Recently I had the chance to visit Arles, the tiny city in the south of France, in the heart of the Provence region. Arles had a rather important place on any ancient map since Julius Caesar established a colony there back in 46BC. Its ideal location next to the Rhone made it a very important commercial center to transport goods from the Mediterranean sea up the river up to the northern regions of the empire. A lot of historical venues and buildings are present until this day, among them the Roman theatre, the baths of Constantine, a cryptoporticus, the Roman Barbegal aqueduct with its mills and, very impressive even today, the Roman amphitheatre in the very center of the old city. At the time it was hosting up to 21.000 spectators watching the gladiators fighting their combats of life and death. Today the amphitheatre is still in use for regular bullfights, hence the people just call it “les arenes” (the arena).
Arles just has about 50.000 inhabitants, but almost everyone in the world with only the slightest interest in art has at least heard the name of the city. Besides its history as a important Roman colony the city later bacame by chance an important destination in the art world of the late 19th century. Here Vincent Van Gogh spent the most productive years of his whole life, establishing his “Studio of the South”, but sadly Arles is also the place of his disturbing meeting with Paul Gauguin leading to Van Gogh’s partial loss of his left ear.
In today’s art world Arles is mostly known for its focus on photography during the Les Rencontres d’Arles festival which every summer transforms the city’s sleepy streets into wonderfully improvisational exhibition spaces.
1/8000 s, f/4, ISO 200, 42 mm, Lumix DMC-GX8
Since 2021 Arles has another controversial highlight, “La Tour Luma”, the Luma tower. The Luma Tower ist a sparkling, highly reflective, metal clad 56 meter high tower designed by Frank Gehry, the famous Canadian-American deconstructivist architect and lucky inventor of the “Guggenheim effect” in Bilbao. Even though the Pritzker Prize-winner continues to say that he tries “not to repeat” himself, that’s exactly what Maja Hoffmann, founder and president of the Luma Foundation but also Swiss heiress of the famous health care company Hoffmann-La Roche, and the city of Arles were hoping for as they commissioned the project.
1/4000 s, f/3.5, ISO 200, 28 mm, Lumix DMC-GX8
Situated close to the train station on a former railway wasteland and quite a bit outside of the inner city center the newly established interdisciplinary creative campus “Parc des Ateliers” with Gehry’s landmark tower are meant to work exactly like that, they try to attract new visitors to the relatively small and fundless community and make an imprint on the global map of both architecture and art, exactly as the Basque city Bilbao did in the late 1990s with its erection of the Guggenheim Museum.
In the Parc des Ateliers several industrial buildings have been renovated by Selldorf Architects and are now used for exhibitions, presentations and artists’ residences. Also there’s now a landscape garden surrounding both the buildings of the Parc des Ateliers as well as Gehry’s tower. The park is open to the public and was designed by the landscape architect Bas Smets.
1/60 s, f/3.5, ISO 200, 28 mm, Lumix DMC-GX8
La Tour Luma is a 10 story building and is clad into 11.000 stainless steel bricks. 53 windows stick out of the faceted facade as highly visible glass boxes. The tower is based on a massive cylindric shape called the “Rotunda” or “The Drum” which houses entrance and atrium. There’s also an adjacent cafe as well as a skatepark on that level. Inside there’s this beautifully white and minimal double helix staircase reaching up two floors. A circular mirror above the staircase is mounted at an angle and is slowly rotating, which generates a sense of destabilization to the viewer. The mirror sculpture “Take your Time” is designed by Olafur Eliasson. Down we go one of the two interwoven steel slides by Carsten Höller called “Isometric Slides”.
1/60 s, f/3.5, ISO 250, 28 mm, Lumix DMC-GX8
Taking one of the lifts up to the 9th floor there’s also an outdoor terrace overlooking the center of Arles, its banlieues as well as the beautiful rural areas of the Camargue and the Alpilles. One floor down there’s an indoor outlook space designed by Konstantin Grcic called “Open Space”. Its raw and industrial atmosphere uses a lot of metal surfaces resembling the outer facade of the building. There are other installations by artists like Philippe Parreno, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Etel Adnan, Liam Gillick and Helen Marten but I guess the indoors of the cylindrical atrium and the outdoor terrace are unquestionably the highlights of the tower.
1/600 s, f/3.6, ISO 200, 30 mm, Lumix DMC-GX8
A lot has been said about the 150 million euro project and especially about Frank Gehry’s tower and a lot is still to say. Personally I think that this building is probably not one of the best ones in Gehry’s career. There’s this weird atrium which puts the whole tower to the ground like in a flowerpot, there’s this stone clad, windowless backside facing Arles’ banlieues contrasting the vibrant metal shapes facing the inner city. It feels a bit like a snobbish gesture to me if you’re in that sort of mood. But all questionable details put to the side this building is a high end tower, a real landmark, highly visible and meant to be seen. Gehry’s metal, reflective facades are still breathtaking, even after all these years, even after having to repeat them in almost any project. It’s unquestionably “a Gehry”, a piece of art on its own. If it becomes a success for the city in one way or the other I guess this is a question no one can answer yet. Even for a 94 year old it’s incredibly hard to create the Guggenheim effect, twice.