A spectacular stainless-steel tower by Frank Gehry is the centrepiece of Luma Arles, art patron Maja Hoffmann’s creative hub in France. Opened in June, the architect explains how their collaboration flourished.
N early 20 years ago, Pritzker-prize-winning architect Frank Gehry and visionary arts patron Maja Hoffmann began a remarkable journey together. This summer their efforts came to fruition, with the opening of the soaring Luma Tower on 26 June. A twisting, geometric 56-metre-tall structure finished with 11,000 shimmering stainless steel panels, it is one of the most spectacular and original pieces of new architecture since Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which opened its doors in 1997.
The new 15,000-square-metre building is the centrepiece of Luma Arles, a 27-acre creative campus in the heart of the historic city in the South of France, the home of Hoffmann’s Luma Foundation.
Swiss-born Hoffmann is a great-granddaughter of the founder of the pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche. She is often described as a collector but she considers that too narrow a definition. “I don’t really want to own things… I want to make things happen,” she once said.
With a number of residences around the world, including one in a rambling 19th-century schoolhouse in New York’s East Village, she has sat on the boards of numerous major museums and cultural institutions, including the New Museum in New York and the Serpentine Galleries and the Tate in London.
In 2004 she launched the Luma Foundation, named after her children Lucas and Marina. “There came a moment when I made up my mind… I wanted to put my activities into one place, to have more weight and meaning,” the press-shy Hoffmann explained to The New York Times.
Through Luma, Hoffmann aims to focus on the relationships between art, culture, environmental issues, human rights, education and research. The foundation is dedicated to providing artists with opportunities to experiment in the production of new work.
In 2008 Luma began to take shape physically on the site of an abandoned railway yard. Five factory buildings were revitalised as exhibition and performance spaces by New York-based Selldorf Architects and the surrounding gardens and park were designed by Belgian landscape architect Bas Smets. According to press reports Hoffmann has spent an estimated $175 million on the project.
“I don’t really want to own things… I want to make things happen"
The ancient city of Arles has long been a haven for artists – most notably Vincent van Gogh, who produced more than 300 paintings and drawings during his stay there in 1888–89. More recently the city has been beloved by photography enthusiasts – some 100,000 of whom typically flock to the long-running summer photography festival, Les Rencontres d’Arles.
The surrounding area is also a magnet for birdlife, which flourishes in the marshy wetlands known as the Camargue, a vast, flat delta south of the city where the River Rhone splits in two. Birds are indirectly responsible for Hoffmann’s presence here. When she was a child her father Luc, a passionate ornithologist and one of the founders of the World Wildlife Fund, moved the family to the Camargue so he could establish a research centre.
Gehry recalls that it was Hoffmann’s love for the region that resonated with him during their first conversations. “Things were happening here. She felt there was an opportunity to make this an even more important hub,” says the architect via Zoom from his Los Angeles studio.
In addition to exploring the city on foot, Gehry studied van Gogh’s relationship to it. He came up with various ideas for Luma. “If you look in our store we must have 50 models that we went through,” he says. “Early on it became clear that Maja wanted to create some kind of vertical presence, to house studios, exhibition spaces, a library and rooms for study. It was a work in progress, always. Ideas came out, we responded to hers, she responded to ours. Slowly, it evolved.”
For Gehry the key came through his observations of natural light: “It’s something I’ve been studying for many years – how to use it. It’s free, it’s there, and it has a special place in Arles because of the painting called The Starry Night by van Gogh. For me it was about chasing that light, trying to find it.”
Then came his explorations with various types of metal to see how it would capture that light. He started making blocks of stainless steel and juxtaposing them at different angles. “We became enamored with the kind of response we were getting,” he says.
“Now you can get the light of van Gogh’s Starry Night on the building. It’s there. All we did was uncover it in a way which nobody had done before.
“It could only have happened in Arles. The light is unique. Van Gogh pointed out something about a starry night. Once you have seen the painting you understand that he wasn’t contriving the light, he was responding to it – showing us something about what nature has given us.”
As Gehry experimented with the building’s skin the plan for the interior changed too. “That was difficult, but it also made it very exciting… We spent a long time figuring how the architectural elements could respond to and enhance the programme. I can’t place a moment of eureka, where I said ‘Oh!’ It wasn’t like that. It evolved. We had many meetings with Maja and she got really into it. It was perfect: a perfect architect-client-artist relationship. You don’t get to work very often with somebody who has her intentions, her sense of beauty and her humanity… She’s a very special lady.”
In retrospect, given the scope of the project, it couldn’t have been completed any sooner, Gehry concludes. “We were poking around in the unknown. But she was willing and I was willing.”
With the opening at hand, the inevitable question arises: will there be another “Bilbao effect”? Will Luma become another unmissable destination and have a transformative effect on Arles?
“It could only have happened in Arles. The light is unique”
“People are calling me about it. It seems that people will be going there,” says Gehry. “But I don’t relate to those kind of things. Bilbao happened. I didn’t do it to get famous. I did it because I was asked to do a building in a town. I got excited about it. What happened, happened. It’s nice that it did, but that wasn’t the intent. The intent was to create a building that functions, serves a purpose. The beneficiary of it was the city. There was a level of return on investment for the community that’s spectacular in the history of buildings.”
Even as Luma has been rising, Gehry has continued to work on a slate of projects that would seem staggering for any architect, let alone one who turned 92 in the middle of a pandemic. His drawing boards include plans for another Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi as well as the SELA Cultural Center and new office buildings for Warner Bros in Los Angeles.
On the East Coast, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has just inaugurated a major renovation and interior expansion devised by Gehry. A minor medical procedure prevented him from travelling to that event but wild horses won’t keep him from flying to France for the opening of the Luma Tower: “I’m counting on it. I have to go. I won’t exist if I don’t go.”