LUMA Arles, designed by Frank Gehry
The sculptural double-spiral staircase at LUMA Arles

GEHRY’s two distinct projects

Two major projects for art institutions designed by Frank Gehry were completed this summer. Both initiated in 2007, but each one as different from the other as could be. The LUMA Foundation building in the South of France in Arles is signature style Gehry, a fractured facade playing with light, while the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a subtle reorganisation of a 1928 neo-classical building. Both though conceived to revive the urban context surrounding them. 

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, coffered ceiling with LED lighting and new floor in Kasota limestone, photo ©Danica O. Kus
The Philadelphia Museum of Art, coffered ceiling with LED lighting and new floor in Kasota limestone, photo ©Danica O. Kus

Gehry himself came to Arles for the official opening of the LUMA building. It was commissioned by Maja Hoffmann, the founder of the cultural institution, who collaborated closely on the building’s conception. As Gehry pointed out at the press conference: ”Hoffmann was not just a client, but a fantastic artist on her own.” While looking at the project as their joint project, you can see her strong influence in the architectural concept. Gehry’s highly expressive architectural language has been criticised and his flamboyant Tower as if in conflict with the historic city : too expressive, too high, why a tower, too lavish, not ecological. So when Gehry and Hoffmann entered the press conference in June, you could sense that they were prepared to defend their ambitious project.


Perhaps what was most pressing for both Hoffmann and Gehry was trying to defend the architectural concept amidst claims that it was too wasteful. Indeed the façade constructed with 10,752 steel modules in total, is an elaborate construction, which does not evoke an ecological approach. To counteract this, Hoffmann has invested in transforming the former industrial yard, which had been a dead zone, into a lush state-of-the-art landscaped garden extending below Gehry’s tower. Designed by Belgian Landscape architect Bas Smets, the area is an experiment in creating a microclimate in this arid landscape, complete with a pond. Water has been diverted from the nearby canal. Smets described the challenges of growing something on plain concrete. Also it’s a historic site with archeological ruins below, so forbidden to dig too deep below. 

Now Gehry’s Tower is the centre of the LUMA Foundations operations in Arles, where Hoffmann’s exceptional collection of contemporary art is stored and exhibited, alongside events, performances and research labs, dedicated to environmental design. Inside the circular glass Drum, the formal play with the fractured façade and its material logic reveals itself. Irregular units for different types of activities rise above within the Tower, souring 54 metres through the glass atrium. The metal cubes have been placed in various angles for reflecting the Provence light, creating a warm glow as Gehry had intended. In line with his inspiration of the ‘Van Gogh brush strokes’, it’s intense and expressive. It’s dreamlike – not a traditional building in any sense – it can’t be ignored and its image will not fade away easily.

As the architect who’s name is synonymous with the ’Bilbao effect’, Gehry’s architecture is famous for breaking traditional ideals about buildings. In Arles the  LUMA foundation Tower no doubt exemplifies this rebellious approach, which simultaneously aims for dynamic urban renewal through architecture. At The Philadelphia Museum of Art the starting point is very different, although the goal for urban renewal is the same. Instead of deconstructing architecture that honours a glorious past, Gehry’s team reimagined how the neo-classical structure could perform in the future. The ambition to reorganise the landmark building was driven by both cultural and socio-economic goals. ”An investment in Philadelphia, not only for one of the city’s most significant cultural assets, but also for the future of the city. It is vital for our economic recovery”, Leslie Anne Miller, Chair of the museum’s Board of Trustees states in the press release. Architecture is both part of the city’s cultural offerings and a symbol for a better future.

The Philadelphia Museum, entrance with Kasota limestone steps and new ramp, photo ©Danica O. Kus,  of Art, coffered ceiling with LED lighting and new floor in Kasota limestone, photo ©Danica O. Kus
New ramp integrated into the entrance terrace, built with Kasota stone in The Philadelphia Museum of Art, photo ©Danica O. Kus

At the Philadelphia Museum, the reorganisation of spaces has brought totally new circulation routes through the building. Parts previously used as offices have been converted into gallery spaces, and a new vertical promenade has been created, spanning the whole building on the ground floor, topped with a vaulted ceiling. In comparison to Gehry’s best known cultural buildings, such as the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles or Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, this museum has its roots firmly in history, now modernised for better energy use and improved visitor experience. Gehry’s team has adopted a different kind of play with materials, it’s more subtle, creating harmony with the idealised past.

Renovation of Philadelphia Museum of Art Photo, staircase clad in Kasota limestone, photo © Danica O. Kus
Spiralling staircase clad in Kasota limestone, walls and fllor also clad with the same stone, photo ©Danica O. Kus

As an emerging architect Gehry was influenced by the 1960s LA arts scene and the use of raw, industrial materials, which led to formal explorations with steel. Enabled by digital technology, these bold forms, first imagined as physical models and drawings, became actual buildings, famous for their folds and organic forms. As Gehry has explained, digital technology is a form of craft. The building process between various teams and experts, for example linking directly the stone quarry in charge of providing the material to the digital model, becomes a seamless construction process.

Philadelphia Museum of Art, renovation by Frank Gehry, photo © Danica O. Kus
A grand promenade , spanning the whole length of the building was opened during the renovation, photo © Danica O. Kus

In the Philadelphia museum renovation, the golden-hued Kasota limestone was brought from the same place in Southern Minnesota where the material for the original building had been quarried from. This stone is used throughout the building, creating aesthetic coherence between the past and the present. In the LUMA building, this visual continuity was created with the computer, through an imprint of a local stone, then applied to concrete blocks to evoke the materiality of the near-by historic buildings.