La Fondation Louis Vuitton, France

Standing in the heart of Bois de Boulogne, Paris, in October last year La Fondation Louis Vuitton opened the doors of its first commissioned stand-alone building, dedicated to the display of artistic creations in all forms.

Commissioned by Bernard Arnault and designed by Frank Gehry, at the heart of the space the public is invited to discover the permanent collection made up of works belonging to the Fondation and drawn from Arnault’s personal collection, as well as temporary exhibitions – two per year – and musical events in the auditorium.

Twelve mainsails, made up of 3,600 glass panels, shape the building, housing a total surface area of more than 11,000m², including 7,000m² available to the public. The building holds eleven galleries dedicated to the collections, along with a 350-seat auditorium featuring a modular design.

The visionary collaboration between Frank Gehry and Bernard Arnault inspired architectural lighting designer Herve Descottes, Principal of L’Observatoire International, to add his poetic vision and infuse La Fondation with the luminous vitality that the structure commands. The building has a very different presence during the daytime compared with at night because of the layering of the glass sails and the way the lighting works within it. During the day the exterior of the building feels more opaque – the glass and the frit embedded on it, reflects the daylight giving a sense that the exterior is more of a definitive shell with subtle cracks in between, which are felt in the shadow.

As night falls however, the structure undergoes a breathtaking transformation from opaque shell to glowing lantern, as the central core of the building begins to glow with warm light and the glass sails, made transparent by the night sky, take on a delicate, almost diaphanous quality. The lighting allows the glass to become cloud-like and the architectural layers behind it become more present. In this sense, elements that were in the shadows during the day are bathed in light at night. The lighting has been designed to allow the spaces in between, to glow subtly behind the glass while not completely losing the presence of the glass itself. It is about seeing and experiencing the building as a cloud-like object, but also as a series of moments that are woven together. The architecture is present and at the same time not present, with the lighting trying to evoke this.

“His architecture is of course very distinct and dramatic,” comments Descottes on his collaboration with Frank Gehry, “so in turn, the lighting has to follow the movement of the architecture without overpowering it.’’

“With La Fondation we wanted people to see and experience the architecture as a series of moments woven together, creating a beautiful suspension of material reality.”

Working within such a magnificent architectural structure naturally brought about challenges when implementing an appropriate lighting system. According to L’Observatoire International, when working with the Gehry team, lighting is always a challenge – but one that the practice loves to embrace. The intensity of the forms and spaces of the building mean the lighting needs to find a way to feel like it is coming from the architecture, not simply applied to it. There also needs to be an honesty about the presence of the lighting fixtures themselves and as such, the Gehry team often exposes the building materials for what they are… steel members, glass and its systems etc and so the lighting needs to do the same. The fixtures are exposed, not over designed individually, but they blend with the honesty of the architecture in which they are integrated.

At the most basic level, the main challenge is often where the fixtures can be located in such a complex architectural geometry while still being able to illuminate the necessary floor surfaces and so on. Luckily, having worked with the Gehry team over many years (including Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003 and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, due to open in 2017) L’Observatoire International was able to work with the team digitally to get the fixtures in the right spots.

In the project’s infancy, LED technology wasn’t exactly at the point it is at today in terms of efficacy and refinement; the offering from the lighting industry was much more traditional, meaning comparisons with more mature technologies were recurrent and under serious consideration at points. However, as time has gone on and products have developed, dimmable integrated LED fixtures were chosen in the final design, aided by French practice Ingelux, which was tasked with the detailed lighting design, allowing for a degree of sustainability that exceed the most stringent energy policies. The outdoor pond and glass sail lighting however, was designed using more conventional fixtures but in a creative and subtle way – either concealed or sometimes voluntarily and blatantly exposed.

The lighting in the galleries and various public spaces needed to be of the highest level of energy efficiency while maintaining excellent colour renditions. A broad range of fixtures were considered and tested for the gallery spaces, evaluating intensity, colour rendering, uniformity, contrast ratio, room cavity ratio, daylight harvesting, energy use and all associated control systems. The fixtures used in the galleries are extremely practical – a system that offers both a base uniform and smooth light level over the vertical surfaces and complemented by an additional layer of more focused lighting, offering extra accentuations when and where needed. Developed by L’Observatoire International and the Gehry team over a number of years, they call it the ‘powerbar’ – it has many incarnations and allows for gallery fixtures to be installed via a clamp mechanism on a bar that is suspended from a single point in the ceiling. When not in use, the bar can be removed and the point in the ceiling closed up with a trim plate. The points also serve as structural hanging points for gallery installation purposes.

The complexity of the project was increased as very little was known in terms of the curatorial experience and so a flexible system was required – one that would allow for versatile exhibition content.

Another challenge faced by Descottes and his team was designing lighting for completely off the charts spaces with room proportions and shapes rarely seen or studied before, with the integration of lighting. Both inside and out, Descottes has struck a balance between integrating the fixtures into the architecture and complementing Gehry’s precise revelation of structural and material elements.

The warm light from within highlights the astonishing architectural detail of both the central core and the sweeping sails wrapped around it, while never losing a sense of the structure as a singular, holistic entity.

Descottes’ elegant lighting design gives this monumental structure buoyancy and movement, as light from the reflecting pool dapples the billowing glass sails that weave around La Fondation’s prow, drawing it westward to the Arc de Triomphe. Floating, ark-like amidst the green, the luminosity of La Fondation provides it with an arresting sense of ethereal grace.

“La Fondation Louis Vuitton opens an exciting new cultural chapter for Paris,” states Arnault. “It brings the city a new space devoted to art – especially contemporary art – and above all a place for meaningful exchanges between artists and visitors from Paris, from France, and from the entire world. By encouraging spontaneous dialogue, the new Fondation seeks to inspire both emotion and contemplation.”