OMA’s Paris “Exhibition Tower” Isn’t a Showstopper, Just Eager to Please
The new building, which houses the Lafayette Anticipations galleries, does whatever it's told.
In contrast to the statement architecture of Paris’s preceding cultural institutions, which often draw attention away from what’s actually inside—see the massive colored pipes and tubular escalators announcing the Centre Pompidou’s presence in the Marais, for example, or the behemoth glass sails of Frank Gehry’s Fondation Louis Vuitton in Bois de Boulogne—OMA’s newly opened Lafayette Anticipations is an architecture of the most discrete and obedient kind. It’s a so-called “exhibition tower” of mobile floors squeezed imperceptibly into the void of a four-story courtyard behind a late 19th–century facade, and meticulously designed to bend to the will of its contents.
For the project, OMA was commissioned by French department store Galeries Lafayette to transform a heritage-protected, former retail storage facility in a historic plaster-making corner of the Marais into a home for its cultural foundation. The solution, says OMA project architect Clément Périssé, “was to do absolutely nothing to the building,” and in keeping with this ethos, the existing architecture was “faithfully restored.” The main intervention occurred in the building’s 800-square-foot courtyard, into which the architects inserted a vertical structure of glass, aluminum, and steel framed by rectangular columns in the familiar beige limestone that defines most of Paris.
At Lafayette Anticipations, a name that denotes an open-endedness on the exhibitions to come, the marquee feature is the architecture’s extreme programmatic flexibility. The exhibition tower comprises four mobile platforms, two large and two small, that can move vertically through the space and can be arranged into as many as 49 spatial compositions. They operate on a rack-and-pinion system, with the vertical tracks visible in the corner of each floor, rendering the mechanisms of the space just about as magically mysterious as an elevator.
“The building will change each time you come to see it,” says Périssé, in order to accommodate Fondation d’entreprise Galeries Lafayette’s various exhibitions of contemporary art, design, and fashion, as well as performances and workshops, continuing the legacy Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers bestowed to the 81,000-square-foot column-free expanses of the Centre Pompidou in the 1970s. (Whereas the notion of flexibility at the Pompidou is borne out through the mounting and dismounting of temporary walls, it plays out, on a much smaller scale, at Lafayette Anticipations through the unfixed, movable floors.)
In the past, institutions such as the Guggenheim erected buildings that directly competed with the art. With artistic institutions today courting audiences with increasingly large, multidisciplinary, experimental shows, however, the expectation now is for architecture that submits to curatorial will, to be reconfigured however the art may please. As a paradigm of Modernist principles, OMA has delivered what it refers to as a “curatorial machine”—the implication being that Lafayette Anticipations is a sort of ideal appliance, one equipped with multiple settings that’s happy to operate quietly in the background.
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