Gehry’s Parisian Dream

Featuring 12 giant glass and steel ‘sails’, the £80 million Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy Foundation for Creation in Paris is arguably Frank Gehry’s most structurally daring project to date, requiring a plethora of innovative construction products and technologies to realise. Stephen Cousins reports.

It has been compared to a vaporous cloud, an insect, and even a work of art by Marcel Duchamp but, for my money, the Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH) Foundation for Creation in Paris looks most like a flotilla of yachts. Actually, no, it looks more like a robotic organism, or maybe a set of white sheets blowing in the wind…

Perhaps there is no adequate analogy to describe this unique cultural icon, with its 12 huge glass and steel canopies that curve, twist and contort in different directions around the main ‘body’ of the main concrete museum building below.

If nothing else, the frenetic, smashed apart structure is a characteristic example of architect, Frank Gehry’s trademark deconstructivist approach to design, which he has developed over the past 20+ years on buildings such as the career-defining Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, the Nationale-Nederlanden ‘dancing house’ building in Prague, Seattle’s Experience Music Project, and New York City’s Eight Spruce Street skyscraper. The building also reflects the grand ambitions of the project’s billionnaire client Bernard Arnault, CEO of one of the world’s biggest luxury goods empires.

A number of innovative techniques and processes were utilised to design and manufacture the museum, which features 3,600 unique glass panels in the sails and 18,000 unique fibre-reinforced concrete cladding panels covering the ‘iceberg’, the main museum building below that houses the galleries, auditorium and restaurant.

Nicolas Paschal, project director at Fondation Louis Vuitton, told ADF:

“One of the most challenging things about Gehry’s buildings is that every aspect is a unique structural situation requiring a unique solution. A key idea was to keep its structural workings concealed from visitors to make them feel disoriented, which required constant dialogue between Gehry and three main structural engineers, Setec Group for the primary structure, and RFR and TESS working together to design the support for the sails and the iceberg structure.”

The LVMH is located at the foot of a grand stepped water feature in the Bois de Boulogne park, Paris’s second largest park on the west side of the capital. It is the latest example of the city’s ongoing westerly redevelopment and, although privately owned, it will be donated to the city after 55 years as part of Bernard Arnault’s corporate commitment to promote and enhance culture in Paris.

The project faced severe local opposition, culminating in a court battle that accused the designers of infringing on local planning and conservation rules. The case was lost and construction halted in 2011, only to start up again almost 12 months later following a change in the law that allowed it special exemption for “artistic works of worldwide significance”.

Rising to 43m at its highest point, the museum dwarfs the park, yet was conceived by Gehry as a sympathetic garden structure, both transparent and porous to wind and rain. The form was also inspired by Paris’s tradition of ornate decorative 19th-century glass buildings and the amorphous shape of the Jardin d’Acclimatation children’s amusement park next door.

The building is essentially divided into two interlocking structures, the internal reinforced concrete internal iceberg provides the primary load-bearing structure. This supports its own weight as well as a large portion of the weight from the glass sails, which comprise an intricate network of structural steel columns and beams and glulam timbers.

“Early on we realised that glass is not the best envelope material for conserving art works in a gallery, so the decision was made to separate the sails from the iceberg, which is clad in fibre-reinforced concrete panels. As such, the entire building would be air and watertight even if the sails were removed,” said Paschal.

The sheer complexity of the museum’s design and the large number of subcontractors and consultants involved led to the development of a unique collaborative 3D model environment, known as GT Global Exchange. This allowed over 300 users to access and produce parametric model content within a shared BIM model, regardless of their location, using a range of different software tools including Digital Project, XSteel, Sketchup, Rhino, and others.

This virtual environment facilitated the creation of over 10,000 distinct archived iterations of the design model and the calculation of over 100,000,000 design optimization iterations for material and fabrication details and panellization.

The sails feature a remarkable 13,500m2 of glazing, with transparent panels installed towards the base of the building and a more opaque glass towards the top, which was also fritted to prevent solar glare. Together these generate an interplay of light and shadow, also reflecting the greenery of the surrounding park.

A new glass firing technique had to be developed to manufacture the thousands of unique laminated glass panels in the sails, which each curve around different radii and in different directions.

The conventional method of bending glass by oven firing panels in individual steel moulds for several hours was rejected as too expensive and structurally inadequate because the glass would remain untempered.

An alternative type of oven was developed, in collaboration with Italian firm Sunglass, designed to heat the glass, transfer it onto a set of small wheels to impart a cylindrical form, then blow air forcefully onto the surface to temper the material.

“It was only possible to create cylindrical forms using this technique, so Gehry Technologies’ Digital Project 3D CAD design software was used to analyse the design of each unit and identify the closest cylindrical approximation. It also had to achieve a tolerance of less than 5mm between each panel to give the visual impression the glass has a freeform organic shape,” said Paschal.

The columns supporting the 12 sails had to be both rigid and thickly dimensioned to limit movement, resist wind and snow loads, and accommodate a huge variety of angles where they meet the undulating surface of the iceberg structure below.

“If one column supporting a sail was to break, the entire structure still had to remain solid,” added Paschal.

The structure of the sail canopies also incorporates thick larch glulam beams, some curving in two directions, their layers built up in two directions to protect against water pene- tration and increase homogeneous strength by counteracting natural deformities in the wood.

Gehry’s design called for the glulams to be inserted between the large steel members that threatened to push the timber beyond its structural limitations. With no existing standards for calculating such extreme forces in timber, the team had to consult with a team of EU experts to validate how to calculate the loads.

The iceberg structure is clad in 18,000 totally unique pre-fabricated fibre-reinforced concrete panels that are variously truncated, curved, concave or convex to give the impression that the walls have an organic fluidity with no visible joins on the surface.

The panels are made of Ductal, by Lafarge, an ultra-high performance concrete containing metal fibers designed to give it a structural strength 10 times higher than traditional concrete and enabling it to resist bending and withstand major transformations. There are no aggregates in the concrete, which gives the surface a very smooth uniform finish.

The project’s engineers worked with Lafarge and other contractors specialised in moulding and prefabrication to develop a highly efficient approach to prefabricating the cladding panels. A standard 1.5m-long x 0.4m-wide silicon mould was designed, which was filled with Ductal and covered with a unique styrofoam shape, cut using a CNC machine, on one side. The resulting block was then placed inside a vacuum-sealed bag to cure.

“The technique took several years of study and testing to make it work. The process is so efficient we could have effectively used a single silicon mould for the entire project, with the 18,000 different polystyrene shapes very cheap and quick to produce,” said Paschal.

Thanks to this, and the many other boundary pushing techniques employed to build the LVMH, Paris now has an original uniquely undefinable, Frank Gehry building of its own. Which is saying something, given the geometric and structural complexity of his esteemed back catalogue.