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Frank Gehry’s Starry Night in Arles


Let’s step back in time for a moment to consider the ancient town of Arles in the Bouches-du-Rhône department of southern France. Established in the 6th century BC by the Greeks, in 123 BC the Romans developed Arelate into a vital port and economic centre which continued until the 5th century AD.

When Arles is mentioned today, this intriguing town evokes thoughts of magnificent remnants of those Roman times (listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites) combined with the spirit of Vincent Van Gogh and friends.

The imposing amphitheater known as Les Arènes, the stately columns of the Theatre Antique and the 4th century AD Roman baths blend in with neighborhoods of the old town. Les Arènes and the Theatre, along with the church of Saint-Trophime constructed between the 12th and 15th centuries, are still frequently used and very much a part of the cultural life of the community.

The spacious and welcoming Museum of Antiquities in Arles has an impressive display of major artifacts all discovered within a 30-kilometre range from the town. An exciting display is an almost fully intact Roman transport boat that was recovered from the Rhone after 2000 years in the mud. A 20-minute video shows the process that unfolded through several years of precise technology and painstaking efforts to ensure its survival.


Although Van Gogh spent less than two years in Arles, his spirit has never left. Images of his work are evident throughout the town and a visit to the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh is a must. Narrow winding streets lined with medieval architecture entice a visitor to be a flâneur, while intimate cafés and bistros offer a variety of choices to stop and enjoy the passing parade.

Recently another name has become increasingly synonymous with Arles.

frank-gehry-tower-arlesIn spring 2014, the design for Frank Gehry’s Arts Resource Center designed was presented at the LUMA Arles complex. Situated at the entrance to the town, the ultra-modern structure will certainly compete for attention after completion in 2018.

Pharmaceutical heiress, Maja Hoffman, a Swiss-born philanthropist and contemporary art collector who grew up in Arles, is funding the project. Her Luma Foundation’s stated goal is to see a new kind of collaborative creativity that will boost the fortunes not only of her beloved city but also of the arts communities she has nurtured throughout her life. Hoffman and 85-year-old “starchitect”, Gehry collaborated for several years before finally having approval to go ahead.

 Describing his building, which will house workshops, seminar rooms, exhibition spaces and a café, Gehry says: “We wanted to evoke the local, from Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ to the soaring rock clusters you find in the region. Its central drum echoes the plan of the Roman amphitheatre.” (Quote from Design & Architecture)

The final design has a single soaring 170-foot tower of twisted aluminum foam with a stone backbone, perched on a plinth, enveloped by a 54-foot glass rotunda and a landscaped courtyard. As often happens with construction in areas once home to ancient civilizations, there were classic delays. In this case due to the proposed tower being too close to a Roman cemetery and, also, because the views of a medieval church were obstructed.

The massive cultural complex, estimated at more than $110 million, will have contemporary art galleries, archives and artist housing. A model of the finished project shown here is courtesy of l’occitane.com.


The Parc des Ateliers was once clusters of structures for railroad maintenance and repair. Arles used to be the site of French railway operator SNCF’s main workshops. A 27-acre industrial ‘parc’ existed along the railroad tracks where more than 1,000 ‘artisans’ repaired and restored trains, until it was shut down in the Eighties. Now the derelict buildings and rubble strewn delivery yards are on the brink of renewal.

Controversial to some, there is no question this will become yet another bright star in the ongoing history of Arles. To quote Van Gogh, “An artist needn’t be a clergyman or a churchwarden, but he certainly must have a warm heart for his fellow men.” Many might agree this could be said of Frank Gehry, as he contributes to the fusion of antiquity and modernity in Arles.

For more information on this exciting project, please click here to go to Design/Curial.com 

Patricia Sands is a writer whose heart remains in the south of France no matter where else she may be. Her 2013 novel, The Promise of Provence, has spawned the Love In Provence series, her love letter to France. She writes about and shares her photography of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur regularly at patriciasandsauthor.com.

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