What is the Purpose of Architecture?

In May 2015  I had the privilege of an extended European holiday, visiting France, Italy and Switzerland. During my last few days in Paris, I visited the Fondation Louis Vuitton, designed by Frank Gehry, in the Bois de Boulogne. From the outset there are obvious clues that this is a Gehry building – seemingly impossible organic shapes, materials that bounce light and appear weightless, mismatched, clashing building forms and a long, long, long entry line.

I travelled to the Fondation via the metro, exiting a tiny station into a busy street intersection. After some hair-raising road crossing, I began my walk through an amazing, unexpected forest. Only a few minutes earlier I had jumped on the train at the base of the Eiffel Tower and now I was in a hidden world of amazingly green trees. Not at all what I had expected, and a welcome respite from the busy streets of inner-Paris. It was a lovely entryway to the park and gardens where the Fondation is situated, but obviously walking to the museum is not the norm, as I didn’t see another soul for the whole fifteen minutes.

On first spotting the Fondation, it is clear this building is something special. The first thing that strikes me is the light, white perforated screens over glass which have this ethereal glow that is hard to capture in photos. Combined with the winged shapes and curves, the impression of the building is of a slightly wild bird, ready to take flight at any moment. As the first Gehry building that I have been up close with, I expected a heaviness in materiality, but instead it was graceful and elegant and simply stunning. The combination of steel and LVL structures were brought together with some beautifully simplified detailing, which set off the expansive curves and arches. Despite its size (nearly 12,000 sqm of floor area and measuring 56 metres high), the whole building appears so light.

Traversing the museum internally belies the simplicity and serenity of the external façade. Basically, the building’s innards are a maze, where no two walls are parallel (or perpendicular) and where you can end up moving between inside and outside at unexpected moments. On entry, visitors are issued a map, but even with this I overlooked a whole section from a distance, that I couldn’t figure out how to get to. Guides and attendants overseeing the exhibitions appear used to advising visitors where to go and how to get there. The building was required to be no higher than two stories, to replace an existing bowling alley on the site, and therefore over the whole height of the building (as I understand it) no more than two consecutive floors are connected. To facilitate this requirement, floors split and step across the site, with mezzanines and outside terraces at unexpected junctures. There is no singular circulation spine, instead there are numerous elevators, escalators and stairs, drawing you through like an Escher painting. It is, quite simply, chaotic. Which is not entirely unwelcome in an art museum, as surprising nooks and galleries emerge out of nowhere, inviting exploration and contemplation.

It is easy to ‘judge’ a Gehry building as extravagant, eccentric and designed without concept of function or context. But, this building houses an extraordinary collection of art, which is housed in large white viewing boxes so as to completely immerse yourself in the artwork. In this way, the building functions as a considered facility to display exceptional artworks to their full advantage. You can stand back and see the entirety of Monet’s water lilies and appreciate Munch’s ‘The scream’ in a place of quiet reflection, even as you’re standing amongst a jostling crowd. On the day I visited, hundreds of people would have gone through the doors. Visitors may come for the abstract architecture, but they stay for the art. And isn’t that the real purpose of architecture – to create spaces people want to stay? To encourage connection between the viewer and the viewed? Additionally, it has reinvigorated the parklands within which it sits, with visitor numbers increasing and families returning to the famed playground setting.

In reconciling the architecture of the Fondation, I found a need to question the purpose of architecture. Is it neat ordered circulation spaces and clear cut pathways? Is it knowing where you are in a building and what you can expect to find? Or is it creating a public icon – an extravagant façade to get people through the door and appreciating the ‘product’ within? Or perhaps it is testing the limits of materials, structures and manufacturing processes to develop new industries? Regardless of how the architecture prioritises its form, function or purpose, the Fondation is a beautifully complex piece of architecture, and I highly recommend a visit to anyone who has the fortune to be in Paris.

The Fondation has a really good website about the building – see here for more information.

Article originally published at eiwarch.com.au/enrichment


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