image: DB-ADAGP Paris/Iwan Baan/Fondation Louis Vuitton

image: DB-ADAGP Paris/Iwan Baan/Fondation Louis Vuitton

Five years after Bernard Arnault met Frank Gehry, he had a proposal for him. Help me build one of the world’s most noteworthy contemporary-art museums-cum-cultural centers. It would take eight years, 3,000 laborers, a reported $143 million-plus, a partnership between one of the world’s most famous architects and one of its richest men, and the passage of a special national French law for that cultural epicenter to come into fruition.

“Money from the fashion industry started to enter the cultural sphere in Paris in the 1970s with projects like the Espace Pierre Cardin,” wrote Bloomberg’s Robert Williams last year. Bernard Arnault, the chairman of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, was apparently looking to up the ante.

A glass behemoth, the Fondation Louis Vuitton stands tall in the Bois de Boulogne, the city-owned park situated along the western edge of the 16th arrondissement of Paris. Resembling “a magnificent vessel to symbolize the cultural calling of France,” as Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry put it, the sprawling masterpiece is the home of a permanent collection of the works of Gerhard Richter, Thomas Schütte, Pierre Huyghe, Bertrand Lavier, Christian Boltanski and Frank Stella, among others.

But the making of the extraordinary structure was not only a time-consuming and costly process. It was a legally arduous one.

The Making of a Masterpiece

In October 2006, Bernard Arnault – standing alongside Donnedieu de Vabres, Minister for Culture and Communication; Bertrand Delanoë, Mayor of Paris at the time; Frank Gehry, the project’s architect; and Yves Carcelle, former Chairman of Louis Vuitton – announced that something big was in the works: The Fondation Louis Vuitton.

Two months later, things began to take shape. Ahead of the Christmas holiday, LVMH came to an agreement with the City of Paris. In exchange for the right to erect its Fondation on a one-hectare plot in the Bois de Boulogne, LVMH signed an occupancy agreement for the museum. The term: 55 year lease, so to speak, after which ownership of the museum, itself, would be transferred to the city as “a gift.” 

A few more months later, things were proceeding smoothly. A building permit for the museum was issued to LVMH by Bertrand Delanoë, the city’s mayor at the time, but not before the City of Paris amended the city’s regulatory code. 

According to a “Comment” from the Constitutional Council of the French Republic, the highest constitutional authority in France, in order for the city to legally grant LVMH’s building permit, it would have to modify the city’s local urban plan (“PLU”). Because the privately-held Fondation Louis Vuitton was to sit in the Bois de Boulogne city-owned park, the land where construction would take place was located within “Zone N” of the City of Paris’ PLU governed “natural area and forest” zones. This meant that the land and any developers were subject to strict limits on construction for the “sake of safeguarding.”

In June 2006, the Paris council voted in favor of modifications to authorize new construction in the area that corresponds to Boulogne park.

Building commenced in the spring of 2008, and just as the concrete foundation of the Fondation was nearly completion, things came to a screeching halt.

The Coordination for the Protection of the Bois de Boulogne and its Surroundings (“Coordination”), a coalition of Parisian residents, moved to formally challenge the legality of the city’s PLU adjustments and the validity of the Foundation Louis Vuitton’s building permit, due, in part to the fact that the structure stood to block a public road (one of the points governed by the PLU) and at a whopping 150-feet-high, violated a legal restriction limiting the height of buildings in the area.

François Douady, who was leading the Coordination for the safeguarding of the Bois de Boulogne, told Le Journal du Dimanche: “They want to impose on us a 12,000 square metre building 46 metres high – 20 metres above the trees. We lack greenery in Paris, not museums. I hope this project is razed to the ground.”

And it seemed as though Douady just might get his way. On June 18, 2010, the Conseil d’etta (Council of State) canceled part of the modified PLU, overriding the 2006 vote to allow building upon the exact green space where the Fondation was being built, and reverting to the original land plan. The Administrative Tribunal of Paris, ruling seven months later on January 20, 2011, held that LVMH’s building permit was, in fact, invalid, because it was inconsistent with the old-but-reinstated PLU provisions.

The Coordination had managed to put a stop to the Fondation Louis Vuitton.

Gehry, who was 81 at the time, was “distressed, shocked and furious” at the threat to his “magical” creation.

Renowned French architect Jean Nouvel took his brethren’s side. In an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche, Nouvel had some choice words for the Fondation’s opponents, calling them “individualistic, uncouth philistines.”

“With their little tight-fitting suits,” he said, “they want to put Paris into formalin. It’s quite pathetic.”

The Coordination’s win was merely temporary, of course. Facing the reality that the structure of the museum would be torn down before it even opened, LVMH was forced to face off in a heated legal battle for the right to continue building what the New York Times called “Mr. Arnault’s major vanity project.” So, the group – together with the City of Paris – filed to appeal the Administrative Court’s decision.

Aware of how long it could take for an appeal to the Administrative Tribunal of Paris’ decision to be considered and decided, Arnault – with the backing of Mayor Delanoë, who first approved the building permit – looked to Parliament for a favor: Pass a law that would trump the court’s decision and provide an exemption for the Fondation Louis Vuitton.

A Sudden Amendment

Delanoë and Arnault prevailed. In April 2011, the Assemblée Nationale enacted “a sudden amendment” to allow for the completion of the Foundation Louis Vuitton, a move that the Coordination’s chief, Mr. Douady, called “totally scandalous.” In the eyes of the French Parliament, however, the Fondation was in the national interest and “a major work of art for the whole world.”

That did not, however, stop the courts from considering the issues at hand, and in June 2012, LVMH was granted an additional win. This time it came from the Administrative Court of Appeal of Paris, which had set aside the lower court’s decision that the Fondation Louis Vuitton’s building permit was invalid, and declared that due to the “public interest” considerations “attached to the construction of the new museum,” the museum could – and would – be built.

The museum opened to the public in October 2014, at a widely-reported cost of $143 million – although at least one French publication has stated that the figure actually much closer to $900 million. While it is run as a legally separate, non-profit entity of LVMH, the first official use of the magnificent museum, which boasts a sparkling set of Louis Vuitton’s initials above its entrance: Serving as the venue for Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2015 womenswear show that October.

Almost ten years after the commencement of formal planning for the Fondation, Bernard Arnault – who personally faced no shortage of backlash over the project, Louis Vuitton’s CEO Michael Burke said at the time – had his masterpiece. At an opening celebration for the foundation, Arnault told CNN, seemingly unscathed by the legal battles and claims of impropriety, that this was simply par for the course: “France is a country where, as you know, we have a lot of manifestations, of protests. Each time you do something, people are against. Even for this fantastic building we had to go through a lot of protests before being able to finish it.”

In terms of the museum, which Vanity Fair has likened to “a 21st-century take on the Grand Palais, the wildly extravagant Beaux-Arts exhibition hall off the Champs-Élysées,” Arnault said that it is a “showing that we are very good (citizens) and that we are working not only for profit, but also for something that is transcendent.”

This move of personal and corporate benevolence bodes well for the rehabilitation of the LVMH chairman’s longstanding reputation as “the wolf in the cashmere coat,” and the view (of at least some) that his conglomerate is more in the business of aggressively monetizing creative talent, operating as a “barbarian at the gilded gates,” as the New York Times put it, than truly fostering it. 

As for Arnault, himself, Jean-Paul Claverie, who had, at the time, been spearheading LVMH’s philanthropic initiatives for more than two decades, told the Times: “It will show everyone who he really is.”