In the Spotlight

Haute Culture Illuminates Arles

In the heart of the Camargue region, Swiss billionaire and patron of the arts Maja Hoffmann is trying to bring artistic modernity to an ancient city.
The Frank Gehry-designed Luma Tower – “a stainless steel tornado,” according to an American critic – in Arles, in the South of France. © Adrian Deweerdt

When seen from afar, its silvery silhouette is reminiscent of a geyser spurting out of the Camargue plain, an untouched region on the Mediterranean coast. But up close, looming over the former industrial wasteland that has now been transformed into a contemporary arts center by Maja Hoffmann’s Luma Foundation, the cylindrical tower designed by Frank Gehry in Arles contrasts with the horizontal homogeneity of the Roman city, only broken by its church steeples and the obelisk on the main square. The American-Canadian architect behind the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris wanted the twisted structure set on a Colosseum-style rotunda to conjure up “the appearance of the rocky crags of the Alpilles mountains” in the distance. But when the setting sun shines on the structure, its thousands of stainless-steel surfaces are akin to The Starry Night by Van Gogh, a painter of the unique Provençal light who called Arles home.

Gehry’s tower, christened the “Luma Tower,” is a symbol of artistic innovation inhabiting the ancient city of Arles, and illustrates the philosophy underpinning the Swiss patron’s project. Maja Hoffmann is the heir to the Hoffmann-La Roche pharmaceutical company and is familiar with Arles. In fact, she grew up in this little town in Southern France nestled in a bend of the Rhone River. Her father, Luc Hoffmann, built a biological research center there in the 1950s, with the aim of protecting the Camargue marshlands and its flamingos and wild bulls. Despite a tumultuous life lived between Basel, London, and New York, Maja Hoffmann has always come back to Arles. She has also constantly contributed to its reputation, long associated with the Roman architectural marvels listed as Unesco World Heritage Sites. The city has also been synonymous with photography since the 1970s thanks to the internationally renowned Rencontres d’Arles festival, which has given it the same standing that Cannes enjoys in the world of cinema.

The old industrial wastelands of the Parc des Ateliers in Arles, transformed into a contemporary art center by the Luma Foundation. © Rémi Benali

While her father was passionate about preserving nature, Maja Hoffmann instead turned to fine art and sought to celebrate its cross-disciplinary identity. With this in mind, the Luma Foundation (a contraction of the names of her two children, Lucas and Marina) was launched in 2004. This arts organization is looking to save the environment in its own way, avoiding unchecked urbanization of Camargue and the Rhone delta while making culture a dynamic cornerstone of local development. This idea led to an unlikely alliance between the heiress and Hervé Schiavetti, the communist mayor of Arles at the time, who was convinced that culture could bring a city and its region to life. In order to protect its ancient monuments – an amphitheater inspired by the Colosseum of Rome, a Roman theater, a forum, thermal baths, and ramparts – and its 18th-century mansions, Arles introduced a protected sector status. Then, in 2007, the mayor decided to rehabilitate the wasteland around the Parc des Ateliers, remnants of the major manufacturing boom of the 19th century.

An Ultra-Modern Lighthouse in the Roman City

Maja Hoffmann’s “creative campus” was born of this public-private partnership, and now spans the 27 acres of vacant land purchased from the city by the Luma Foundation. In an effort to breathe life into this project, which opened on June 26, 2021 (following construction work costing 200 million euros), the heiress worked with the finest architects, Frank Gehry and Annabelle Selldorf from Germany, who designed the extensions for the Frick Collection on Fifth Avenue and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla. Standing at 183 feet tall, the Luma Tower hosts the Hoffmann photography and video collection, overlooking 65,000 square feet of lawns and a 27,000 square-foot pond in the vast garden designed by Belgian landscape architect Bas Smets. In this “green strip” in the midst of the trees next to the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie, former workshops have been converted into exhibition spaces and offer conferences, symposiums, master classes, and restaurants alongside a number of artists’ residences.

The amphitheater, built in the heart of the city around 80 AD, when Arles was a Roman colony. © Daniele Antoniol

Unlike François Pinault and Bernard Arnault, the two French Medici, Maja Hoffmann dislikes the term “collector.” She prefers to be seen as a leader, an “agitator of ideas” inspiring encounters and creative callings. And her mission has been a success: Every year, the Luma Days festival brings together leading artists such as Gilbert & George, photographer Annie Leibovitz, and choreographer Benjamin Millepied, and celebrates late, great architects and designers including Jean Prouvé and Charlotte Perriand. This lineup lives up to the list of Arles’ honorary citizens, such as Korean minimalist artist Lee Ufan, who chose to launch his own foundation in the Provençal city, and Van Gogh, whose foundation is chaired by Maja Hoffmann and welcomes contemporary and modern creators throughout the year.

Beauty begets beauty, and culture attracts other cultures. Now a hotbed of archeology, photography, gastronomy, and cinema, Arles is a star of the international artistic scene. It may however be in danger of succumbing to the “Bilbao effect,” a term referring to the massive influx of tourists following the launch of the Guggenheim Museum, which transformed the little port in the Spanish Basque Country into an overcrowded artistic theme park. Arles is already expecting its own boom. But Provence enthusiasts should not be overly worried; the shaded terraces and cobbled streets of this city, nicknamed the “Little Rome of the Gauls” by Roman poet Ausonius, are more than capable of facing the onslaught of modernity without losing their authentic charm.

Article published in the August 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.