It is the latest chapter in the art-world rivalry of two of France’s richest businessmen: a saga of momentous contemporary art collections and a quest by their owners to build Paris museums that would transform the city’s landscape.
When the French luxury goods tycoon François Pinault – once described as the most powerful man in the modern art world – stepped out under the magnificent glass dome of the former Paris stock exchange on Monday to unveil the plans for his new modern art museum, the architecture world held its breath.
For years Pinault, a self-made man whose luxury group had acquired a string of the world’s most famous fashion brands, from Yves Saint Laurent to Gucci, has been searching for a Paris home for his €1.25bn art collection of more than 3,500 works, including pieces by Mark Rothko to Damien Hirst. Scuppered by red tape and building delays several years ago, he had given up on trying to build a museum on the site of an old Renault car factory on the Île Seguin in the middle of the Seine and instead took flight to Italy to set up a series of major art spaces in Venice.
In the meantime, his long-time business rival, Bernard Arnault, the owner of the Louis Vuitton luxury goods group LVMH, built his own rival Paris museum for his own art collection three years ago, in a vast 11,000 sq metre building designed by the American architect Frank Gehry.
Now Pinault is making his long-anticipated renewed bid to create a museum by renovating and restoring the former Paris stock exchange, the 19th century Bourse de commerce – one of Paris’s most historically important but least known buildings.
The project, in which the Japanese architect Tadao Ando will install a giant concrete cylinder in the middle of the unique circular building, is so ambitious that Ando promised it would blast away the political malaise of the moment and soothe the wounds of Brexit.
“These are tumultuous times in Europe – the recurring terrorist incidents and the UK withdrawal from the EU have fuelled anxiety over what the future holds, and countries and people alike seem unsure of their own identities,” Ando said. He promised art could provide healing, and his building would “renew hope in the future”.
Much is at stake in what is seen as one of the most important transformations of a Paris building for years. The Bourse de commerce is a unique circular structure under a historic dome, and once served as the city’s grain store. It is one of the great structural treasures of the city – considered by some as being on par with Notre-Dame cathedral for its architectural heritage. Yet, until as recently as this year, it served as the dusty offices of the city’s chamber of commerce.
Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, who negotiated the deal under which Pinault’s art foundation will restore the building in exchange for a 50-year tenancy, said the project was an “immense gift” to the city and would open up a “closed” building to the public.
Indeed, the renovation of this neglected architectural treasure is seen as the final act of Paris’s attempt to make amends for what is seen as a shameful act of self-sabotage: the 1970s bulldozing of the 19th-century wrought-iron market pavilions at Les Halles and the creation, in their place, of an underground transport and shopping complex seen by some as a monstrous, mirror-glassed carbuncle.
The old stock exchange stands on the edge of the Les Halles complex, where a vast new steel-and-glass canopy was unveiled last year to try to atone for the architectural sins of the past. The canopy wasn’t met with unanimous praise – the Guardian’s architecture critic Oliver Wainwright branded it a “custard-coloured flop”.
Pinault, who also owns Christie’s auction house, promised that the renovation and transformation of the stock exchange would be as much a work of art as the pieces set to be displayed inside it. Nicolas Le Camus de Mézières, who created the Bourse de commerce, once wrote of architecture: “It’s not enough to please the eyes – you must touch the soul.” One of the conditions of the new gallery, which is being closely monitored by France’s national heritage bodies, is that any new additions and changes must be reversible.
It is expected to open in 2019.
While the Louis Vuitton Foundation’s Gehry-designed gallery carries the name of the luxury brand, the Pinault art collection will chart a different course. In 2001, Pinault handed the reins of his business empire to his son, François-Henri. He attended the launch of the architectural plans in Paris alongside his father, and promised the project would have a family feel.
There is little detail yet on what works from the Pinault collection will be on show. The foundation promised themed exhibitions and new work, including some on a monumental scale.
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