luma arles smallLUMA Arles is a wildly ambitious plan for a vast cultural campus and business hub on a site called the Parc des Ateliers just outside the city's historic centre. logoClick here to book a hotel in Arles

This large cluster of new and restored industrial buildings in a large landscaped park will eventually include two exhibition spaces as well as galleries, studios, meeting rooms, auditoriums, a library and archive and cafes.

Space is set aside for the Rencontres d'Arles, the city's huge annual festival of photography. Arles' École National de la Photographie will be based here too, as will the excellent publisher and bookseller Actes Sud.

The scope of the project is multi-disciplinary and includes dance, design, theatre, writing, art and photography. This being France, the art of gastronomy is on the menu too and there will be chefs as well as artists in residence.

The aim is to make LUMA Arles a buzzing venue not just in summer but all year round. It's hoped to boost the city's flagging economy and to create a welcoming open space, where artists and public can meet, mingle and generate ideas: "new scripts for the world", in the idealistic words of the official description.

engine sheds luma arlesCurrently under construction, LUMA Arles should be fully open to the public by 2020.

In the meantime, some parts of the campus are already completed and are hosting events and exhibitions.

In 2018 there is a major retrospective - modestly entitled The Great Exhibition - devoted to the provocative British artists Gilbert and George. It continues until 6 January 2019.

Recently another retrospective was dedicated to Annie Leibovitz, the American photographer whose iconic portraits for Rolling Stone magazine defined the 1970s.

The Foundation has acquired the artist's entire archives and this first exhibition of 8000 images from Leibovitz's early work was part of a longer project to showcase her whole career.

At certain times of the year you can also go, armed with a hard hat, on a guided tour of the building site and put on goggles to see a virtual reality simulation of the finished structure.

We took one of these tours and it was fascinating: check the LUMA website for the latest dates. They are occasionally available in English.


In the mid 19th century a new railway line opened up connecting Paris, Provence and the Côte d'Azur, and this site in Arles housed train sheds, pictured above. In fact it was one of the French railway system's main maintenance yards, employing up to 1800 workers at its peak.

After the yard closed down in 1984, the sheds were used as warehouses but over time they were badly damaged by a fire and became derelict.

However the Rencontres d'Arles started using the site as a venue for three months each summer and it also hosts the odd music concert.

The region restored the largest of the sheds in 2007 but lacked funding for anything more ambitious. But then in 2014 a powerful patron with long ties to the region stepped in.

Pictured, Maja Hoffmann is a Swiss pharmaceutical heiress and philanthropist who grew up in Arles and the Camargue: "The big skies are something I think about wherever I am," she has said.

maja hoffmannHer father, the ornithologist Luc Hoffmann, co-founded the World Wildlife Fund and created the Tour de Valat conservation research centre in the Camargue.

Maja Hoffmann's own main interests are in contemporary art. She is a collector and in 2004 set up the Fondation LUMA in Zurich to support independent artists and art institutions (it is named after her two children, Lucas and Marina).

She is on the board of the Fondation Vincent van Gogh, which opened in Arles in 2014, and London's Tate Gallery, and also owns several hotels and restaurants in Arles and the surrounding region.


Begun in 2014, LUMA Arles carries a hefty price tag of over 100 million €uros. The original industrial buildings are being renovated by the New York architect Annabelle Selldorf, while the award-winning Nice architect Marc Barani is designing the long, low-rise centre for Arles' photography school.

The public gardens are being landscaped by Belgium's Bas Smets to evoke the surrounding countryside: both the flatlands of the Camargue and the Crau and the hilly landscapes of the Alpilles.

The centrepiece of it all is a tall, glittering tower designed by Frank Gehry (architect's impression pictured top left). A previous design failed to secure planning permission, but Gehry has come up with a new concept, which, he says, is inspired by the region.

The side of the building which faces the studios will be covered with a concrete facing that imitates limestone from the nearby quarry of Fontvieille: the same stone used to construct Arles' historic monuments.

The side facing the city is stainless steel inspired by the dramatic, jagged landscapes of the Val d'Enfer (Valley of Hell) near Les Baux de Provence. The surface is hammered to create subtle, irregular shimmers of light and shade.

starry night over the rhoneAnother influence is van Gogh's famous La Nuit étoilée sur le Rhône (Starry Night over the Rhône), pictured. Gehry says he hopes his own work will have a painterly quality.

As well as studios and workshops, the building houses a vast circular atrium on the ground floor which is meant to echo Arles' majestic Roman amphitheatre. On the top floor is an observation deck and restaurant.

The intention is to have part of the building cooled by natural air conditioning and it will be interesting to see how effective this is in Arles' hot summers.

Where: LUMA Arles. 7-11 rue de la République, 13200 Arles. Website for LUMA Arles

Photo credits: all images © LUMA Arles except La Nuit étoilée sur le Rhône © Musée d'Orsay, Paris.


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