Head of the curve

Head of the curve

Mention the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the name Frank Gehry usually follows in the same breath.

The colossal structure in the northern Spanish city has attracted more than 10 million visitors since it opened in 1997. In what has been dubbed the "Bilbao effect", the Canadian-American architect is credited with bringing life back to the cultural backwater port town.

The Economist reported that visitors' spending in Bilbao, in the first three years after the modern art museum opened, raised more than €100 million (S$161.6 million) in taxes for the regional government, which was more than enough to recoup the construction cost.

City rejuvenation aside, the US$89-million (S$113) building was also considered an architectural feat for its bold curves and how it played off natural and metallic elements - its facade is made of limestone, glass and titanium - making the structure appear to be moving.

Now 85, the game-changing architect is still at it.

Earlier this month, he completed the Fondation Louis Vuitton, an art museum in Paris nestled amid the sprawling Jardin d'Acclimatation, a 19th-century garden in Bois de Boulogne, a public park.

The 126,000 sq ft complex houses 11 exhibition galleries, which will feature a permanent collection of contemporary art as well as temporary showcases.

The centre also has a 350-seat concert hall, which can be moved and configured to hold different types of events, meeting spaces and a waterfall.

But before you step inside, you would already have been mesmerised by the magic that is Gehry's work. Amid the trees, the building's glassy exterior - there are 3,600 curved elements for the 12-panel glass facade - peeks out, twinkling in the sunlight.

Passers-by have likened it to a ship, a cloud or an iceberg dressed in a cloud. For the record, Gehry told the Financial Times that it is all three: "The iceberg is the white stuff inside, the cloud is the glass and the glass looks like sails."

But before the building took shape, looking at the plain area itself was an emotional experience for Gehry.

The 1989 Pritzker Prize-winner says over the telephone from Los Angeles, where he is based, that he was "brought to tears" when he first visited it.

"The Jardin d'Acclimatation has its own persona and the Bois de Boulogne is timeless. There's a lot of folklore about the nearby Champs-Elysees and Arc de Triomphe, and when you look at the area, it's a beautiful necklace of events," says Gehry, who lived in Paris for a year in 1960.

"It has historic importance and that gave it a lot of gravitas in my mind. It had to be respected and understood."

Fondation Louis Vuitton, which Forbes reported cost US$135 million (S$171 million) to build, opens to the public on Oct 27.

It was commissioned by Mr Bernard Arnault, 65, chairman and chief executive of luxury conglomerate LVMH, which owns fashion houses such as Louis Vuitton and Fendi, as well as wines, perfumes, cosmetics and watch companies.

Financial Times reported that LVMH acquired the Jardin d'Acclimatation, first bought by Boussac, a flailing textile and diaper company Mr Arnault bought in 1984.

Boussac's owner Marcel Boussac had acquired a hotchpotch of businesses through the years.

The garden was an impulse buy: He lived near the plot, which had a children's park and zoo, and his wife was bothered by the noise of the roaring lions.

Soon after he bought it, the lions were shipped off but the children's park was retained and remains next to the plot where the Fondation now stands.

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