An impression of the new Frank Gehry structure in Arles
An impression of the new Frank Gehry structure in Arles © Hervé Hôte

Arles is a city of obvious, exotic attractions: ancient Roman buildings, brilliant blue skies, winding streets and brightly painted houses, market stalls heaped with dusty green artichokes and perfect cheeses, the Camargue’s wild delta landscape right on its doorstep. Vincent Van Gogh, inspired by its dazzling light, made more than 30 paintings and hundreds of drawings in Arles from 1888 to 1889.

“I was wondering if I should move my office here,” mused 85-year-old Canadian-born, California-based architect Frank Gehry, when he was here in early April for a stone-laying ceremony for a new building. “Los Angeles, where I live, is a car town. You come here and see the quality of life in the streets and the cafés, and it’s pretty idyllic, a living city.”

Behind the prettiness and the history is a southern French town where the books don’t always balance. Unemployment, at 11-12 per cent among its population of 54,000, is above the national average. In 1986, the SNCF rail yard was decommissioned, leaving a large site of empty post-industrial sheds, and a large hole in the town’s job opportunities. Tourism fills some economic gaps: there are 600,000 visitors a year. In April, the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh, a $15m project to which the Van Gogh Institute in Amsterdam will lend at least eight canvases a year, also opened. It estimates that 80,000 people will pass through its shiny new glazed atrium in its first year.

The president of the Fondation Van Gogh is Swiss ornithologist Luc Hoffmann, beneficiary of the Hoffmann-La Roche pharmaceutical fortune, who first came to the Camargue in 1947, and has done much to protect the area’s unique wetlands. His daughter Maja, 58, herself president of the Fondation Van Gogh’s artistic committee, is following in his philanthropic footsteps, albeit prioritising art over wildlife. Although she owns properties all over the world (a 19th-century former school house in New York, an Adam mansion in London, a cottage on Mustique, a Marcel Breuer villa in Zurich) and was born in Switzerland, she considers herself Arlésienne. “We moved here when I was one week old,” she said. “It’s where I grew up. The big skies are something I think about wherever I am.”

In July 2013 Maja Hoffmann’s Luma Foundation was granted permission to develop the 20-acre former SNCF site – called the Parc des Ateliers in reference to the huge 19th-century sheds where trains were once made and repaired – into a radical new art campus. The Luma Foundation – set up in 2004 and named after her teenage children Lucas and Marina – has helped a range of art and environmental projects including the cultural programme of London’s Olympic Park. The Arles project will cost €100m and be finished when Gehry’s glittering cluster of stainless steel-clad blocks is completed in 2018.

But at the stone-laying ceremony on April 5, the communist mayor Hervé Schiavetti’s rousing speech – ending Vive la gloire arlésienne, Vive Frank Gehry! Vive Maja Hoffmann! – didn’t resonate well with everyone in the town. François Hebel, for example, who had overseen the past 13 editions of the city’s highly successful Rencontres, a festival of photography that takes place throughout the town every July to September, resigned from his directorship of the event earlier this year after Hoffmann announced that her Luma Foundation would be taking over the site.

“Seven years ago, I suggested to Maja Hoffmann that she buy these ateliers to refurbish them for Les Rencontres d’Arles,” he told web reporter Molly Benn in March. “But in 2009 she changed her mind and came up with the project of a contemporary art centre. She wanted, little by little, to expel Les Rencontres.”

Others are concerned that Hoffmann’s stream of acquisitions – she now owns four hotels in the town and a delightful Michelin-starred organic restaurant, La Chassagnette, just outside – is making her inordinately powerful in such a small place. Mayor Schiavetti, when questioned by local press about the “Princess of Arles”, as she has been called, replied politely: “I’d rather be in this situation [than not].”

Gehry’s building will dominate Hoffmann’s site, and will doubtless become a new symbol of an old town. He was appointed without a competition – they had met when she co-produced the documentary film Sketches of Frank Gehry in 2006.

“I knew I wanted to work with Frank,” she told me. “To my mind, his free forms go well with the Mediterranean spirit.”

Gehry with Maja Hoffmann
Gehry with Maja Hoffmann © Eyevine

The scheme has supporters in high places. “The exciting thing about this project is that it’s not only about the transformation of the existing industrial buildings but the addition of something new,” said Nicholas Serota, director of Tate, who had come for the opening of the Fondation Van Gogh and the initiation of the Parc des Ateliers. (Hoffmann is the head of Tate’s International Council and Luma recently underwrote a film programme for Tate Modern’s Tanks.) “If we are going to grow our culture, we have to do so by not simply renovating or slightly transforming what’s there. We have to add something from our own period.”

Describing his building, which will house workshops, seminar rooms, exhibition spaces and a café, Gehry says: “We wanted to evoke the local, from Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ to the soaring rock clusters you find in the region. Its central drum echoes the plan of the Roman amphitheatre.”

Its design has not been delivered without a fight. In 2011, France’s Commission for Historical Sites and Monuments rejected Gehry’s initial two-tower plan on the grounds that it obscured views of the Alyscamps, the Roman necropolis. Some will still find his design too flamboyant and question why a 56-metre tower is the justifiable architectural solution in a historic city where there are no tall buildings.

“To be honest,” said someone close to the project, “the renovation of the existing buildings is more culturally significant to the town than acquiring a Gehry trophy.”

These are in the hands of New York architect Annabelle Selldorf, whose sensitive reworkings of existing architecture into art galleries includes everything from a roller disco in Manhattan to an Edwin Lutyens London bank. “We’re restoring as much as we can,” said Selldorf. “The interior exposed steel columns, the trusses and brackets – they’re beautiful in their own right.” The Atelier des Forges, the first building to be renovated, and a massive 1,300 sq metres in size, is scheduled to open in July.

Hoffmann herself, who worked for some years in theatre, and studied film in New York, says that the thrill she gets from art is about creativity, and not status.

“I like production, making things possible,” she says. “I’m so much more interested in seeing work take shape than acquiring something already made. I didn’t want to do just a museum,” she adds, who could have more easily decided simply to exhibit the fine contemporary art collection she has. “I took the liberty of using my money to do something I really believe in.”

In 2007, Hoffmann assembled a team to talk its way towards a reappraisal of what a contemporary art institution could be. The omnipresent curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, British artist Liam Gillick, French artist and film-maker Philippe Parreno, Tom Eccles (director at Bard’s Centre for Curatorial Studies) and German Beatrix Ruf, who is about to take the directorial reins at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, have discussed how to subvert the stereotypes of creating and exhibiting art.

“The Parc will be a site where you can work and think and get things done,” said Gillick. “It’s not just about attracting an audience, it’s about attracting creative people.” And since there will be no chief executive to placate, no public-sector box-ticking, no board worrying over visitor figures, there’s no one to stand in the way of the unorthodoxy. As Hoffmann put it, “It’s about putting artists in the centre again.”

models of Gehry’s buildings
As part of a performance, models of Gehry’s buildings are moved through the Atelier de la Mécanique © Hervé Hôte

The inaugural exhibition, delivered by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Gillick and Philippe Parreno, aims to show what this collaborative structure might achieve. In a tribute to Gehry, in a vast shed called the Atelier de la Mécanique, eight of his signature architectural models are animated with music, choreography, Parreno’s noisy overhead marquees and with a sun-simulating light that travels across the room, turning the maquettes into pin sharp shadows that track across the back wall. Every so often, to a soundtrack of Pierre Boulez’s Rituel in Memoriam Bruno Maderna, assistants move the models through the space to directions from artist Tino Seghal, forming strange temporary collisions of buildings: the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim might momentarily become the neighbour to the glorious Los Angeles Walt Disney Concert Hall. The moving models, the shadow play, the atonal music feels avant-garde, in a historic, 20th-century way, a conspicuously analogue response in a digital world; it’s hard to decide if it’s a provocative investigation of architectural display, or just a bit self-indulgent.

Gehry was delighted with the results. “To see my models dancing was a total surprise. I could have cried with joy,” he said. “I hope I feel as good when I see my building complete – I want it to resonate in the sun and the light. And I hope Maja does. She asked 1,700 questions every time I showed her a new model – it has definitely been Maja-ised.”

A term that might now apply to the city of Arles.

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