After 2 years of lockdowns and restrictions, we were able to take a trip abroad in June 2022. Our first visit was to Arles. Tom and I had seen a documentary* about the LUMA experimental cultural centre on the European TV channel Arte and were very excited about it.
*Unfortunately, the documentary is no longer available.
We live in a culture-poor area. This is why we took every opportunity to experience art during our holiday. Fortunately, we were often also able to combine this with another activity we cherish so much: nature walks.
One of the best visits has been to the museum LUMA in Arles, France. The centre has met all our expectations.
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Museum LUMA in Arles, France
Museum LUMA in Arles, designed by Frank Gehry and others, is very much worth a visit. The buildings of the old factory are partly restored, the new building is magnificent, and the park is a quiet oasis in the busy city.
The 19th-century Parc des Ateliers
In 1844, in Arles, the construction started of the industrial complex Parc des Ateliers. Steam locomotives, appealing to the imagination, were built and equipped here.
Arles thrived through this industry. Unfortunately, this all ended when steam locomotives were replaced by electric trains. In 1984 the factory had to close its gates.
After some initial initiatives, the site was abandoned and the buildings fell into ruins.
Visionary patronage and money came to the rescue
Although of Swiss descent, Maja Hoffmann has lived in Arles since her childhood. She is an heiress to the pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche.
Following in the footsteps of her grandparents, she has been collecting art since the 1980s. With her LUMA foundation, she supports art projects, film, and environmental projects.
She saved the Parc des Ateliers and breathed new life into this complex.
Restoration of the old buildings
Of the 7 old buildings, 4 have now been restored. The restored buildings contain exhibition spaces and cafés, a dance studio and a residency program for artists.
As we were able to discover for ourselves, it is a vibrant accumulation of all sorts of different initiatives.
Related: Is the Remote Situated Kröller-Müller Museum Worth Visiting?
Architect Frank Gehry
The old buildings have been combined with a hypermodern museum into an experimental cultural centre. LUMA Arles was designed by the same architect as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Canadian Frank Gehry.
When you watch the documentary about the LUMA in one of the film rooms, you fully understand what Van Gogh’s Starry Night, the Roman amphitheatre, and the natural surroundings of the city have to do with this modern cultural building.
Like Vincent van Gogh, Gehry was inspired by the southern French light. Stainless steel panels on the higher floors of the tower, like oddly shaped bricks, reflect the sunlight providing an ever-changing captivating spectacle.
The structure and shape of the upper tower are inspired by the rock formations surrounding Arles.
The lower part of the tower is a 3-storey glass drum, which connects to the Roman amphitheatre that is situated in the middle of the city. This amphitheatre has three towers, which is extremely rare for a Roman amphitheatre.
Landscape architect Bas Smets
The Belgian Bas Smets, who already has many European landscape projects on his name, redesigned the outdoor space of the LUMA complex.
In a short period of time, he turned an arid plain into a pleasant park full of green and flowering plants, which connects the buildings in an almost natural way. The park offers opportunities for pleasant walks and benches offer spots to relax.
I usually don’t like big companies, especially pharma, because I often suspect them of tax evasion and pollution of the earth.
But of course, I make an exception for someone like Hoffmann who has so much heart for her city that she has spared no expense to create a fantastic cultural complex.
Museum LUMA in Arles, a creative breeding ground
When we visited LUMA, there was a conference in progress and workshops on the environment to attend.
It is Hoffmann’s goal not only to create an experimental cultural centre but also to initiate research programs in all kinds of fields and give new impulses to the development of the arts.
Tom and I had a very inspiring conversation with a man who is leading one of those investigations: the future of the library. His explanations and enthusiasm gave our visit more impact and extra fun.
Permanent and temporary exhibitions
The permanent exhibitions are mainly in the new building, the temporary ones in the old factory buildings.
Unfortunately, we weren’t lucky with the temporary exhibits. It was too early for the famous photo festival, Les Rencontres d’Arles, which was to start on July 4, so we missed that one. The exhibition that was on display when we were there was too violent for us.
Nevertheless, there is plenty to do in this area, so even if the exhibitions are not to your liking, a visit is highly recommended.
One of the great advantages we discovered: everything was accessible for free! Unbelievable that a museum of that quality made the visit possible for everyone, also for people with a small budget.
Related: 17 Excellent Tips to Enjoy Art for Free
The environment has been given an uplift
A cultural injection like the LUMA, which attracts many people who generally have money, has both advantages and disadvantages.
The area was in decline. Not only the factory buildings but also their immediate surroundings.
The new cultural centre attracted cafes and restaurants, shops and a lot of liveliness.
However, I can imagine that this activity will be a nuisance for the existing residents and it may even be the case that they cannot afford the high prices on the terraces and in the restaurants anymore.
The influence on the city silhouette
The buildings, the restoration, and the layout of the complex with its park are fantastic. It is tastefully done and gives Arles a boost into modern times.
Yet as beautiful as I think the complex is, I don’t think it fits in the city silhouette. Compared to the slender church towers and the old Roman ruins, the tower looks crude. In my eyes that is a pity.
Still, as said before, it’s definitely worth a visit. I am sure this has not been the only time we visited it.
The Roman Arles
The rest of Arles is also worth a visit. Roman ruins and medieval monasteries and churches can be found in abundance in the city centre which is situated on the borders of the river Rhône.
And of course, since Vincent van Gogh lived here for over a year, there are a museum and a house that bear his name. As well as a bridge outside town.
2 thoughts on “Museum LUMA in Arles, a Lively Creative Breeding Ground”
After I read your, very interesting, article, I discussed the LUMA in Arles with a French lady. She never heard of it. Never did I, by the way.
She had visited the city years ago. Only remembered the Van Gogh-like city center next to the Roman theater. And the huge river Rhône that bends its way through the city.
Personally? The LUMA does the trick for me. For me, the LUMA is definitively the reason to visit Arles. The way you describe it, and the pictures in your article, this must be one of those interesting modern buildings, I so much admire. Thank you very much for sharing this with us.
Thanks, Patrick, yes, it’s absolutely worthwhile to visit Arles even if it would only be for the LUMA.
By the way, I noticed you are from Belgium; do you know Le Grand-Hornu in Mons? It’s a similar project as LUMA: an old abandoned factory that is turned into a cultural meeting place with exhibitions.
Like LUMA, they try to involve the surrounding neighbourhood in the project. Very interesting and easy for you to reach, I think.
Thanks for your comment and have fun.