BY Amy Sherlock in Opinion | 19 AUG 21

Mustapha Bouhayati on Taking It Slow

The CEO of Maja Hoffmann’s LUMA Arles, which opened in June, discusses the highs and lows of a project more than 13 years in the making 

BY Amy Sherlock in Opinion | 19 AUG 21

It takes a particular kind of confidence in a project to print negative responses in your own publicity materials. So, I was surprised to open a copy of the summer 2021 issue of Arles magazine – produced by the LUMA Foundation and devoted to its recently inaugurated, long-awaited arts centre in the historic French city – to find a series of extracts from media commentary, some distinctly less than favourable. The impressive 27-acre complex – which houses numerous gallery spaces and permanent installations, as well as artists’ studios, a library, research ateliers, several eateries and a hotel – sits on the newly landscaped site of a 19th-century railway yard. It’s less than ten minutes’ walk from the Roman amphitheatre that has been Arles’s most iconic architectural feature since the first century CE, and it’s crowned by a 56-metre-high, nine-storey tower designed by veteran iconoclast Frank Gehry – now 92 years old and, on this showing, as inventive, ambitious and unafraid of divisiveness as ever. Clad with 11,500 stainless-steel panels arranged in an undulating formation, the angular façade catches the Mediterranean light like waves on the sea.  

Mustapha Bouhayati, 2021

When the building opened in late June, a lively debate erupted between its critics and supporters in the comments section of the architecture and design magazine Dezeen. One aggrieved commentator – whose opinion Arles magazine gamely reproduced – summarized it simply as: ‘Honte.’ (Disgrace.) 

‘The courage of Maja is that she had a vision and she’s kept it,’ Mustapha Bouhayati, LUMA Arles’s CEO told me over vegan almond ice cream in Les Forges, one of the five ex-industrial buildings on the campus that have been elegantly renovated (to less public uproar) by Annabelle Selldorf. ‘No matter how doubtful people were, Maja was convinced of what she was doing.’ ‘Maja’ is Maja Hoffmann, Swiss-born philanthropist and mega-collector, who set up the non-profit LUMA Foundation (named for her children, Lucas and Marina) in 2004 to support artistic research and production. Hoffmann is one of the heirs to the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche, but grew up in the Camargue, just south of Arles, at the Tour du Valat conservation institute set up by her father, Luc Hoffmann, a pioneering naturalist and one of the founders of the World Wildlife Fund. ‘He was one of the first people to understand that preserving habitats was more important than preserving individual species,’ Bouhayati explains. ‘And I do think that this approach has influenced Maja […] Are we building a habitat for culture and creation that allows art and artists to thrive?’ 

Digital Square LUMA Arles, 2021. Photograph: Iwan Baan

Bouhayati himself became part of the LUMA ecosystem in 2013. He had previously been working at the British consultancy and communications group Brunswick, joining as head of the Paris office in 2009. LUMA was a client. When Arles town council finally issued building permits for the project in 2013 (Gehry’s initial two-tower proposal for the site was rejected by the French National Commission for Historical Sites and Monuments in 2011), Hoffmann asked if he would join her. ‘And that’s how things got started.’ 

Already, in 2012, LUMA’s Core Group had staged an exhibition during the town’s celebrated annual photography festival, Les Recontres d’Arles, that acted as a kind of proof-of-concept for the wider project. Numbering artists Liam Gillick and Philippe Parreno, museum director Beatrix Ruf, and curators Tom Eccles and Hans Ulrich Obrist (who are now the centre’s artistic co-directors), the Core Group has advised Hoffmann and helped shaped the foundation from the outset. For ‘To the Moon via the Beach’, they filled the Roman arena with sand that was gradually sculpted to resemble a moonscape, with interventions from 20 international artists responding to the ever-evolving environment. The sand was ultimately used in the foundation of Gehry’s building. ‘For me, [the exhibition] was cornerstone of the whole project,’ Bouhayati tells me. ‘I had never been as close to creativity as in that moment […] It was magic.’ 

Calm, elegantly attired and softly spoken, Bouhayati is diplomatic when I ask about the challenges that LUMA Arles has faced. It was, after all, in 2008 – some 13 years ago – that the foundation first signed an agreement with the municipality to take control of the site. ‘Here, time has played a role in letting things materialize,’ he tells me. ‘As the heritage buildings were renovated one by one, we used them. We started to better understand how we wanted to use the space, what we needed. It informed the tower.’ More pragmatically, he notes: ‘It can be cheaper to slow down. It gives you the chance to get things right. With a construction project of this scale, if you make a mistake, it’s either expensive [to put right] or you live with it forever.’ 

Digital Square LUMA Arles, 2021. Photograph: Iwan Baan

And what of the much-publicized hostility from certain factions of the town? ‘In the face of uncertainty, people react in different ways,’ Bouhayati observes, noting that one of the local community’s first concerns was about jobs – a valid question in a town which, for all its abundant charm, has an unemployment rate well above the national average. Arles is a Roman city, but it’s also a post-industrial one: during the 1950s, the railyard on which LUMA now sits employed 700 people; by the time the SNCF closed it in 1984, there were only 64 employees left. 

Part of LUMA’s response has been the Atelier programme, initiated in 2016 and headed by design curator Jan Boelen, which brings together international designers and researchers to create products that draw on the skills and natural resources present in the region. Their experiments have produced, to my mind, some of the most interesting parts of Gehry’s building: the salt-crystal panels that glint next to the escalators, harvested from the Camargue salt flats that have been used since antiquity, and the sunflower-stalk acoustic panels that line the ground-floor restaurant. For the refectory in the on-site hotel, the Atelier worked with Martino Gamper to create bioplastic chairs that utilise waste products from local olive production and biolaminate panels made with mussel shells. ‘The first reaction that everyone has is: “Oh, I want this material. Are you going to produce it commercially and sell it?”’ Bouhayati explains. ‘In the beginning, we had thought we might but, ultimately, we had to ask ourselves: what is our role here? For us, it was about uncovering the resources in the region.’ For Bouhayati, it doesn’t make sense to export a product; what’s more valuable is to share a methodology that can be applied in different regions to look for and use what’s already there. 

Digital Square LUMA Arles, 2021. Photograph: Iwan Baan

‘People are more impatient than our process allows for,’ Bouhayati neatly summarizes. One senses that, although the famous tower is open, the LUMA project will never be finished. For one thing, there is still an industrial building to renovate – a task being undertaken by the British architecture collective Assemble and the Brussels-based office BC Architects. Next, LUMA is setting up a school, a project about which Bouhayati can’t tell me much, although he promises details will be announced later this year. 

In the meantime, though, he is enjoying watching people explore the site, stop in front of the artworks, eat ice cream, take selfies. ‘It’s a funny moment because we were so in charge of things, preparing everything,’ he says. ‘Then you open up, you have visitors coming in and you become a part of the background.’ 

Thumbnail: Mustapha Bouhayati, 2021.

Main image: Digital Square LUMA Arles, 2021. Photograph: Iwan Baan

Amy Sherlock is a writer and editor based in London, UK.