Undulating forms are beautiful, sensuous, and seductive. You often find them in nature—in the curve of a woman’s body, the outline of a camel’s neck and hump, the motif on a sidewalk mosaic, etc. They appeal to an aesthetic sense in all of us.
Artists have been aware of this appeal for a long time. That sinuous S-curve worms its way assertively into decorative motifs and, more subtly, in other genres of painting (figurative, for instance).
More recent is the curve’s invasion into modern western architecture. Wavy forms have been used often enough to decorate buildings, but rarely to define their structure. Much of modernist architecture dominating the twentieth century—especially those adhering to function-as-form principles—have been particularly averse to undulating forms, preferring straight lines and unembellished structures.
But no-frills approaches cannot last. Maybe, humans just need change, something new every once in a while. Or, maybe, the quest for beauty is an instinct, and flowing appeals to that quest more than straight.
When Frank Gehry unveiled the Guggenheim in the industrial town of Bilbao, we paid attention. This was not Gehry’s first use of undulating forms. He played with a couple or so of them in his 1989 Vitra Design Museum in Germany.
In 1997, he took those flowing lines much farther: The Bilbao Guggenheim was inventive, gorgeous, and audacious. It easily outshone another new and rich museum, Richard Meier’s modern version of the Getty Center atop a hill along the 405 freeway in Los Angeles. It innovated a little but essentially preserved time-honored principles.
Gehry’s floral forms of titanium sparked a flame that has lived on and produced some spectacular architecture (see below, for instance). Two of the newest are in Paris—one smack in the middle of a courtyard of the former royal residence now housing the Louvre museum. The other sprawls next to Jardin d’Acclimatation, a theme park created in 1860 at the Bois de Boulogne in the outer arrondissement (16th) of Paris.
Done in metal, glass, and plastic, both structures evoke graceful lines of fabric. Tents of nomadic existence and haunting lines of desert sand dunes melting into infinity in the Louvre Islamic Wing. Flowing sails of a boat whisking you off to places unknown in the Fondation Louis Vuitton. Fittingly, both showcase art collections: Arabic art, culture, and history in the Louvre Islamic Art Wing and modern art at the Fondation Louis Vuitton.
The Louvre Islamic Art Wing, designed by Italian architects Mario Bellini and Rudy Ricciotti, opened in September, 2012. It’s a venue for the 18,000 pieces of Islamic art from the 7th to the 19th century in the Louvre collection.
France has a long association with North Africa and is residence to sizable groups of Mahgrebians from Morocco and Algeria and other Africans from countries France has invaded or colonized in the past such as Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, and the Congo. Tensions between them and the mainstream white French population run across many issues—political, religious, cultural, economic, etc. They have fueled demonstrations, riots, and anecdotal violence.
In focusing on Arabic art and culture, the French government may be trying a gentler rapprochement with its minority groups. But we are all beneficiaries of this attempt. Artifacts on display at the Louvre’s Arab wing whittle away at their foreignness, challenge our detachment or—worse, our fear.
Who, after all, can fail to respond to the Wing’s undulating lines that speak a universal aesthetic language? Or the art objects and cultural artifacts within it? Texts accompanying them show us that those who created them are more like us than we’ve allowed ourselves to discover.
Fondation Louis Vuitton, opened in 2014, is a continuation of the aesthetic Frank Gehry started when he built the Bilbao Guggenheim. A privately-owned museum commissioned by one of the richest Frenchmen, it has attracted much attention as a work of art in itself. Gehry has said of the building:
“I dream of designing a magnificent vessel for Paris that symbolizes France’s profound cultural vocation.”
Indeed, the settng-sensitive design pays homage to 19th-century glass buildings with its graceful sails of 3000 glass panels. The sails add drama and romance, as if to say the building isn’t there just to fulfill a function. It’s there, first of all, to please or disturb your senses. Twenty years after the Bilbao Guggenheim, this still daring architecture would not have been possible without modern technology that Gehry apparently pushed to its limits.
Recognizing the building as a work of art, the Fondation has installed a permanent exhibition of the “architectural journey” that created the building.
The Louvre’s Arab wing is a cross-cultural bridge to understand and accept the Arabic culture of many of France’s more recent inhabitants. The Fondation’s building and the modern art it offers, on the other hand, try to connect France’s rich cultural past with a yet-to-be-played-out future that’s likely to be technology driven.