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Light of the south: Fondation van Gogh in Arles

With a new building designed by Fluor Architectes, the Provençal city of Arles is honouring the painter who indelibly engraved it – and himself – on the memory of mankind. Natural light, the medium that stood at the heart of van Gogh's work, plays a leading role in the new gallery. 

Architect: Fluor Architecture
Location:35 Ter Rue du Docteur Fanton, 13200 Arles, France

As is known, the inhabitants of Arles never really warmed to the eccentric Dutchman Vincent van Gogh while he was alive. Nevertheless, the 15 months he spent in the South of France were his most prolific, with some 300 paintings and drawings coming about during his stay in the Provençal city.

Almost 125 years after his death, van Gogh's paintings are finally finding a suitable home in Arles. The 11-million-euro project is the work of Fondation van Gogh, founded in 1983 at the instigation of Swiss pharmaceutical manufacturer Luc Hoffmann. Beforehand, the Fondation was located next to the city's Roman amphitheatre, in an old building equipped with neither the security nor the climate control for showing van Gogh's masterpieces.

The Fondation's new home is a rehabilitated and enlarged 500-year-old mansion situated in the old quarter, not far from the banks of the Rhône. The Hôtel Léautaud de Donines was built towards the end of the 15th century by the merchant Jacques Grilho and underwent alterations later on, before finally being transformed by Fluor Architectes into a museum building that fulfils contemporary standards.

Visitors enter the museum grounds from the north and continue to the forecourt, where the artist Bertrand Lavier has placed van Gogh's characteristic "Vincent" signature on sliding gates over two metres high. The entrance facade is two storeys in height and completely glazed. The ground floor offers merely the cashier's desk, the toilets and secondary rooms, with the large exhibit hall being located on the first floor along with the museum shop with its glass front oriented to the forecourt. The reason for this particular spatial arrangement is simple: the natural slope of the site places the ground floor of the old merchant's house a storey higher than its entrance court to the north.

»Impressionistic« play of coloured light
The glass roof of the museum shop features an artwork custom-designed by the Swiss artist Raphael Hefti. Although practically invisible from the inside, the effects created by his sculpture are not to be overseen: during the course of the day, 78 dichroic coated glass fins projecting from the roof at differing heights and in irregular formations cast wandering specks of light onto the shop's limestone walls, varying in colour according to the position of the sun.

The architects did not stint on natural light in the remaining rooms either. The large hall has been provided an irregularly formed sawtooth roof, surrounded by a wood decked roof terrace that visitors can walk on. The windows in the old part of the building are unusually large for a museum, but are shaded at the reveals by textile screens. The inner court, now provided a glass roof, acts as a further source of daylight for the old merchant's house, in which steel walkways and a new elevator have been installed to connect the exhibition levels.

In coordination with the monument authority, the architects preserved interior fixtures and furnishings wherever possible, bringing about a fascinating dialogue – one sought for in vain in most contemporary museum buildings – between the residential architecture of past centuries and the masterpieces placed on show. Naturally a new and highly-efficient ventilation system does its work behind the scenes, and LED luminaires provide artificial lighting. Wherever acceptable from a conservation-related point of view, the thermal insulation and the sealing of the building shell have been adapted to modern standards. To prevent unnecessary heat introduction into the exhibit rooms, the glass roofs and skylights are made of low-emissivity glass.

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