First sightings of Frank Gehry’s Louis Vuitton Foundation, his dream vessel for the cultural heritage of France: a hulking stern of vast glass sails, a new-age Time Bandit Galleon. While monumental and majestic, it also looks soft – almost like the sky-grey opaque, sky-reflecting, panels could ripple in the breeze. Their size is only accentuated by the newly planted rows of trees near the main entrance, creating a bizarre Bonsai effect in tandem with the surrounding park.
Once inside, the architectural approach is more formal, with a vast, boxy lobby area and a glass-panelled bookshop. It’s like entering a vast white container before navigating, either by ascending or descending, the other decks. From here on Gehry’s expression of a dream vessel gathers pace, producing not just one dream, but a series of dreams within dreams, as each level presents unexpected moments – sometimes hangar-like gallery spaces, sometimes smaller, darker intimate spaces. Moving upwards, not only do you get close up views of the complex, skeletal structures supporting the building’s curved sails, but also brief glimpses of the Bois and irregular-shaped snapshots of Paris, including at one moment, a rather apologetic, size-O, Eiffel Tower, rising in the distance – another dream from a more rigid age of architecture.
Continuing up the rough-hewn sandstone staircases, that seem strangely soft to the foot, or taking the requisite intergalactic escalators, the eye is constantly challenged by the edgy contrast of materials. Rock meets satinized sheets of white metal, elaborate twisted girders, like tangled ribs, gracefully turn and transcend into giant arcs of golden oak, while metallic escalators undulate like the graceful, gentle waterfall downstairs.
With each twist and turn – and there are many in the structure – I felt like I was a modern-day Jonah, exploring the insides of a technological whale. Even outside, the upstairs terraces, with planted areas and magnificent views, continue the mystery as new ways to climb up towards the crows nest present themselves with each twist and bend.
After the busy-ness of the architectural structures upstairs, and certainly under the shade of night, the submerged basement areas, with their hypnotic pools of water, provide another element of contrast with what towers above. And yet all is not as it seems. An installation of mirrors by Olafur Eliasson create dizzying vistas of refracted black silhouettes on acid yellow, a beguiling catwalk, its zigzag trajectory mirrored in the still waters of the lake beneath. It’s like a duotone fashion shoot from an Orson Welles movie: Figures appear… only to disintegrate. Now near … now far. All in a dazzling glow of sulphourous yellow.
I might be mistaken, but at one point the reflections of the diagonal pillars started to dance in front of me, and for a moment, I’m sure I caught sight of an L overlapping a V in the waters below. Maybe it was just another dream within a dream?
Text and photos: Mathew Birch