Frank Gehry Tower, Arles, to Open in the Spring of 2020

“Arles is a town which is often forgotten. “One time a year it reawakens for the photography festival.”

Maja Hoffmann, Le Monde.

“Arles is such a beautiful city. I have tried not to blemish its beauty.”

Frank Gehry, Les Inrocks

Proem: Frank Gehry Cometh to Arles

In Arles, perched on the Rhone fifty miles northeast of Marseilles, the weary antediluvian panorama of sepia tones seems resistant to any fresh coat of modernism. The town has struggled to prosper. Inhabitants call Arles broke (fauchée), its institutions starving (au pain sec).

Mirthless in the winter, Arles explodes in the summer months with art world luminaries and 125,000 visitors mingling at a fervid festival for world photography  –  Les Rencontres d’Arles.

In July of 2008, the Santa Monica-based architect Frank Gehry appeared in Arles with Maja Hoffmann, a pharmaceutical heiress and a high-spirited patron of the arts. Maja and Frank presented a layout of an archipelago of structures, a contemporary art complex, for the Parc des Ateliers, a 22-acre industrial site in partial ruin. 

The Luma Foundation, founded in 2004 in Zurich by Maja Hoffmann, provides project financing, which now approaches €150 million.

The jewel of this complex – Luma Arles –  is a 170-foot tower of gleaming stainless steel designed by Frank Gehry. The tower (image today) is nothing less than a metamorphosis of the landscape, an ever-renewing experience of the poetry of space. Likewise, Luma Arles represents a transformative thread woven in the economic fabric of Arles.

Since 2008, from a perched village in the Vaucluse, I have chronicled, the arduous struggle to actualize Maja’s and Frank’s vision.

The Virtual Travel Writer

Among the hundreds of articles I have perused on Luma Arles, nothing approaches the sheer effrontery of a pedestrian genre of reportage in Condé Nast Traveler: the virtual travel writer. 

This drudgery entails going nowhere. Rather, your correspondent is planted before a computer screen, toggling through secondary and tertiary sources. At its core, it’s a cut-and-paste job, sexed up with nifty adjectives. 

What gashes me is the illusion imposed upon the reader, a forgetfulness, that the narrative was captured “en place.” 

Consider this specimen of the genre: “Arles, France’s Old Art Mecca, Is Also Its Newest.The author is Stephen Heyman, portrayed on the magazine’s site as a resident of Pittsburgh, and formerly on the staff of the New York Times (Arles as France’s old art mecca is pure fiction.)

At first glance, innumerable grotesqueries strike the eye in this fact-challenged piece void of any sources. Equally gruesome is the evident absence from Arles of the writer, whose mind is evacuated of sensual experience.

Condé Nast Traveler: No Respect for Maja Hoffmann

Perched on a plinth and rising from 54-foot glass atrium, the soaring 170-foot tower is a 53,000 square-feet surface of metal panels supporting more than 10,000 blocks of gleaming stainless steel.  A sobriquet evoked among arlésiens is la canette (beer can).

At closer inspection, the tower has a couloir of light at its core, bracketed by four vertical structures, with glass windows bringing into view from the interior the surrounding environs.

Voilà, Heyman’s clipped listless description:

“…the twisting, reflective Frank Gehry building that now towers over its eastern frontier.”

No interest in the design, the form, nor the materials. Nor, as Paul Goldberger articulates in Why Architecture Matters, “coming to grips with how things feel to us when we stand before them, with how architecture affects us emotionally as well as intellectually.” 

Then, as if my enchantment, Heyman treats your eyes to this variation:

“The design of Gehry’s 200-foot tower is chock full of local references—to Roman architecture, the nearby Alpilles mountains, even certain paintings by Van Gogh. Standing atop it, you can take in a dazzling panorama:the clay-colored ruins, the silky gray Rhône, and the Camargue, a natural wetland of brine lagoons and reedy marshes that falls within the city limits and makes Arles, at 300 square miles, technically the largest metropolis in France.”

Brace yourself. “Alpilles” in the first sentence jogged my memory. Et voilà, a passage from the June 24, 2017 edition of the French magazine L’Express:

The Roman sites, the Alpilles, certain paintings by Van Gogh are among his (Gerhy’s) sources of inspiration. This 56-meter tower will be visible from miles around and will offer an extraordinary view of the old town, the Rhone, and up to the Camargue.

Consider the similarities: the identical elements, identical order and identical sentence structures. Writer Heyman has embroidered what is direct copy with vivid adjectives for camouflage.

The passage from L’Express, is an interview — the exact words of Maja Hoffmann. Heyman does not reveal the source – L’Express. He does not cite Ms. Hoffmann as the author.

This is not writing. It is typing another’s words and characterizations without attribution. In French, it merits an adjective: dégueulasse.

There are other quotes, attributed to Ms. Hoffmann, that Heyman lifts from the same L’Express piece, and another from a June 11, 2017 article in the magazine L’Obs, without revealing the sources.

Evidence of the writer’s detachment from his subject is a stupefying error, stated twice in the text: “..the complex won’t be complete until late 2018…” In truth, Luma Arles and the Gehry tower will open in the spring of 2020, as stated on the Luma Arles website.

Noteworthy: Judith Benhamou-Huet’s delightful pop-up video interview with Frank Gehry last April. 

“One designs from the inside out, then in the context of a city, of being a good neighbor, visually,” Frank Gehry to Judith Benhamou-Huet, April 2018.

The Gehry Tower: une Bilbao à la française?

I can’t count the times, over the last ten years, that I have read articles in the French press about Luma Arles as une Bilbao à la française — the description premised on the“Bilbao effect” whereby cultural investment infuses economic progress.

Heyman is of another mind about Ms. Hoffmann’s appreciation for the magical afterglow of Frank Gehry’s creations, writing:

“In interviews, she (Maja Hoffmann) tends to explain what LUMA Arles is by explaining what it is not. It is not an starchitectural Hail Mary pass, like Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, some exercise in urban rebranding.”

What “interviews” is Heyman referencing in which Maja Hoffmann dismisses Gehry’s engagement in Bilbao as a desperation move with little chance of success (Hail Mary)? Where does she profess, entre guillemets, no interest of the impact of Gehry’s design on the urban rebranding of Arles à la Bilbao?

Rewind. Maja Hoffmann met Frank Gehry in 2006 when she coproduced Sydney Pollack’s documentary, Sketches of Frank Gehry? The film is shown at Luma Arles’ information center.

The following year, Frank invited Maja to a dinner celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. She saw the “Bilbao effect” au premier rang. He joined the Luma Arles project soon after.

As for interviews, here is Maja Hoffmann speaking to L’Express in 2017:

“I want for Arles the cultural equipment worthy of a capital, so that this city becomes a destination in itself. Some of his (Gehry’s) buildings, for example the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, are visited by millions of people each year. Others, like the Guggenheim in Bilbao, are emblematic of the capacity of architecture to reactivate the economic fabric of a territory.”

Few clients of Frank Gehry are gripped by pure rapture as Maja Hoffmann is of how Gehry’s starchitectural magical aura can transform a region’s fortunes while bestowing visitors with a sense of awe and wonder.

Alas, whereas Heyman fails to acknowledge Maja Hoffmann’s words, he succeeds in misinterpreting her sentiments.

For some reason, when it comes to creation, design and effect, Heyman can not help himself from selling Frank Gehry short.

Chapeau to the penurious editors. There are no shots of Luma Arles, the Frank Gehry tower nor the skyscape of Arles. The main photo is a café scene in Arles that could pass for any place in southern France. Other stock photos are humdrum tightly-focused images of a hotel interior, a plate of food, and a restaurant table.

Les Rencontres d’Arles: Iconic Co-Founder Snubbed

Heyman writes:

“The city has in recent years become a covert center of cultural power in France. The photo fair, founded by the photographer Lucien Clergue and the writer Michel Tournier…”

Let’s unpack the falsehoods.

Recent? The festival, known as Les Rencontres d’Arles, was conceived in 1968. It achieved cultural power in 1987 when festival director François Hébel rocked the art world by exhibiting Nan Golden’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” in the barren Parc des Ateliers.

Jean-Maurice Rouquette, a childhood friend of Lucien Clergue and the curator at Arles’ Musée Réattu, was a co-founder of the international photography festival. The snub could have been avoided with a quick glance on Wikipédia.

Quoting Jean-Maurice from my “oral history revisited“:

“We invited the renowned writer Michel Tournier to join us (Clergue and Rouquette) because we needed a hero. Lucien was a born showman who adored a performance. There had to be someone glorious to present things.”

An iconic legend in the Arlesian art community, Jean-Maurice Rouquette, along with Lucien Clergue, established, in 1965, the first department of photography in a French arts museum. 

Alas, whereas Heyman recycles the trope of Van Gogh’s ghost in Arles, a curious mind would have probed  Picasso’s influence on Arles’ rise to prominence in photography. (See oral history revisited for details.) 

Covert?  As a hotbed for photography in France, and worldwide, in 2017, the festival drew more over 125,000 visitors, with 250 artists featured in 40 expositions in 25 locations.

Editors showed no interest in highlighting the festival program this summer. At Luma Arles is the riveting The Train: RFK’s Last Journey, produced by SFMOMA, and highly praised in the New Yorker. 

“America Great Again, ” a retrospective of the work of American photographer Robert Frank, complemented with images of America shot by Frenchman Raymond Depardon and three other photographers from France and England, runs until Sept. 23.

The dynamic program at at Luma Arles features in July the L.A. Dance Project.

A Swiss Family’s Legacy: A Daughter’s Narrative

Heyman compiles a list of the attachments of Hoffmann family members to Arles:

“The Hoffmann family may be Swiss by birth, but they have all latched onto this section of France. Maja even speaks French with a southern accent. Her sister, Vera Michalski, a publisher, owns one of the most beautiful houses in the city, next to the Eglise Saint-Trophime. Their brother, André Hoffmann, runs the Tour du Valat, an environmental station in the Camargue established by the family patriarch, Luc Hoffmann, a philanthropist and ornithologist whose conservation work is credited with saving the local variety of flamingo.”

An impressive list, yet there is no account of how a hugely wealthy Swiss family “latched onto” the region, e.g., how did Maja Hoffmann come to speak perfect French. The imposition of a narrative line –  the emotive plot points that propel characters forward – appears to be beyond Heyman’s intellectual range.

The family’s attachments have their roots in a singular passion. Luc Hoffmann (1923-2016), a doctoral student, came after the war to the Camargue.  At first sight, he was in its thrall.

For his thesis, he studied the chicks of the common tern. His dedication to the Camargue was pure, even angelic. Luc was like a revolutionary: one gave, everything, for the cause.

In the mid-1950’s, Luc Hoffman relocated the family to the Camargue. He exemplified to his children a life that had always been lived in accordance with a passion for engagement. For them, it must have been like learning some heroic language.

Raised in the region, Maja Hoffmann is une fille du sud. (a girl of the south). This trait is a predominant element in the donnée of her biography.

Maja’s father revealed an engagement to the world of nature to her. She came to add the universes of art, culture, education and human rights. In the end, no one of them less precious than another.

Hers is an existence completely focused. Her engagement is the ineluctable emotional force that drives her to do something of consequence that endures, as her father devoted his fortune to preserving the Camargue. Luma Arles may be appreciated as a vital part of Maja Hoffmann’s own self-concept.

Majapoly: Reverse Snobbery

Essentially incurious about anything beyond what he can read on the written page, Heyman is abysmally deficit in grasping any understanding of the territory.

An example of his pointlessly thirdhand views is this blurb: “locals describe her creeping influence as the “majapoly,” a subtle animosity premised on Ms Hoffmann renovating two hotel properties in Arles, as well as owning a Michelin-star restaurant, 15 minutes south of the town, and investments perhaps down the road.

The term “majapoly” is amusing satire popularized by the lively gazette, l’Arlésienne, that once listed the regional investments of the Hoffmanns on a monopoly board. Other than for flippant café banter, it is hugely insignificant. (One hears the more witty, ironic “Arles is the 27th canton of Switzerland.”)

Heyman returns to this dismal theme again by paraphrasing a chef at the restaurant that “majapoly” is a “..challenge to the traditional status quo.” What traditional status quo? Perhaps the mayor of Arles, Hervé Schiavetti, a Communist mind you, who for five years fought tooth and nail alongside Ms Hoffmann to secure construction permits for Luma Arles.

Finally, it is remarkable how Heyman cleaves to a furiously retrograde notion: “locals don’t want places like these to lose their scruffy edge.” Rethink. Arles will always have a scruffy, tough patina. What the residents want is prosperity — revenue to afford more than a ‘bout de pain” (piece of bread).

The inhabitants of the town of Arles get by with “très petits revenus” – about 22,000 USD. A majority are renters with about 25% retirees. Unemployment among the young exceeds 30%. With a poverty level higher than 20% (national average is 14%), too many Arseliens measure out the days in exact portions.

The arts in France are reliant upon public sector support. A case in point, last year Les Rencontres d’Arles had its contribution from the regional government increased by 150,000 euros, bringing the annual subsidy to over half-a-million euros.

Luma Arles represents a totally private sector investment of 150M euros (USD 175M). Arles has an annual budget of 95M euros. The newspaper La Provence foresees Luma Arles attracting 300,000 year-round visitors to Arles. For a economically-stressed town, Luma Arles is no ordinary miracle.

I mean, this whole “majapoly” thing is just so hopelessly and absurdly irrelevant.  It’s reverse snobbery.

A café habitué named Augusto Losada was spot on when he told a regional newspaper: “Maja Hoffmann, this lady, has an asset that distinguishes her from a tattooed Parisian in a Panama. She loves Arles, this city that suffers.” 

Reporter as Fantasist

Anyone who has passed only transitory moments in the South of France would share my mild stupefaction at these glib pseudo-sophisticated misconceptions that Heyman proffers:

“……sleepier Provençal cities like Aix or Avignon.” (than Arles)

Idiotic. Arles is a mirthful town of naked stones in the off-season bereft of commercial and institutional activity. Aix-en-Provence is a university town and a judicial center teeming with culture year-round. Avignon is the commercial, administrative and culture center of the Vaucluse.

“…sophisticated, authenticity-craving Parisians who choose Arles for their southern pied-à-terre.

Not. Parisians come to Provence in the summer seeking the countryside, not a steamy scrubby town overcrowded with festival goers. Arles has no TGV service from Paris. St. Remy and its environs are referred to as an arrondissement of Paris in the summer due to a short hop to the TGV station in Avignon.

Besides, the Arlesian bourgeoisie have deserted Arles. Christian Lacroix, native son and fashion designer, lives in nearby Saint-Étienne-du-Grès.

“Nursing a pastis on a café terrace,…”

 “Clichés are dead freight,” says Martin Amis. Nothing more out of style in Provence than pastis. Let me recall the number of times in the last 8 seasons in Provence that at cafés, vernissages and dinner parties I have witnessed anyone – French or foreign – consume a pastis. Exactly once. Ever deluded, Heyman posted on Twitter that his piece “reads better after a few pastis.

Rosé is the typical café tipple, and apéritif (apéro). In fact, the French now drink more rosé than white wine. Rosé sales are booming everywhere, and the growers are loving it.

Is Cost-Cutting at Condé Nast Eroding Quality?

In a recent column in The New York Post, Richard Johnson described the pain of veteran magazine writers at Condé Nast who are “suffering in silence” as their incomes shrink.

Likewise, says Johnson, contributors are seeing their pay arrangements squeezed. Some writers are compelled to move from Manhattan to make ends meet.

From my perch in France, I tracked the wholesale sad sacking of editors and senior executives at Condé Nast International (CNI) in London to make way for a youthful staff versed in digital. Made redundant last year was a dear friend who put in more than two decades at the top of a masthead at CNI.

There were brighter days. A few years ago, Condé Nast Traveler commissioned a sharp-witted American journalist, living in France and fluent in French ways, to visit Arles and submit an article. The piece never ran because the editor who assigned it left the publication.

Can quality writing at Condé Nast Traveler resist the cost-cutting cycles, or is a decline not some distance off?

One imagines how Chairman Steven O. Newhouse in New York, or his brother Jonathan, who runs CNI in London, would disport the Arles article, not quite out of the top drawer of journalism, in the presence of Maja Hoffmann and Frank Gehry.  The palpable pangs of embarrassment.

Coda: New York Times Reporter to Arles in 2018

In its New Year feature “52 Places to Go in 2018,” the New York Times listed Arles as no. 28. Out of 13,000 applicants, the Times selected Jada Yuan as its “52 Places correspondent.”

There is a unique aspect of the annual survey this year. Jada will file a dispatch from everyone of the 52 destinations.

A rare phenomena in many Provence moons for any American journalist to venture to Arles. An update on her reportage from Arles will be posted at the beginning of this article. (Jada arrived in Arles on July 7th.)


Of Note: After a first read, I sent two emails to Stephen Heyman, and another two emails to Paul Brady, the articles editor at Condé Nast Traveler, to discourse about the copy. Silence.