Why Is This Starchitect Laughing?

Nancy Johnson Sanquist's picture

As one of the world’s famous architects, Frank Gehry at the sprightly age of 85, rests on a tree in the Jardin d’Acclimatation of the Bois de Boulogne park in Paris in front of his new Foundation Louis Vuitton museum, he must be amused if he thinks of one of his past experiences in the world far removed from this lofty new project. In 2005, he was made a cultural icon by appearing in a version of the cartoon show The Simpsons when he was named “the bestest architect in the world” by Marge Simpson, who had invited the architect to Springfield to design an arts center to improve the cultural standing of the community. She came upon this idea in her usual Marge-like discourse with herself…”Think Marge think. Culture…vulture…birds of prey…pray in a church…the father, the son and the holy ghost…ghosts are scary…scary rhymes with Cary…that’s it - Frank Gehry.”

20140908-frank-gehry-2.jpgThis time Gehry’s patron is a far cry from Marge and Springfield (who turned the culture center into a prison, since the residents of the town hated classical music). The patron behind The Foundation Louis Vuitton is Bernard Arnault, the Grand Officer of the Legion d’Honneur, with a fortune of an estimated $33bn as the owner of the conglomerate LVMH, which includes the French luggage maker Vuitton, Hermès, Dior as well as owner of the most prestigious names in champagne and cognac.

Why, you might be wondering, am I writing about this extraordinary building in this Manhattan blog? My initial interest came in reading an article about the building, which will open next month, as reported in the How to Spend It magazine of the FT this weekend. But when I began to explore more about this structure which Paul Goldberger has described as “a whole new thing, a new work of monumental public architecture that is not precisely like anything that anyone, including Frank Gehry, has done before,” I became interested in how it was constructed. That led me to discovering Gehry’s project team’s use of software which now shares the same owner as Manhattan Software, Trimble’s SketchUp and Tekla BIM modeling tools, as well as realizing that this is an excellent example of what David Karpook and I are researching on the “experience economy”. It is a building that is truly experiential in its blurring of lines amongst what one thinks of as different building typologies.

The new cultural institution has such a unique design that it has been compared to sails on a boat, a whale, a crystal palace exploding as well as a structure which has references to past architectural innovations as Tatlin’s Russian Constructivist spiral tower, FLW’s Ben Shalom Synagogue and Le Corbusier’s church at Ronchamp:


As Gehry describes it “the iceberg is the white stuff inside, the cloud is the glass, and the glass looks like sails.” This is not surprising as the architect has a love of the water, fish (he once designed a fish conference room for a Santa Monica building and a fish shape car for MIT Media Lab) and sailing. He also is interested in breaking away from having a typical façade for a building and concentrating on the “bones” or skeleton of the structure revealing the aesthetics of the interior with all the steel and wooden curves. He designed the $143 million cultural center to house the Foundation’s art collection, set amidst the open space and trees of the park.


As with his other non-traditional designs, Gehry used a combination of the most advanced 3D software including CATIA and Tekla for this BIM Project, as well as SketchUp and 9 other software technologies. BIM was the foundation for the design, construction and fabrication. The ability of creating the lightness of structure and transparency was made possible through the tight collaboration of the 15 global teams of 400 individual architects, engineers and fabricators developing the model and processes. Also included in the project was the transfer of information post commissioning to the maintenance trades, as well as the museum curators and visitors.

All of these amazing collaborative activities have created an experiential environment for the public to participate which will stimulate the senses. The transparency allows the participant to have a unique comprehension of the setting, however complex and the mysterious shapes make one want to discover more about this new type of structure. It is truly a blending of art and commerce. Arnault began testing the introduction of art to his “maisons” (stores of luxury products) with art book displays and even dedicated art exhibition space. “Fashion is not art, but designs and artists speak the same language,” he said in the FT article. “So they are close and sometimes they want to share ideas and work together.” And in the process create new innovations and ideas for both art and commerce.

20140908-frank-gehry-3.jpgArnault wants to promote the idea of cultural accessibility, even amongst his high-priced luxury goods. Perhaps one can experience an elevated artistic experience when the two are intertwined. And art is often associated with what one has at home, he muses. We want “to give our customers feeling of being at home. Not a museum shop.” There is a new blurring of lines in the Foundation of Louis Vuitton between museum, shop and home, as well as an increased blurring of the work of design, construction and occupancy for us all to pay attention to in Mr. Gehry’s latest project. As Marge has said, he may indeed be the “bestest architect” in the world today working for one of the most adventurous and generous captains of industry.

P.S. - This morning a press release appeared which is very relevant to this blog, which was written on 9/7, the day before the announcement: Trimble and Frank Gehry Announce Strategic Alliance to Transform the Way the Construction Industry Works


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