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.



Building work on an ambitious Frank Gehry-designed cultural centre in Arles has been delayed 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 looks set to be 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.” Sintes, who called the first option “a better solution” as it would mean his staff would not be diverted from other projects to undertake an eight-month rescue excavation, said he supports the Luma project and would be willing to carry out the work if necessary.

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.

The centre was originally due to be completed in 2013. A spokeswoman for the project called the setback “a small administrative delay,” adding that “everyone is in full support [of the project].” In a statement, Maja Hoffmann, the president of the foundation, said: “We are working now with the mayor’s office, the prefect of the region and the ministry to find the best way to continue this project and enable it to come to fruition.”