Ek am looking at a wall surfaced in salt. It is the wall of a lift lobby in the Luma art complex in Arles, Frankryk, and comes from the salt pans in the Camargue, the beautiful, wild, marshy area between the city and the Mediterranean sea. The material, released by the heat of the sun from seawater, could be called sustainable. Its extraction engages the skills of a local community. You might worry that salt’s well-known habit of dissolving in water could limit its potential as a construction material – might not an inattentive cleaner wash it all away? – but never fear: it has been stabilised with binding agents derived from sunflowers.
Not far from the lifts are other forms of circulation: a double helix staircase and a pair of downward-spiralling tubular slides answering each other across a tall atrium. The slides are by the artist Carsten Höller, crossovers of art and funfair of a kind that he has previously installed at Tate Modern and the Hayward Gallery in London, in the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, and at other notable venues. The stairs and the building around them are by the great 92-year-old Canadian-Angeleno architect Frank Gehry. If you look up the cylindrical void in their centre, you will see yourself reflected in an angled and slowly moving mirror designed by Olafur Eliasson, the artist best known in Britain for his groot, sun-like disc at Tate Modern in 2003.
The stairs and the slides are part of an upward vortex of stone and steel that, erupting through a glass drum that encloses the atrium, coalesce into a crumpled and glittering tower, visible from afar across the surrounding flatlands, where heavy and rigid building materials look as if they have been scrunched like Bacofoil by an invisible fist. At the same time there’s something geological about the architecture’s crags and chasms, reportedly inspired by the nearby Alpilles range. The facets of the crumpled metal catch the changing light: this is a tribute, Gehry has said, to Arles’s one-time local artist Vincent van Gogh, and to his evocations of light.
From this point – the spot next to the salt wall, near the spirals – you might find your way to some galleries placed around the tower, or to a charming cafe created by another artist, Rirkrit Tiravanija, where the walls are covered with panels of sunflower pulp and a 10 metre-long tapestry is woven and dyed with natural materials from the “bioregion” of the Camargue. You might take a lift to the top of the tower, where a panorama spreads before you of Arles and its Roman amphitheatre, the broad river Rhone and distant horizons of plains and mountains.
Or you might go to the campus to which the tower acts as a portal, where an expanse of former railway workshops have been converted by Selldorf Architects into places for the making and display of art: studios, exhibition and performance spaces, artists’ residences and what is described as a “friendly restaurant, offering traditional and generous food prepared with fresh seasonal produce”. Around them are water and vegetation arranged by the landscape architect Bas Smets. One of the old railway buildings contains the works of Atelier Luma, a design and research lab that develops “local solutions for ecological, economic, and social transition”, where rice straw, olive pits, algae and suchlike are made into prototype materials for buildings and furniture. In the buildings and landscape you will encounter more works that, like Höller’s and Eliasson’s, come from the likable end of contemporary art: a fluorescent skateboard park by Koo Jeong A; a swirling mosaic by Kerstin Brätsch.
The main impression is one of benevolence. Luma is the creation of Maja Hoffmann, heiress to a fortune based on the Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche. Her connection with Arles and its region comes from her father, Luc, a nature conservationist and bird-lover who set up a research centre in the Camargue. Luma, she has said, is a “unique environment” that “blends indistinctly Architecture, Art, Nature and Design”. It is “the fruit of a number of years of experimentation and of a lifelong commitment to artists and a healthy environment”. It “represents my relationship with Art, which grew and developed in the presence of artists from when I was a child, together with my close relationship with Nature”.
There is ego here, to be sure, but Luma doesn’t feel part of some art-world power play. When Hoffmann talks of her love of art and nature, it’s believable. Her hiring of Gehry, an “architect of free forms … whom I consider to be an artist”, sounds like an extension of that spirit. If your net worth is $7.26bn, as Hoffmann’s is said to be, there are very many worse ways to spend a portion of it.
But this anthology of good things raises some questions. It’s hard to believe, in this year of fire and flood, that the salt walls will make a significant contribution to tackling climate emergency. The mineral comes, for a start, attached to conventional metal panels, which would function just as well without it. And if you really wanted to save energy and reduce emissions, you wouldn’t build the extravaganza of steel and concrete that rises about them.
That same architectural magnificence has the effect, at least at first, of pushing the art into the background: the Höller slides apart, it tends to be in the basement, round the corner, and none too easy to find. Visitors wander about with a puzzled air, wondering which way to go in the tower’s somewhat confusing layout, and what they’re supposed to be looking at. There’s also a dissonance between the Van Gogh tribute and the palpable expense of the structure. He was someone who could make transcendent a rush-seated chair or a plain jug filled with flowers, and while the auction prices of his work have long mocked the poverty of his subjects, the lavishness of Luma still seems remote from his world.
Gehry, for his part, made his name as an architect of modest resources, one who could make poetry out of chain link fencing and plywood. That was some decades ago, and he has since demonstrated that he knows how to play with bigger budgets, but his best work still tends to happen when there is some grit in the oyster, some pushing and pulling between conditions and demands, rather than when he is given a free hand to express himself. The crashes and collisions that come with his freeform approach are more charming when executed in humbler materials.
So Luma is a wonderland of good intentions. They certainly don’t pave the road to hell, but they do offer versions of desirability that are at odds with each other. On the one hand there’s the idea of the big, shiny icon, which the Gehry tower does more engagingly than most, but which requires effortful construction to turn its shapes into reality. On the other there’s the judicious deployment of sunflower products. In a really fabulous version of Luma, spectacle and thoughtfulness would inform one another.