PARIS - I came to Paris to learn about Paul Durand-Ruel, an art dealer who championed the impressionist movement before impressionism was cool. During a detour, I discovered something new from the unlikely combination of architect Frank Gehry and the fashion house Louis Vuitton.
Gehry has created a spectacular space for the Fondation Louis Vuitton museum in Paris. The initial display there is about the building itself, including models and a time-lapse film.
It was representatives from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, who accompanied journalists including myself on the trip to explore impressionism, who mentioned that the Vuitton museum was opening in Paris in late October.
The purpose of this trip was to see an exhibition currently at the Musee du Luxembourg, organized by the Art Museum, the Musee d'Orsay, and the British Museum, that brings together many of the masterpieces Durand-Ruel once had a hard time selling, with information on his commitment to the art and artists. (The Art Museum will present an expanded version, Discovering the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting, with a lot of the stunning work he bought and sold for Monet, Renoir, Manet, Pissarro, Sisley, and Degas, among others, opening June 24.)
When I got to the Vuitton museum, in the Bois de Boulogne, I realized just how much buzz it had created as I maneuvered through the lines, traffic, and guards around the place.
Then again, the scene shouldn't have been a surprise. You've no doubt seen the eager shoppers lining up to get into Louis Vuitton stores before the doors open, right? And a new Frank Gehry building is a guaranteed crowd magnet.
Does that sound a little jaundiced? Snarky? If it does, you're right. I was curious, but a tad cynical.
Once I arrived, it didn't take long to become smitten.
It was particularly surprising to me because on first approach the whole scene looked pretty slick. No mirrors, but definitely smoke. The museum is adjacent to the Jardin d'Acclimatation, Paris' original theme park, opened in the 1860s and since then having gone through many ups and downs.
It was recently acquired by another of Vuitton's philanthropic branches and is being restored and updated. Fog billows up periodically around the small river in the Jardin - not far from the "lake," or water garden, upon which the museum seems to float. Purple spouts of water leap into the mist from around the perimeter at random intervals (like when I was standing directly over one of the hidden spouts - oops).
Despite waiting, despite being fountain-wet, despite my expectations for a cultural experience featuring overpriced luggage, I was soon won over. And Gehry - his building - was the reason.
The museum's inaugural exhibition is about the building, and the main exhibition space displays all of the models, plus sketches (scribbles to you and me) and much additional work that went into the making of the structure, which includes elements named "The Iceberg" and "Sails."
Gehry himself explains it as an iceberg enveloped by glass sails. From the outside it looks like you'd expect: crazy in that Gehry way, with many arching roof segments. It looks, in fact, like some kind of, well, arthropod. The exhibition dedicated to Gehry did help explain a little about various aspects of the building but didn't entirely manage to bring it all together for me.
There are dozens of models big and small (look in a couple, and you'll see swatches of Vuitton-brown trademark material), showing ideas for parts of the building. Some explain the materials used, which are cutting-edge. The glass sails, for instance, really are glass, designed and tested to withstand gale-force winds. Gehry won the American Institute of Architects' award of excellence in 2013, and the French National Grand Prix of Engineering in 2012, for the design. More than 350 architects, engineers and technicians worked on translating Gehry's design into reality. Then 250 construction workers converged on the site - home, formerly, to a bowling alley.
A time-lapse presentation is worth watching. You see the construction workers and the scaffolding and the shell metamorphose into an edifice over the march of the seasons, the building set in a field of snow, of bare trees, of greenery, of fall color.
On the entrance end of the room is another video, which shows the building situated in the Bois de Boulogne, a historic oasis of nature for Parisians. The building looks right in its location, its translucent facade an homage to the 19th century glass-and-garden architecture that was popular when the Jardin d'Acclimatation was created.
What brought the Gehry building together (what made it make sense; not just sense, but what made me realize just how wondrous it is) was visiting the rest of the museum - the 11 galleries, the stairs between floors, the corridors.
Fondation Louis Vuitton is dedicated to bringing in the work of living artists. It has commissioned several pieces already on display, including Ellsworth Kelly's Spectrum VIII, a multipaneled, multicolored curtain, plus art from its collections.
The gallery rooms are perfectly designed to give the focus to the artwork - white boxes without any distraction. You don't get lost or confused going from one room to another because there are a limited number of spaces and ways to get to them on each floor.
The floors have areas where you can look out on the garden, into Paris and at other parts of the building. There are outdoor terraces. And a somewhat pricey restaurant, Le Frank's (run by Jean-Louis Nomicos, Michelin-starred chef and owner of Les Tablettes), that's so far the only place to rest your weary legs and brain.
I think my favorite part, though, was the staircase. You can look over the banisters and see the bones of the building, the beams and rivets that give the free-form building its shape. The arrangement is outrageous. There are no right angles. The web of beams is intricate and precise, but it looks like every single angle created required another mathematical equation. I realized just how much method was required for the Gehry impression of "madness."
A glimpse into the mind of an artist, for sure.
The Fondation Louis Vuitton is at 8 avenue du Mahatma Gandhi in the Bois de Boulogne, in Paris' 16th Arrondissement.
The museum has its own shuttle - a small electric bus that departs from the Place Charles de Gaulle at Avenue de Friedland, near the entrance to the Metro. Shuttles come every 15 minutes or so and drop you right in front of the museum - the easiest way to go without having to do some walking from public transportation. The shuttle costs 1 euro, about $1.25, each way.
For the Metro, take Line 1 to Les Sablons station, and take the Fondation Louis Vuitton exit. Fondation Louis Vuitton is a 10- to 15-minute walk from the station.
Another idea, if you're so inclined, is to take advantage of the public bike system, Velib'. Pick one up at the nearest rental rack from your starting point; there's a Velib' station right in front of the museum (en.velib.paris.fr).
Noon to 7 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday, and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; closed Tuesdays.