Openings France

Arles cultural centre falls foul of planning rules

French heritage authority wants Gehry-designed towers moved to reduce their impact on the city’s archaeology

Frank Gehry at the launch of the Luma/Parc des Ateliers in 2010, which would obscure views of the Church of Saint Honoratus

ARLES. Building work on an ambitious Frank Gehry-designed cultural centre in Arles will be delayed for at least six months following concerns over its effect on the French city’s heritage, which includes archaeological sites and views immortalised in paintings by artists such as Van Gogh and Gauguin. Work on “Luma/Parc des Ateliers” was expected to start in June but the project is now being revised after two out of five building permit applications were rejected by the French National Commission for Historical Sites and Monuments.

The Luma Foundation, founded by Swiss pharmaceutical heiress Maja Hoffmann, unveiled designs for the 4.5 acre scheme at last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. The complex, which is to include exhibition spaces, a study archive, workshops and a library, has two striking towers clad in aluminium foam, a material that resembles Swiss cheese, as its centrepiece.

But plans submitted gave the heritage commission cause for concern. The commission ruled that Gehry’s towers would obscure the view of the bell tower of the medieval Church of Saint Honoratus in the Alyscamps and that their foundations would disturb the underground Roman-Gallo Sarcophagi. “For these two reasons, it was necessary to consider relocating the towers,” said François Goven, the inspector general of the commission.

Arles has a rich archaeological and artistic heritage; the city’s Roman and Romanesque monuments helped it achieve Unesco World Heritage status in 1981. Part of the listed site is the Alyscamps, a Roman burial ground that extends under the proposed location of the centre.

“It was originally a Roman necropolis, from the first century BC to the second century AD, and became more famous after the Roman martyr St Genest was buried there,” said Claude Sintes, the director of Musée départemental de l’Arles Antiques. “Dante wrote about it in his Divine Comedy,” he added. The archaeology museum, which is not involved in the planning discussions, is carrying out excavations nearby. Sintes said that the Luma Foundation now has two options: “Either the towers must be moved or the archaeological remains need to be excavated before the building can start.”

The Alyscamps inspired Van Gogh, who lived in Arles from 1888-89, and Gauguin. Both artists produced several paintings of the site. Gauguin clearly valued the view of Saint Honoratus’s bell tower as much as the French authorities, capturing it in his 1888 work Les Alyscamps.

A spokesman for the project said that following the permit refusal they are “in a series of meetings with the French Ministry of Culture who have now clearly defined the land on which building is able to take place.” He added that the revised plans will favour a reorganisation of the site, rather than an excavation, leaving the remains for “future generations to discover”. A new request for building permits will be submitted at the end of this year which, if successful, will mean a delay of around six months.

The centre was originally due to be completed in 2013 and a large group advisors are in discussion alongside Gehry Partners on how best to proceed with the project. They include curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, artists Phillipe Parreno and Liam Gillick, and Tom Eccles, director of the Center for Curatorial Studies and Art in Contemporary Culture at Bard College.

Gauguin's "Les Alyscamps", showing Saint Honoratus’s bell tower
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