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The Observer reviews Frank Gehry's Luma Arles

Gehry’s crumpled metal tower is the glittering icon of a new cultural campus in the south of France where high ideals and extravagance feel at odds

Luma Arles
Photograph © Iwan Baan

"I am looking at a wall surfaced in salt. It is the wall of a lift lobby in the Luma art complex in Arles, France, and comes from the salt pans in the Camargue, the beautiful, wild, marshy area between the city and the Mediterranean sea. The material, released by the heat of the sun from seawater, could be called sustainable. Its extraction engages the skills of a local community. You might worry that salt’s well-known habit of dissolving in water could limit its potential as a construction material – might not an inattentive cleaner wash it all away? – but never fear: it has been stabilised with binding agents derived from sunflowers.

Not far from the lifts are other forms of circulation: a double helix staircase and a pair of downward-spiralling tubular slides answering each other across a tall atrium. The slides are by the artist Carsten Höller, crossovers of art and funfair of a kind that he has previously installed at Tate Modern and the Hayward Gallery in London, in the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, and at other notable venues. The stairs and the building around them are by the great 92-year-old Canadian-Angeleno architect Frank Gehry. If you look up the cylindrical void in their centre, you will see yourself reflected in an angled and slowly moving mirror designed by Olafur Eliasson, the artist best known in Britain for his large, sun-like disc at Tate Modern in 2003.

Luma Arles
Photograph © Iwan Baan

The stairs and the slides are part of an upward vortex of stone and steel that, erupting through a glass drum that encloses the atrium, coalesce into a crumpled and glittering tower, visible from afar across the surrounding flatlands, where heavy and rigid building materials look as if they have been scrunched like Bacofoil by an invisible fist. At the same time there’s something geological about the architecture’s crags and chasms, reportedly inspired by the nearby Alpilles range. The facets of the crumpled metal catch the changing light: this is a tribute, Gehry has said, to Arles’s one-time local artist Vincent van Gogh, and to his evocations of light.

From this point – the spot next to the salt wall, near the spirals – you might find your way to some galleries placed around the tower, or to a charming cafe created by another artist, Rirkrit Tiravanija, where the walls are covered with panels of sunflower pulp and a 10 metre-long tapestry is woven and dyed with natural materials from the “bioregion” of the Camargue. You might take a lift to the top of the tower, where a panorama spreads before you of Arles and its Roman amphitheatre, the broad river Rhone and distant horizons of plains and mountains.

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