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  • Writer's pictureNigel Wakeham

Arles, Van Gogh and LUMA Arles

Arles, Van Gogh and LUMA Arles
Arles, Van Gogh and LUMA Arles

Arles, Van Gogh and LUMA Arles

After our short holiday in the Puy-de-Dome and our visit to Firminy, we moved on to Arles, a city in the Bouches-du-Rhône department of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, for a short stay.

The city has a long history and was of considerable importance in the Roman empire. It remained economically important for many years as a major port on the Rhône but in the 19th century the arrival of the railway diminished river trade leading to the town becoming something of a backwater.

There are significant Roman remains including the theatre, the amphitheatre, the necropolis, aqueducts, etc and the church of St. Trophime is a major work of Romanesque architecture. The Roman remains and the Romanesque church were listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1981 and the city is worth a visit to view these buildings alone.

Many artists have lived and worked in this area including Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh who lived in Arles from 1888 to 1889 and produced over 300 paintings and drawings during his time there.

The Fondation Vincent van Gogh housed in a simple, modern building in what was the courtyard of the old Arles hospital, pays homage to the work of Van Gogh while at the same time exploring his impact upon art today. By presenting the painting of the Dutch master in the context of works by contemporary artists, the Fondation aims to stimulate a fruitful dialogue centred on interrogation and reflection.

The Fondation does not appear to own any paintings by Van Gogh and, at the time of our visit, was presenting an exhibition bringing together seven paintings by him (including ‘Hospital at St Remy’, ‘Dandelions’ and ‘The Fields’) on loan from other galleries and museums together with work by an American artist, Laura Owens.

For this exhibition Owens had completely covered the walls of the rooms where the Van Gogh paintings were being shown with hand-painted and silkscreened wallpaper. Many of the motifs in the wallpaper come from designs made by Winifred How, an obscure English artist and designer who was working in the period immediately after Van Gogh’s death. Owens discovered an archive of How’s work in Los Angeles while preparing this show and, aware of Van Gogh’s fame and the obscurity of another artist from nearly the same period, she chose to celebrate How’s work in the exhibition.

While the seven small paintings by Van Gogh that were on show were exquisite and the work of How, judging by some of her sketch books that were also on display, was very interesting and should be better known, I really felt that the large and very colourful areas of wallpaper designed by Owens around the paintings did nothing to add to them or enhance the enjoyment of them.

Another cultural organisation that has a presence in Arles is the LUMA Foundation which was established in 2004 by Maja Hoffmann in Zurich, Switzerland, to support artistic creation in the fields of visual arts, photography, publishing, documentary films, and multimedia.

In 2013, Hoffmann launched LUMA Arles, an interdisciplinary creative campus where, through exhibitions, conferences, live performances, architecture and design, thinkers, artists, researchers, and scientists could question the relationships between art, culture, environment, education, and research.

LUMA Arles is located in the Parc des Ateliers, an eleven-hectare site that was formerly railway wasteland and which now shows off the fauna and flora of the region together with works of art. A number of 19th century industrial buildings in the Parc have been renovated and are used for exhibitions, presentations, and artists’ residences.

The Tower’ designed by Frank Gehry, completes the development of the Parc and, allegedly, offers new perspectives on the artistic programming of the campus. The 10-storey high building contains various multi-purpose spaces including exhibition rooms, work and research rooms, archives and event venues. Of its 15,000 square metres of floor space, 2,000 square metres are given over to exhibition space and 1,400 square metres to archives.

The building consists of a large, circular, two-storey high drum housing an atrium with a café and galleries from which the Gehry signature, crumpled and glittering tower emerges (the façade of the tower is faced with 11,000 stainless steel panels and contains 52 glazed boxes; the stainless-steel panels are supposed to reflect the light in a way reminiscent of Van Gogh’s paintings). At basement level there are a number of traditional, rectangular exhibition spaces. Circulation in and around the tower is via centrally placed lifts (the lift lobbies are lined with salt-faced panels; salt from the Camargue!); a large circular staircase and a pair of downward spiralling tubular slides (oh what fun!).

On the top floors of the tower there are internal and external viewing platforms that provide views over the city (but on the day we were there, access to the external platforms was not possible as this was deemed dangerous because of (not very) strong winds!). What is supposed to happen between the ground floor atrium and the top floors is however a bit of a mystery as the spaces are largely internal, very irregular in shape and mostly not very large. When we visited these floors seemed to be unoccupied. Finding your way around the building is not easy as there are no obvious circulation routes and few obvious places to go to apart from the café and galleries on the ground and basement floors and the viewing galleries on the top floors. I did feel that it seemed to be a case of ‘when we got there, there was no there, there’. A lot of our fellow visitors also seemed somewhat confused!

All in all therefore, I was not impressed. A huge amount of money has been spent (think of the energy that must have been consumed just by the computing hours required to calculate the size and location of the stainless-steel panels) on a building that seems to have little purpose apart from attracting large numbers of visitors to Arles and the Parc. No doubt this will happen (as has happened in Bilbao) but in these times of climate emergency when surely it is necessary to reduce the carbon footprint of all new buildings, can buildings of this kind really be justified? Gehry started as an architect famous for designing low-cost buildings using only the materials to hand but he now seems to me to be just another ‘star’ architect, of which the world has too many, designing extremely expensive, so-called ‘iconic’ buildings which have no obvious purpose which could not be met in other more climate-friendly ways.


Architecture in Developing Countries: A Resource

The design and construction of appropriate, low-cost buildings for education and health in rural areas of the developing world.

Nigel Wakeham is an architect who lived for 23 years in Southern and West Africa and the SW Pacific working on education, health and other projects. He has since worked for over 20 years as a consultant for national governments and agencies such as the World Bank, DFID, ADB and AfDB on the implementation of the construction components of education and health projects in many countries in the developing world.​

​The objective of this website will be to provide the benefit of more than 45 years of experience of working in developing countries to architects and other construction professionals involved in the design and construction of appropriate, low-cost buildings for education and health. It will provide reference material from the projects that Nigel has worked on and technical information on the design, construction and maintenance of educational and health facilities and other relevant topics and these will be added to from time to time.

I am happy to be contacted by anyone requiring further information on any of the projects or resources referred to in this website or by anyone wishing to discuss work possibilities.


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