I I’m looking at a wall covered in salt. It is the wall of an elevator hall in the Luma art complex in Arles, France, and comes from the salt flats of the Camargue, the beautiful, wild and swampy area between the city and the Mediterranean Sea. The material, released by the sun’s heat from seawater, could be called sustainable. Its extraction involves the skills of a local community. You may be concerned that the well-known habit of salt dissolving in water could limit its potential as a building material – couldn’t an inattentive cleaner wash it all off? – but fear not: it’s been stabilized with sunflower-derived binders.
Not far from the elevators are other forms of circulation: a double helix staircase and a pair of downward spiral tubular slides that respond to each other through a tall atrium. The slides are by artist Carsten Höller, art and amusement park crosses of a kind that he has previously installed at London’s Tate Modern and Hayward Gallery, in the Palazzo Strozzi in Florenceand in other prominent places. The stairs and the building that surrounds them are the work of the great Canadian-Angeleno architect Frank Gehry, 92. If you look at the cylindrical void at its center, you will see yourself reflected in a slowly moving, angled mirror designed by Olafur Eliasson, Britain’s best known artist for his large sun-like disk at the Tate Modern in 2003.
The stairs and slides are part of an ascending vortex of stone and steel that, bursting through a glass drum that encloses the atrium, merges into a gleaming, wrinkled tower, visible from afar across the surrounding plains, where heavy and rigid building materials are seen. as if they had been crushed like Bacofoil by an invisible fist. At the same time, there is something geological about the crags and chasms of the architecture, reportedly inspired by the nearby Alpilles mountain range. The facets of the wrinkled metal catch the changing light: this is a tribute, Gehry has said, to local artist Vincent van Gogh of Arles, and his evocations of light.
From this point, the place next to the salt wall, near the spirals, you can find your way to some galleries located around the tower, or to a charming cafe created by another artist, Rirkrit tiravanija, where the walls are covered with sunflower pulp panels and a 10 meter long tapestry is woven and dyed with natural materials from the Camargue “bioregion”. You can take an elevator to the top of the tower, where a panorama stretches out before you of Arles and its Roman amphitheater, the wide Rhone River and distant horizons of plains and mountains.
Or you can go to the campus to which the tower acts as a portal, where Selldorf Architects has converted an extension of former railway workshops into places for the creation and exhibition of art: studios, exhibition and performance spaces, artists’ residences and what is described as a “cozy restaurant, offering traditional and generous food made with fresh seasonal products”. Around it is water and vegetation arranged by the landscape architect Bas Smets. One of the old railway buildings contains the works of Atelier Luma, a design and research laboratory that develops “local solutions for the ecological, economic and social transition”, where rice straw, olive pits, algae and the like become prototype materials for buildings and furniture. In the buildings and the landscape you will find more works that, like those of Höller and Eliasson, come from the pleasant end of contemporary art: a fluorescent skateboard park by Koo Jeong A; a mosaic of swirls by Kerstin Brätsch.
The main impression is one of benevolence. Luma is the brainchild of Maja Hoffmann, heir to a fortune based in the Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche. His connection to Arles and its region comes from his father, Luc, a nature conservationist and bird lover who established a research center in the Camargue. Luma, he said, is a “unique environment” that “interchangeably mixes Architecture, Art, Nature and Design.” It is “the fruit of several years of experimentation and a lifelong commitment to artists and a healthy environment.” “It represents my relationship with Art, which grew and developed in the presence of artists since I was a child, along with my close relationship with Nature.”
There’s an ego here, no doubt, but Luma doesn’t feel like part of a power game in the art world. When Hoffmann talks about his love of art and nature, he is credible. His hiring of Gehry, a “free-form architect … who I consider an artist,” sounds like an extension of that spirit. If your net worth is $ 7.26 billion, as Hoffmann is said to be, there are many worse ways to spend a portion of it.
But this anthology of good things raises some questions. It is hard to believe, in this year of fires and floods, that salt walls make a significant contribution to tackling the climate emergency. The mineral comes, to begin with, attached to conventional metal panels, which would work just as well without it. And if you really wanted to save energy and reduce emissions, you wouldn’t build the extravagance of steel and concrete that rises up around you.
That same architectural magnificence has the effect, at least at first, of pushing art into the background: the Höller slides, tends to be in the basement, around the corner, and is not too easy to find. Visitors wander in bewilderment, wondering which way to go in the tower’s somewhat confusing design and what they are supposed to be looking at. There is also a dissonance between the Van Gogh tribute and the palpable expense of the structure. He was someone who could make a reed-seat chair or a simple jug filled with flowers transcendent, and although the auction prices of his work have long mocked the poverty of his subjects, Luma’s prodigality still seems remote from that. His world.
Gehry, for his part, made a name for himself as an architect of modest resources, one who could make poetry with wire fences and plywood. That was a few decades ago, and he has since shown that he knows how to play with bigger budgets, but his best work still tends to occur when there is some sand in the oyster, some push and pull between conditions and demands, in place of when. you are given a free hand to express yourself. The crashes and collisions that come with its freeform approach are more enchanting when run on more humble materials.
So Luma is a wonderland of good intentions. They certainly don’t pave the way to hell, but they offer versions of desirability that are at odds with each other. On the one hand, there’s the idea of the big, shiny icon, which the Gehry tower makes more attractive than most, but which requires some effortful construction to turn its forms into reality. On the other hand, there is the judicious deployment of sunflower products. In a truly fabulous version of Luma, show and thought would inform each other.
Luma arles, Parc des Ateliers, Arles, France, is open every day from 10am to 6pm. M. A 7.30 p. M.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism