Frank Gehry’s vision for a series of his signature folded towers placed in the heart of the historic Parc des Ateliers in Arles, France will have to wait – as the project has just been put on hold. The French National Commission for Historical Sites and Monument has rejected two of the five necessary permits required for the Luna Park campus development to commence, casting doubt over the process of integrating contemporary architecture while preserving the historic character of a city. The dispute highlights a critical issue: how urban communities decide to successfully develop while maintaining their identity, culture, and quality of life.
Gehry may be the most celebrated and controversial architect of our time, as he has added an entirely new vocabulary to building design. Some of his most famous works now define the places where they are built, but his buildings can also be seen as distractions that do not appropriately reflect their sites or the environment. Gehry’s design for Luna Park consists of a series of undulating and folded towers that stand like metallic mounds high above the traditional buildings, serving as a catalyst for creativity and education.
The French National Commission for Historical Sites and Monuments has listed two major issues with his proposal to develop the cultural campus anchored by parametric towers. The Commission states that the towers will obscure a medieval bell tower and their construction “would disturb the underground Roman-Gallo Sarcophagi”. In essence: move it or lose it.
The tension between development projects and historical groups has always been palpable, and as new building space becomes more difficult to find the problem will only increase exponentially. If Gehry’s design is seen as too radical for the UNESCO-protected historical city and viewed as a disruption to the city’s identity, then the idea of building up could become more difficult in many older urban settings. A city is very much a living thing, and what is built today becomes a part of the identity of future inhabitants, so the rejection could also be seen as a symptom of a city becoming frozen, no longer able to adapt to its 21st century inhabitants.