Battle of the fashion foundations: Prada vs Louis Vuitton

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How the new contemporary art spaces in Paris and Milan measure up

by VINCENT NOCE  |  9 June 2015
Battle of the fashion foundations: Prada vs Louis Vuitton

Fondazione Prada in Milan (photo: Bas Princen) and Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris (photo: eyepreferparis)
It is a quiet weekday when I visit the Prada Foundation in Milan, which opened on 8 May. Covering 19,000 sq. m of courtyards and alleys, it inspires a desire to wander, explore the former distillery and discover the stunning buildings reshaped or newly built by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Inaugurated a week after the World Expo opened in the capital of design and fashion, and next door to Prada’s headquarters, it wants to become the new international venue for contemporary art. But today it is mostly attracting people fr om the city, at least to a pastiche of an Italian cafe fr om the 1950s, designed by the filmmaker Wes Anderson. The site offers both charm and slight discomfort: with its golden tower, mostly unchanged warehouses and a cinema covered with interlaced, reinforced aluminium threads, initially conceived for armoured vehicles, a military device versus the “precious touch” of the gold-leaf desired by Miuccia Prada. A huge, 60-metre tower is still under construction in the museum complex.

Architecture can be at its best when it surprises the visitor and makes him or her happy to see a Polanski movie alongside ancient Roman sculptures in a huge glass box, a Damien Hirst fishtank in a brewery silo or Thomas Demand’s 36-tonne cardboard grotto in a dark labyrinth. There are works by Ed Kienholz, as well as by Bruce Nauman and by Pino Pascali, an artist much cherished by Ms Prada. But there are also less well-known, or younger artists, such as Nathalie Djurberg from Sweden. In the golden tower, which Prada and Koolhaas nicknamed the “haunted house” because of its derelict appearance, visitors can see, through a grate in the floor, a red heart glittering under running water, surrounded by gravel and dead leaves—an installation by Robert Gober conceived in 2010. So the site can carry highly sophisticated pieces that all fit and work very well in these varied spaces. The architectural ambitions and the artistic requirements are all fulfilled. But it also works as a museum: form with function. And that is the main characteristic of the Prada Foundation, which may put an end to a historical period in which the architecture itself was the dominant act.

Three weeks after the opening, it is too early to have a reliable analysis of the foundation’s success with the public. But a spokesman for the foundation says the team is “very happy with visitor numbers”. On Saturdays and Sundays up to 2,500 people come to the site. On weekdays there are a lot of groups taking guided tours. The classical sculpture show was a surprise to many, but Prada thought it would have been “too predictable to start with a contemporary show” drawn from the collection she has formed with her husband Patrizio Bertelli. The couple has put on exhibitions for two decades now, including opening a palazzo in Venice, with the star in-house curator Germano Celant. The shows were often, however, disappointing and even ridiculed, like the ugly hijacking of Giacometti’s statues as mannequins by John Baldessari or the sanitised and politically-correct revival (one could say “burial”) of a seminal Arte Povera show, contradicting the quintessential spirit of the movement. But here, for its main inaugural show, organised by the scholar Salvatore Settis, the new venue in Milan displays a smart presentation of ancient statues on resin bases, with loans from the Louvre, the Vatican, the British Museum and Dresden, in a successful exploration of great Italian heritage.

In Paris too, wh ere the Louis Vuitton Foundation opened its Frank Gehry-designed museum last October, its chief curator Suzanne Pagé expresses the need to confront contemporary art at its roots, this time in the 20th century. This is the key of her first spectacular show (until 6 July), showing icons like Matisse’s Dance from the Hermitage, or The Scream from the Munch Museum in Oslo. Unlike Prada, Pagé is still a fan of the white-box concept (sigh), but her elegant display almost excuses the excessive extravaganza of such a compilation of the most valuable paintings on the planet. It’s almost as if Bernard Arnault, founder of the Louis Vuitton Foundation and head of the luxury group LVMH, is making a statement about his enormous influence in today’s world.

The foundation is very keen to explain that no loan has been paid for, although LVMH’s sponsorship of exhibitions and its partnerships with financially-strapped public museums certainly helped to convince directors to part with their precious masterpieces. “Money is not an issue here” is the motto that leaps out at you in both the Prada and Vuitton Foundation museums, although in Paris it is thrown into high relief on the building’s facade by the almost vulgar silver logo of Louis Vuitton—the star company in the LVMH group. On weekends, the museum welcomes around 4,500 visitors a day. Monthly, it attracts around 100,000, doubling initial expectations. Jean-Paul Claverie, Arnault’s aide who has been in charge of the project from the start, is more than satisfied: “When you open, you know you are making a bold move, but you have no idea whether people will come. And more importantly, how they will perceive it. We are very happy to see how they are engaging here with the architecture.” The winding terraces and galleries showing striking works by Sigmar Polke or Olafur Eliasson, and Andy Warhol’s self-portraits as well as a frieze by Gilbert and George and works by Jean-Michel Basquiat are the stars of a new exhibition opening on 2 June. Musical programmes connected with pop art will follow after the first concerts held by Kraftwerk and the pianist Lang Lang in the stunning auditorium.
The foundation opened with a show on the building itself: the architecture is the first work of art here. Indeed, the building is the most spectacular artistic gesture in Paris since the opening of the Pompidou Centre almost 40 years ago and in the wake of a series of urban disasters, like the Montparnasse Tower (which Gehry carefully hid behind the Eiffel tower in the view from the foundation’s terrace), the modern La Défense district, the commercial centre in Les Halles or the Jussieu university campus.

As Claverie explains, the idea of the new museum started when he convinced his boss to visit Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao. Fifteen years later, in a much more restricted space, the architect used the same language with a dance of veils, inspired by Jørn Utzon’s sea-monster scales for the Sydney Opera House.

Now, though, they are made of glass, filtering and changing with the light throughout the day. Gehry used glass panels for his Condé Nast cafeteria in Times Square in New York in the 1990s—but in Paris glass had to be used to convince the mayor of the project’s worth. The city council owns the ground and will be the outright owner of the museum after 50 years. Parliament even had to pass a bill making the museum a project of national interest to overcome legal objections from neighbours in the Bois de Boulogne. Gehry had to dig deep into the ground and imagine Piranesi-like staircases and viewpoints to create more space, because he was not permitted more than one floor.
He had also to deal with Pagé, a curator full of energy who led the Museum of Modern Art in Paris for 30 years before taking charge of Arnault’s collection. “Curators hate Bilbao,” Gehry told The Art Newspaper. “At some point, in a museum, you need to have straight walls”, replies Pagé with a smile. And she got them. The galleries under the ground floor are white parallelepipeds (spaces bounded by six parallelograms), with little transition to Gehry’s glass veils above. The risk is that the combination could give the impression of a Belle Epoque hat set on top of shoeboxes. The “chapels” on the terraces with their skylights, curves and straight lines mix the two styles, although they are not easy to occupy for any artist.

In Bilbao, Gehry’s Guggenheim museum has long been criticised for overwhelming the art shown inside it, but worse was to come with Zaha Hadid’s Maxxi in Rome, a self-centred mausoleum, ignoring the surroundings, the history of the “Eternal City” and the museum it is supposed to shelter. Even Jean Nouvel, who slaughtered the galleries of the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, is now integrating museography in the Louvre in Abu Dhabi due to open in autumn 2016.

In Milan and in Paris, both foundations are in their distinct ways ending a period when museum architecture has been all about effect and offered nothing about content; architecture that draws crowds but ignores the urban and historical context, the display of art or the visitors’ delight and, perhaps above all, the needs of curators. After all as Claverie says, “we are doing all this, not for the brand, certainly not for the money, but to show our respect to history and culture, from wh ere these brands come… and to be loved.”