How a Gehry building came back ready for the spotlight

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{"version":"0.3.0","atoms":[],"cards":[["images-card",{"images":[{"url":"http:\/\/res.cloudinary.com\/dpcbzfiye\/image\/upload\/v1566397611\/rkdk6zvsl7udzxqruvuk.jpg","id":"6189464"}],"caption":"A sketch from Atelier de l\u0027\u00eele architects depicting the program elements of the Cinamatheque Francaise. "}],["images-card",{"images":[{"url":"http:\/\/res.cloudinary.com\/dpcbzfiye\/image\/upload\/v1566400126\/uluhyuhprj2zybnchsvj.png","id":"6189497"}],"caption":"By overlaying each of American Center\u0027s floor plans on top of each other, Atelier de l\u0027\u00eele revealed a tight grid of programmatic complexity."}]],"markups":[["i"],["a",["href","https:\/\/www.csmonitor.com\/1996\/0214\/14132.html","target","_new"]],["b"],["a",["href","https:\/\/www.cinematheque.fr\/","target","_new"]],["a",["href","https:\/\/www.architectmagazine.com\/design\/buildings\/frank-gehrys-american-center-in-paris_o","target","_new"]],["a",["href","https:\/\/mbstone-international.com\/portfolio\/saint-maximin\/","target","_new"]]],"sections":[[1,"h2",[[0,[],0,"Twenty-five years after its completion, the American Center\nin Paris has a unique legacy that elevates the form and function debate. "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"In the pantheon of Frank Gehry buildings, his American Center in\nParis, completed in 1994, was a decidedly transitional artifact. Gehry was\nrebuffed from using steel on the building by planners with context-attuned designs\nfor its newly redeveloped district on the banks of the Seine, so instead it\u2019s\nmade of stately masonry. American Center\u2019s rectilinear offices and apartment blocks\nsit next to a jumble of cones and cylinders; the sort of grab-bag geometry that\nwould soon mutate into a sublime sculptural riot at his Guggenheim in Bilbao.\nCompare the two side by side, and you get the sense that the limestone in Paris\nmight have been made molten by a blast furnace lit from Gehry\u2019s own rapid\nascent, only to solidify once the architect had found ways to transcend the\nnatural forces that have limited architectural form since time began. "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"But by the time American Center (a cultural and arts enclave for\npermanent American ex-pats) opened, the building was already shockingly near a\nsimilarly dramatic transition. After only 19 months, American Center was\nshuttered. A case of, \u201ctoo much building for too little endowment,\u201d according\nto the "],[0,[0,1],2,"Christian Science Monitor"],[0,[],0,", it cost\n$41 million to build, and required $6 million per year to run, which the\nAmericans did not have. Corporate donations fell short of promise and expectation,\nand ironically, administrators tried to sell it to the Guggenheim, per the "],[0,[0],1,"New York Times"],[0,[],0,". In 1997, the year of\nGehry\u2019s wild victory in Bilbao, it was still empty. And locals, who had seen\nAmerican Center\u2019s neighborhood (a former wine wholesaler\u2019s district) haltingly\nre-developed, thought it would remain so. A caf\u00e9 owner groused in the pages of "],[0,[0],1,"Metropolis,"],[0,[],0," \u201cIt\u2019s too immense. No\ncompany could afford to rearrange the interior.\u201d "]]],[1,"h3",[[0,[],0," "],[0,[2],1,"Adaptive reuse for a\ndecade-old building"]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"American Center was founded in 1931 to serve Americans for whom\nbusiness and pleasure had stationed them in Paris. But in a more connected and\nglobalized world, where crossing an ocean may only take a few hours, a\npermanent outpost for American culture became less vital, and the ease of being\na tourist outshone a permanent connection to home. If you\u2019ll only be in Paris\nfor a few years or months or less, why hang around the American Center? Another\ncharming boulangerie awaits around every corner! "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"This cultural embassy focused on elite avant-garde culture in its\nlater years, paired with progressive architecture to boot; an expensive and\nrarefied atmosphere that was still inherently not French. But many prosaic\nthings happened at American Center, too. Its encyclopedic array of programs (a\ntheater, classrooms, library, dance studio, exhibition hall, art studio,\napartments for resident artists, offices, travel agency, bookstore, restaurant,\nbar) made it very difficult to adapt, to say nothing of Gehry\u2019s signature\ncanted volumes and disjunctive massing."]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"American Center signed up for more architecture than they could\nhandle. But what entity could? The French film industry was the answer, in a\npoetic transition from an outpost of the world\u2019s only remaining superpower\ndesigned by its most ascendant architect, to the French home of one of the\nworld\u2019s newest artistic mediums, which perfected the art form in its earliest\nyears and cradled the influential French New Wave. For more than 100 years, the\nFrench have been the last people that could be accused of not taking film\nseriously. "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"After nine years of mothballs and chained doors, The Cinematheque Francaise moved\ninto American Center in 2005, a subtle work of adaptive reuse for a building\nbizarrely only a decade old. "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"The architect selected for the job, Dominique Brard of "],[0,[3],1,"Atelier\nde l\u0027\u00eele"],[0,[],0,", found himself in a bind neither he nor anyone else had ever\nfaced before. How do you insert a radical and complex programmatic\ntransformation into a new building with no patina of history and use, with no\nopportunity to draw distinctions between \u201cold\u201d and \u201cnew,\u201d which also exists in\none of the most historic and beloved cities of the world? The project called for intense\nprogrammatic re-organization, but with little room for one\u2019s own vision and\ncreativity; all dirty work, no magazine spread sheen. It was a commission\nspecifically designed to be an ego-destroyer. "]]],[1,"p",[]],[10,0],[1,"h3",[[0,[],0," "],[0,[2],1,"Honoring Gehry\u2019s\noriginal design"]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"Gehry approved of Brard\u2019s selection (he was on the Cinematheque\nFrancaise\u2019s jury), and throughout, Brard never strayed far from Gehry\u2019s original\nvision, which touched down in Paris a decade hence with disparate critical\nreactions. Some were wowed for the predictable reasons. In an article titled, \u201cThe\nUnquiet American\u201d in "],[0,[0],1,"Architectural Review"],[0,[],0,",\nCatherine Slessor marveled that it was \u201calmost Piranesian in its complexity. Any\npretense of Euclidean geometry collapses in an astonishing sequence of abruptly\ntruncated angles, colliding volumes and gravity-defying forms.\u201d"]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"Some said it was "],[0,[4],1,"too polite"],[0,[],0,", sitting\ntoo agreeably in its neighborhood for a Gehry showpiece. The buff masonry used\nfor both its tumbling cones and staid apartment blocks is "],[0,[5],1,"St.\nMaximin limestone"],[0,[],0,", drawn from ancient mines north of Paris by\nBaron Hausmann and used in the Louvre. The easy legibility of these blocks,\nwhether slotted between conventional punched windows or carved to form ship\u2019s\nmast cylinders, makes it clear that these forms are made from something\ncommonplace and familiar. In the May 1994 issue of "],[0,[0],1,"Architectural Record"],[0,[],0," (with American Center on its cover), Gehry\nsays he was creating \u201ca sculptural sense of the city\u201d in one building. \u201cThe\ncityscape of forms expresses its diverse program,\u201d the article continued, rectangles,\ncylinders, and cones forming a composite urbanism, united by a town square\natrium at its center. Before the building was completed, "],[0,[0],1,"Metropolis "],[0,[],0,"noted that here, \u201cGehry becomes an observer\u201d that is\n\u201ccollecting a roofline here and a gap there, fascinated by the spaces that\nallow the city to breathe.\u201d Perhaps the most trenchant American criticism of\nthe building came from former AIA President Thomas Vonier in "],[0,[0],1,"Progressive Architecture"],[0,[],0,", who noted its\n\u201csurprisingly warm unity.\u201d \u201cHis trademark oddball protrusions and formal twists\nand turns seem muted and dignified here,\u201d he wrote, underlining Gehry\u2019s\ncareer-spanning drive to create new forms of harmony and synthesis, rather than\ndisruptive provocations for their own sake, as is the common misconception. "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"For his part, Brard saw it as a contextual piece: \u201cIt\u2019s very\nParisian,\u201d he says. But that was likely\nnot what he was expecting at the time. Gehry was largely seen as \u201can architect\nfrom the West Coast with many strange buildings,\u201d Brard says. \u201cHe wasn\u2019t the\nstar that he is now.\u201d "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"Gehry hadn\u2019t yet arrived at the pure digital abstraction of his Guggenheim,\nwhich was executed through the use of aeronautical design software, but had\nwandered far from the charmingly informal collage of materials and forms of his\nearly career, like his home in Santa Monica. At American Center, Gehry had to\nscale back its complexity for buildability\u2019s sake, according to Paul\nGoldberger\u2019s biography "],[0,[0],1,"Building Art: The\nLife and Work of Frank Gehry"],[0,[],0,". The design software Gehry used later helped\nbridge the gap between vision and execution, and as such American Center is a\nsnapshot of how far his formal ambition could be pushed through traditional\nmeans. "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"The original design began with a glass-fronted atrium that served as a\nhinge for the building\u2019s competing volumes. Topped by a fanning metal awning\nand his most exuberant forms composed of simple limestone blocks, this front fa\u00e7ade\nannounces, \u201cFrank Gehry is here, and yes I\u2019m aware this is Paris.\u201d Rather\nconventionally, it\u2019s flanked by an apartment block on one side and a theater,\noffices, exhibition halls, art and dance studios on the opposite end. During\ntheir design process, Brard and his team overlaid each floor plan of American\nCenter in one diagram to illustrate its complexity. And what\u2019s revealed here is\nthe relentless layering of rectilinear spaces, and very little freehand whimsy.\nAmerican Center\u2019s layered plans are more graph paper than spaghetti bowl, and it\u2019s\nclear that conversion to the Cinematheque Francaise was an exercise not in\nre-drawing Gehry\u2019s lines, but in conventional\u2014if intense\u2014programmatic\nshuffling. "]]],[1,"p",[]],[10,1],[1,"h3",[[0,[2],1,"Interior vs. exterior changes"]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"Critically, Brard\u2019s design did not change the exterior, and it pared\ndown the programmatic complexity slightly. Programs are re-reorganized\nacross the main volumes a bit more heterogeneously, as the apartment block\nsection now holds offices, the film library, and education spaces. Beyond the\nexterior, the exhibition halls, atrium, and some offices retained their\noriginal function. Most notably, American Center\u2019s theater was converted into\nCinematheque Francaise\u2019s largest cinema (necessitated by the insertion of\nprojection rooms), one of four movie theaters in the new plan. Two of these\ntheaters were installed in the basement, and offices were crafted from\napartments. Ticketed access to the theaters called for new circulation\npatterns, as did secured access to the film library. All told, the renovation\ncost $40 million, according to the "],[0,[0],1,"New\nYork Times."]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"\u201cThe essence of Gehry\u2019s original design remains,\u201d was the\nsummation from a 2005 "],[0,[0],1,"Architectural Record"],[0,[],0,"\narticle. "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"Atelier de l\u0027\u00eele\u2019s renovation\nused same material palette as American Center\u2014limestone, galvanized steel,\nglass, pine, and beechwood. Its most dramatic additions were largely ephemeral.\n\u201cIt wasn\u2019t a rupture between what Gehry did and what we did,\u201d says Brard. \u201cThe\nonly thing we added was light.\u201d The project brief for the Cinematheque\nFrancaise called for its architects to \u201ccreate a set,\u201d a place where light is\nmanipulated to fine-tune mood, and atmosphere. Visit the Cinematheque Francaise\u2019\ngalleries, and you\u2019ll see media screens glowing in inky voids, film noir shadows\ncreeping across walls. Working with the medium of light, Brard was called to be\na cinematographer as much as an architect. \u201cIn a movie theater, what you\u2019re\nwatching is light,\u201d he says. \u201cIt\u2019s nothing else.\u201d "]]],[1,"blockquote",[[0,[],0,"\u201cIt is very striking that today everyone is looking at this\nbuilding as Gehry\u0027s and nobody remembers that another architect has worked on\nthis transformation.\u0022 -Laurence Descubes"]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"While Gehry still defines the geometry, form, materials of the\nbuilding, Brard defines its expression and complexion. Throughout, sharp bands\nof light define grids and seams between volumes. In the movie theaters, wall panels\nare removed to make way for light fixture boxes that vary the texture of the\ninterior. There are occasional splashes of color, and the mullions in the\natrium and skylight apertures cast shadows on the pale walls alongside\nprojections advertising films and exhibitions. "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"These are all transitory impositions of a new identity. \u201cOur\nproject is behind the stone skin,\u201d says Brard. "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"\u201cIt is very striking that today everyone is looking at this\nbuilding as Gehry\u0027s and nobody remembers that another architect has worked on\nthis transformation,\u201d says \nLaurence Descubes, at the time Cinematheque Francaise\u2019s project manager\nfor the renovation, who is trained as an architect. "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"That\u2019s something Brard is well aware of. \u201cNobody is talking about Atelier de l\u0027\u00eele"],[0,[2],1,", "],[0,[],0,"when they go to the Cinematheque Francaise,\u201d\nhe says. \u201cIt\u2019s still Gehry\u2019s building.\u201d "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"Uniquely, Descubes saw the unabashed\ncontemporality Brard started out with as a blessing, not a fault. Its vibrancy\ngave it flexibility (and the exuberance to stay committed to the original\ndesign). \u201cIts modernity would allow this Cinematheque to be radically\ntransformed,\u201d she says. "]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"There\u2019s perhaps an alternate past where Gehry didn\u2019t execute\nhis Guggenheim Bilbao with such rigor and grace, and thus remained an elite\ndesigner, instead of a world-historical one. In that timeline, it\u2019s easy to\nimagine his American Center building falling into dust, as the magnetism of his\ndesigns waned and Cinematheque Francaise looked elsewhere for a new home. Love\nof Gehry\u2019s architecture helped keep the building intact for Brard, but it also\nbuilt the constrictive box he had to practice within. For him, adjusting the\ngranular programmatic fit and identity of this building was a job largely for\nlight fixtures and straight-laced programming diagrams; an odd couple only\nlikely to be paired when the task is to change the way things feel and the way\nthey work, if not the way they look."]]],[1,"p",[[0,[0],1,"Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design\njournalist and former editor at AIA who focuses on landscape architecture and\narchitecture."]]]]}
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Twenty-five years after its completion, the American Center in Paris has a unique legacy that elevates the form and function debate.
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The American Center in Paris. designed by Frank Gehry, FAIA, was renovated by Dominque Brard of Atelier de l'île architects in 2005 to house the Cinematheque Francaise.
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How a Gehry building came back ready for the spotlight
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