Fondation Louis Vuitton: Bold New Parisian Center for Modern Art

With Breathtaking Architecture from Frank Gehry

The Fondation Vuitton and its arresting facade by Frank Gehry.
The Fondation Vuitton and its arresting facade by Frank Gehry. Iwan Baan for Fondation Louis Vuitton ©Iwan Baan

No, it's not shaped like a patterned bag from the popular designer after which it's named. Call it a giant sailboat, a flying fish or a collection of waves breaking at sea. However you choose to describe the Fondation Louis Vuitton, there’s no denying the aesthetic power of this architectural wonder, and ambitious newcomer to the Parisian arts scene. Nestled amongst lush woodland in Paris’s Bois de Boulogne and the Jardin d’Acclimation amusement park to the west of the city, the Fondation is housed in a stunning building conceived by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry.

The ambitious project – commissioned in 2001 by French multinational luxury goods conglomerate LMVH – necessitated an architect like Gehry, who made a name for himself after creating the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Initially set at a $127 million budget, the final project allegedly reached costs of $140 million. Construction began in March 2008 and finally opened at the end of October 2014. This new foundation marks, for many, a trend in Paris towards private financing of new museums, after publicly funding projects like the Centre Pompidou in previous decades.

 

At 126,000 square feet and two stories high, it would be nearly impossible for the Fondation to remain inconspicuous. If the 3,600 glass panels and 19,000 concrete panels didn’t give it away, the long lines snaking out its front door would. Since first opening its doors, the art hall/cultural center has been packed with visitors ever since, with weekends being especially jammed up. If you want to attempt a visit, I highly recommend reserving tickets ahead. 

Practical Information

Opening Hours:

  • Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays – 12 a.m to 7 p.m.
  • Friday late-night opening – 12 a.m to 11 p.m.
  • Saturdays and Sundays – 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
  • Closed Tuesdays

How to Get There:

By metro: Take line 1 to Les Sablons. Take the Fondation Louis Vuitton exit. The Fondation is a 10-15 minute walk from the metro station through the Bois de Boulogne.

Via the Fondation shuttle: Departs Place Charles de Gaulle-Etoile, on the corner of Avenue de Friedland, near the metro exit. The shuttle runs every 15 minutes and costs 1 euro.

The collection in detail

The Fondation comprises 11 galleries, all differing in size and holding unique contemporary artwork, with a 350-seat auditorium on the ground floor. Gallery #1, on the main level, is dedicated to Frank Gehry and his work on the Fondation. You’ll find dozens of building models in varying sizes and materials, plus sketches and explanations of how the structure was built. Head down to the lowest level and admire the cascading fountain that flows from above into a tranquil pond that makes up Olafur Eliasson’s “Inside the Horizon.” Children and adults will find the dizzying panel of mirrors and mosaics addictive to look at and walk through.

The four multi-level terraces are also a treat to explore, each offering a new and spectacular view of the Bois. The central terrace is no doubt the most impressive, with the skyline of business park La Defense hovering over the Korean temple and expanses of trees in the park below. As you wander up the various staircases, you may happen upon an eclectic piece of artwork, a view of the Eiffel Tower or an up-close look at the steel beams holding the whole thing together. With each twist and turn, you’ll catch the building at an ever-new angle.

As one visitor put it, “the building is so complex that most likely no one’s pictures will be the same.”

The design: The hand of an architectural legend

What makes the Fondation so innovative is the fact that the building itself is more intriguing than what’s inside. While the artwork is inspiring, most of it plays off the building instead of simply being housed by it. For instance, Cerith Wyn Evan’s piece A=F=L=O=A=T displays a transparent box suspended from the ceiling, with twenty spidery glass flutes extending out at different levels. The flutes let off breathy notes according to the sounds of the building. In Gallery #8, Oliver Beer transforms the existing space into a live instrument, where three singers stand at each angle of the room to encompass it in musical vibrations.

So, is the Fondation Louis Vuitton all a bunch of hype, or is it worth the trek from Les Sablons metro through the Bois de Boulogne? Should you risk getting sardined up with fellow Fondation-goers in the one-euro shuttle that takes you from Charles de Gaulle-Etoile metro directly to the site?

If you only have one hour to spare, the answer is no. You’ll need to set aside at least 3-4 hours for this excursion, and if you try to go on the weekends, prepare to battle the crowds. Once inside, however, you’ll notice the presence of something infinitely more unique than what you’d find at any other museum in Paris. Because the artwork shows off the building and not the other way around, you begin to feel part of the space yourself. The overly large rooms and gratuitously high ceilings give you the impression of being a tiny speck in an infinite universe.

To top it off, the staff is genuinely nice and very knowledgeable about the nuts and bolts of the building. And in Paris, that’s worth millions.

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