LUMA Arles – Parc des Ateliers

by / tag , , ,

It was 2004, in Zürich, when the LUMA Foundation was created by Maja Hoffmann, collector and patron of the arts. An imaginative path of intuitions was opened, crowned by a grandiose project in the city of Arles. A daring, contested project, loved or hated, but extremely powerful in its physical manifestation and in the ideas that support it.

In 2013 the LUMA Arles project began to materialize at the Parc des Ateliers, an 11-hectare site which, before it was abandoned, was dedicated to the construction and repair of steam locomotives owned by the Paris-Lyon-Méditerrannée company, which became the SNCF, exclusive rail transport concessionaire in France. The idea was to create an attractive cultural pole, a creative and multidisciplinary campus open and free for all visitors, where to welcome the experiments of artists, designers, photographers, etc., stimulating research and love for the arts. To make this dream come true, Maja Hoffman requested the intervention of some of the greatest names in the field of architecture.

Frank Gehry was commissioned for the design of the large tower, the heart of LUMA Arles, whose final result is still today the subject of controversy due to the bold design choices in a city that possesses and defends a historical spirit that dates back to the Roman. The tower, 56 meters high, dominates the park and is visible from a great distance. At the same time it allows, from the top floor, to be able to observe the relatively flat landscape around Arles, embracing it with a glance. Although disputed for its disproportionate size with the architectural context, the main building of LUMA Arles has its roots in the city and its territory.

Its twisted facade, made up of 11.000 stainless steel “bricks”, gives the tower an ever-changing appearance, responding to changes in light. A reference to the landscapes painted by Van Gogh during his stay in Arles, and to the great artist’s ability to capture every single variation of light, every nuance of the sky. The use of metal in very “mineral” forms, instead brings to mind the rocky landscapes of the Alpilles. The last symbolic relationship is established with the rotunda at the foot of the tower, a modern version of the famous Arles arena, a link between two very distant eras, namely the foundation of the city and the contemporary era of the LUMA project.

The restoration of the 19th century industrial buildings present was entrusted to the studio of Annabelle Selldorf. The intuition of maintaining the original structure, balancing the relationship between inside and outside, has led to the recovery of this complex by adapting the industrial language to new uses, such as the display of works of art, refreshment or hospitality. History and contemporaneity intertwine in flexible spaces that tell the story of the site.

The third major challenge concerned the design of a landscape park that would adapt to the particular characteristics of the place, a challenge taken up by the Belgian landscape architect Bas Smets. The situation that he found was that of a desert site, a barren concrete slab on which nature had failed to return. Nothing had grown there, despite the long years of abandonment, mainly due to the total lack of water, the inclement summer sun and the lashing mistral. A challenge to which were added the limitations on the possibility of digging in depth, also for archaeological reasons.

Bas Smets’ method, at first glance simple but actually extremely original, was to approach the design of the site by first studying the natural processes that affect it: wind and sun exposure. Once this knowledge was mastered, he imagined how these processes would have changed the Parc des Ateliers over the course of several years (20, 100, 200), without human intervention, trying to understand its evolution and abstracting the principles to set up the project. Bas Smets has called this approach “archeology of the future”: the will was not to imitate nature, but rather to use its logic, shaping the park through natural forces, accelerating a process of centuries. An ideally counter-anthropocene methodology, which lays its foundations in facilitating nature without establishing a new urban ecology, exploiting what theoretically would have resulted from abandonment.

Imagining how the wind would create reliefs, transporting and depositing sediments, he created a series of mounds, using the soil from the excavation of the foundations for Gehry’s tower.

Through an agreement on the exploitation of the Craponne canal (with the water provided from the distant Durance river), it was possible to build a small lake in that place devoid of any source of water supply. In this way, in addition to serving as a reserve for the irrigation of the park, the pond becomes a source of coolness and humidity on hot summer days, establishing a microclimate suitable both for the return of vegetation and for climatic mitigation, proposing a resting space to visitors.

Once the morphology had been modified and the water had arrived, it became possible to offer the spaces of the park to nature. The proposal for the vegetation consisted of around 650 trees, 500 shrubs and 80.000 small plants, a plant community that would learn to cohabit by colonizing the artificial desert. All the selected species are native to the territories surrounding Arles: the Crau, Camargue and the Alpilles, three different biotopes, ranging from wetlands to rocky areas, condensed into one region. The park therefore re-proposes the essence of these landscapes, and walking inside it means crossing a constantly evolving territory, passing from the dunes of Camargue to the arid steppe of the Crau and the steep massifs of the Alpilles.

Once the construction was completed, human interventions have been reduced to a minimum and will gradually disappear. Nature, helped to break through the minerality of the site, will continue its journey according to its uncontrollable processes, so as to make the park a project in continuous development, an autonomous organism, in which nature will decide.

In the meantime, various animal species have chosen the Parc des Atelier as their home: frogs, migratory birds, bees and other insects are populating this place open to the public in 2021, which has a long journey ahead of it. The park also becomes a space where artists can exhibit their works, which dialogue with the unevenness, with the vegetation and the water, in a harmonious whole. The dialogue is not limited only to art and landscape, but involves the architecture of the tower and industrial buildings, demonstrating how the degree of understanding between different designers was strong. Hidden views and unprecedented perspectives are revealed to those who walk the paths of the park, entering the green heart of this incredible creative forge.

There is one lesson we can learn from this forward-thinking project, and it is a lesson in optimism. “We know that human beings can destroy nature”, Bas Smets sadly reminds us, “but this project shows that we can also create life, help nature develop in the driest places”. And it is this hope, however small, of having transformed a desert into the green heart of a city, which should make us reflect on our role in doing our best for the future.

Project details

Design: Bureau Bas Smets
Project Location: Parc des Ateliers, Arles, France
Typology: Urban park, art park
Built: 2009-2021
Tower architecture: Gehry Partners
Industrial buildings restoration: Selldorf Architects
Photo credits: © Gaël Glaudel

Bureau Bas Smets

Bureau Bas Smets

Bas Smets has a background in landscape architecture, civil enfineering and architecture. He founded his firm in Brussels in 2007 and has since completed more than 50 project in more than 12 countries with his team of 20 architects and landscape architects. These projects vary in scale from territorial visions to infrastructural landscapes, from large parks to private gardens, from city centres to film sets. Each of these project is part of an interrelated research into the possible role and ambition of landscape projects. The aim is to invent “Augmented Landscapes” by using the logics of nature. These augmented landscapes produce a new microclimate while creating new atmospheres. The collaboration with artists and scientists takes a central role in this research.