Home > Culture > Architecture > Frank Gehry is recreating the Bilbao effect with Luma Arles
Frank Gehry is recreating the Bilbao effect with Luma Arles

If you’ve been to Bilbao, you’d notice an oddly-shaped (almost contorted) building standing out from the historic Basque city. The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, designed by legendary starchitect Frank Gehry, is dubbed as one of the most stunning architecture in the 20th century. But who would’ve imagined that the architecture was actually inspired by a piece of crumpled paper — or trash, as some may put it?

The 1989 Pritzker Architecture Prize recipient is doing the same – this time with Luma Arles, an art resource centre established by Swiss collector Maja Hoffmann. The twisting tower, which is built on an abandoned rail yard in Arles, south of France is progressively taking form and scheduled to complete in early 2020.

Frank Gehry at work. (Credit: Gehry Partners, LLP)

Nearby, several industrial buildings have been transformed into gallery spaces while Belgian landscape architect Bas Smets is putting together a public garden called the Parc des Ateliers. According to ArtNet, Hoffman has contributed €150million (approx. RM700million) through her Luma Foundation to support independent artists – continuing her family’s patronage of the struggling post-industrial city. The area is perhaps only known for the Rencontres d’Arles, an annual photography festival that makes Arles a staple for serious shutterbugs.

When it is complete, the metallic structure — clad in a reflective aluminium surface – is expected to measure 56 metres high. What’s unique about the architecture is how each glass box and shimmering aluminium parcels are stacked around the concrete core in an irregular formation above a circular glass atrium. Its peculiar shape has been a ‘Frank Gehry’ signature with multiple reiterations of similar typologies being conceived all over the world.

Gehry’s articulation for its façade echoes the craggy rock formations found around the city – Vincent van Gogh even painted them in 1888 when he lived in Arles for 15 months. Some critics have described this design as a ‘stainless-steel tornado’, while locals have reportedly called it as resembling a crumpled drinks can. (why are we not surprised?)

But the 89-year-old has had a reputation as the go-to architect for rejuvenation projects. He specifically did the same with the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 1997 – a shiny titanium museum that cities around the world were soon clamouring to replicate. The museum made both its architect and the Basque city world-famous. Bilbao soon became a go-to destination for architecture buffs with strong global recognition and media coverage – an Instagram sensation long before there was even such a thing.  

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao opened in 1997. (Credit: Guggenheim)

This global craze, also known as the Bilbao effect, is a phenomenon whereby cultural investment paired with impressive architecture is supposed to equal economic uplift for growing cities. Despite numerous efforts, many wannabe ‘Bilbaos’ fail to even come close to its original intent – Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Walt Disney Concert Hall or the newly completed Facebook’s campus in Palo Alto.

While most of these showy buildings remain as sculptural white elephants, it is critiqued that the upcoming Luma Arles will resound a similar (if not stronger) Bilbao effect the world has not seen in over 20 years. There’s only one way to find out.

Martin Teo
Martin has a bent for history and food culture, especially of the Peranakan heritage. Since the pandemic, he finds joy in plant parenting and continues to expand his collection of Philodendrons, Anthuriums, and Syngoniums. He's now on a lookout for the elusive Philodendron Florida Beauty to add to his urban garden.