le Magasin Électrique.
Joseph Halligan Rammed-earth and CEB block walls inside Le Magasin Électrique.

The most dramatic effects Assemble and BC created are actually the result of the materials and the light they have introduced. Rather than sealing up or reconstructing the original walls, the architects created a separate interior structure out of rammed earth that serves to insulate and define most of the rooms. As a result, the building is almost completely naturally ventilated. The roof had to be extensively repaired and, in the process of removing and then replacing the original tiles, many of these elements broke. The architects used the fragments in the new terrazzo floor of the main exhibition room.

Exhibition space inside Le Magasin Électrique.
Maria Lisogorskaya Exhibition space inside Le Magasin Électrique.

Then there are more expressive elements, but they are largely pragmatic. A stack of walkways connects the offices and labs they tucked into new mezzanines, standing against the heaviness of the rammed-earth walls. The architects enhanced this new element’s articulation by painting the structural wood blue with contrasting elements that create a visual rhythm. The wood is salvaged and the dye was made from local flowers. In the large room the Atelier uses for presentations, the firms repurposed the existing metal structure (here painted a deep red) to hang curtains that can divide the space into various configurations.

Beyond such gestures, the Atelier offers many smaller delights. The craft with which the wood and rammed-earth structures has been finished invites the touch of your hand, with each door pull, railing, and frame finished to articulate its purpose and the origin of its material in a manner that recalls the work of such Scandinavian masters as Alvar Aalto and Sigurd Lewerentz. Sunflowers, the local crop made famous by Vincent van Gogh, here turn up as husks pressed into blocks covering several walls, while other local plants also offered their chaff and colors for finishings.

Above/Below: Closer views of the Gehry-designed tower.
Adrian Deweerdt Above/Below: Closer views of the Gehry-designed tower.
Adrian Deweerdt

As a whole, the LUMA complex offers a survey of at least three current ways to make architecture. At one extreme is the new tower that Gehry, FAIA, designed. In his work of the last quarter-century, the architect has been inspired by everything from medieval wood carving and the sculptures of Bernini to sails. His design fully uses technology and the history not only of architecture, but of our culture in general to express our ability to transform the past into a free-form future. Rooted in the past and in a traditional manipulation of materials, it opens up and invites speculation.

Selldorf's work is the conservative alternative that fixes up, opens, and outfits the old with minimally designed examples of contemporary technology, while eschewing any experimentation with form, space, or structure. It delights in a job well done that serves the needs of the client.

At the other extreme is the Atelier. Instead of form, space, or structure, the architects here concentrate on material, construction, light, and the creation of functional spaces envisioned more as social scenes than as neutral containers. The designers set the stage in a manner that makes the past, but also the physical context, present in the actual materiality of what they do. The most expressive elements in their toolboxes are textures, joints, and light, which they manipulate with great finesse.

LUMA also includes landscaping by the Belgian designer Bas Smets that emphasizes not only local plant materials and basics such as shade and water retention, but also builds on the human traditions of using planting in geometric patterns. As a whole, it is a kind of open-air museum of current trends in architecture—in addition to showing some of the best and most diverse contemporary art. It is, or contains, the monumentality and experimentation proper to our cultural focal points, the current version of the correct way to responsibly and elegantly organize building elements, and a new kind of radical Minimalism that produces maximum effect out of reuse, reimagination, and the expansion of the palette of architecture into a recapturing of the remains of our agricultural heritage. I believe that this last tactic is especially full of promise, and I look forward to both the prototypes the Atelier will produce and the further experiments and beautiful spaces that Assemble and BC Architects will design.

Garden at Atelier LUMA.
Adrian Deweerdt Garden at Atelier LUMA.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

Read more: The latest from columnist Aaron Betsky includes looks at the work of adaptive reuse specialists AJDVIV and Superuse Studios, plus a recent Supreme Court ruling's impact on architecture.