The Luma tower in Arles a new landmark by Janice Lert

The Luma tower in Arles a new landmarkWhat’s new in Arles? The Luma Foundation tower of course! You can’t miss it from wherever you approach the city: people are already calling it the Eiffel Tower of Arles... It dominates the flat landscape around Arles as far as the eye can see and reminds us of the church spires during the Middle Ages, visible from afar to inform tired pilgrims that they were approaching the city...


The tower changes almost every day and the work site teems with activity. The tower is located on an industrial wasteland, where the SNCF, the French National Railroad Company, had run a locomotive repair and construction depot since the arrival of the train in Arles in 1848. These shops closed in 1984, but many of the industrial buildings are being preserved in various conditions and uses, and a brand-new tower being added in the middle. The site covers a total of 10 hectares and three architects have been missioned by the Luma Foundation:

  • Annabel Selldorf for the rehabilitation of the existing buildings,
  • The Belgian Bas Smets for the landscaping,
  • And the famous American architect Frank Gehry for the tower itself.


So what is the Luma Foundation? It is a foundation founded by Maja Hoffmann in 2004 in Switzerland: the Hoffmann family made their fortune in pharmaceuticals in Switzerland but have been living in the Camargue for a generation (LUMA is the acronym for Luc and Maja, the father and daughter Hoffmann duo). Maja and her foundation are prominent in many cultural activities in Arles such as the Vincent Van Gogh Foundation, and have decided to build here a multi-purpose cultural center which will dwarf just about everything else in the city.


The tower is scheduled to open during the spring of 2018. The final height, 56 meters and ten levels above the terrace, has just been reached, and visitors (there are free guided tours several times a week), can at last get an idea of how gigantic the project is. The height of 56 meters is equaled by the diameter of the glass- encased base, also 56 meters: the structure of this base, made of concrete posts of all different dimensions and inclinations, is now under construction. The base itself will house a variety of areas: a conference room, archives, technical space, large (1000 m² equipped to international museum standards) and small (300 m²) exhibition rooms.


But the outside of the tower itself is what everybody is talking about. The concrete core of the building will be split vertically at two different spots to let light into the center and the façad. It will then be decorated with two different types of panels visible on the scale model at the visitors’ center.


Two sides will be covered with concrete slabs onto which sand will be blasted to imitate the local Fontvieille limestone. The other two sides (actually composed of three tall and one short engaged towers) will be enshrouded in 11,500 inox bricks (called "petals") arranged so that they are oriented in all different directions. This orientation has two explanations: the light will be constantly shifting as it is reflected, giving the building an impression of shimmering movement, and no inox brick will be directly exposed to the sun long enough to get too hot. It is said that Gehry was originally inspired for his façade design by the rocks of the "Val d’Enfer" in the nearby town of Les Baux, eroded into honeycombs by the wind and the rain.


Ecology is also a major concern for LUMA. Thus the building will have no air-conditioning, in spite of the 16-meter-high glass case surrounding the base, which appears incoherent to locals who are used to suffering from the hot sun. The architects are counting on natural ventilation and sunshades to keep cool, as well as a lake surrounding the tower and a public park which will be the largest of its kind in Arles.


50-60% of the energy needed will be produced on site thanks to photovoltaic panels on the roof of the Grande Halle and a vegetal- waste-burning furnace installed in the last two sections of the former forge. The first section of this row of buildings, with its huge doorways, is being rehabilitated to provide storage space for oversize works of art. Beside the former forge, the "wheel shop", which lost its roof during a fire in 1985 and thus today is nothing but a long narrow rectangle surrounded by walls, will be transformed into a garden.


The space on the nine floors of the tower will be devoted to the three main interests of the foundation: art, human rights and environment. The tenth floor will have a panoramic platform with a fantastic view of the city of Arles, the Rhône River delta, the Alpilles hills, and will also house machinery and technical space. The artists attracted to the spot will come from both visual and performing arts as one of the old buildings on the site is being rehabilitated as a dance studio.


With this new "campus", Arles places itself squarely in the 21st century, which will be cultural, at least as far as the city is concerned. Even though the new destination of this site is cultural, the train will continue to roll through the park regularly, and visitors and inhabitants alike will thus be constantly reminded of the industrial past of the land and buildings surrounding them.