How a Gehry building came back ready for the spotlight

The American Institute of Architects Ι Aug. 21, 2019 

In the pantheon of Frank Gehry buildings, his American Center in Paris, completed in 1994, was a decidedly transitional artifact. Gehry was rebuffed from using steel on the building by planners with context-attuned designs for its newly redeveloped district on the banks of the Seine, so instead it’s made of stately masonry. American Center’s rectilinear offices and apartment blocks sit next to a jumble of cones and cylinders; the sort of grab-bag geometry that would soon mutate into a sublime sculptural riot at his Guggenheim in Bilbao. Compare the two side by side, and you get the sense that the limestone in Paris might have been made molten by a blast furnace lit from Gehry’s own rapid ascent, only to solidify once the architect had found ways to transcend the natural forces that have limited architectural form since time began.

But by the time American Center (a cultural and arts enclave for permanent American ex-pats) opened, the building was already shockingly near a similarly dramatic transition. After only 19 months, American Center was shuttered. A case of, “too much building for too little endowment,” according to the Christian Science Monitor, it cost $41 million to build, and required $6 million per year to run, which the Americans did not have. Corporate donations fell short of promise and expectation, and ironically, administrators tried to sell it to the Guggenheim, per the New York Times. In 1997, the year of Gehry’s wild victory in Bilbao, it was still empty. And locals, who had seen American Center’s neighborhood (a former wine wholesaler’s district) haltingly re-developed, thought it would remain so. A café owner groused in the pages of Metropolis, “It’s too immense. No company could afford to rearrange the interior.”

Adaptive reuse for a decade-old building

American Center was founded in 1931 to serve Americans for whom business and pleasure had stationed them in Paris. But in a more connected and globalized world, where crossing an ocean may only take a few hours, a permanent outpost for American culture became less vital, and the ease of being a tourist outshone a permanent connection to home. If you’ll only be in Paris for a few years or months or less, why hang around the American Center? Another charming boulangerie awaits around every corner!

This cultural embassy focused on elite avant-garde culture in its later years, paired with progressive architecture to boot; an expensive and rarefied atmosphere that was still inherently not French. But many prosaic things happened at American Center, too. Its encyclopedic array of programs (a theater, classrooms, library, dance studio, exhibition hall, art studio, apartments for resident artists, offices, travel agency, bookstore, restaurant, bar) made it very difficult to adapt, to say nothing of Gehry’s signature canted volumes and disjunctive massing.

American Center signed up for more architecture than they could handle. But what entity could? The French film industry was the answer, in a poetic transition from an outpost of the world’s only remaining superpower designed by its most ascendant architect, to the French home of one of the world’s newest artistic mediums, which perfected the art form in its earliest years and cradled the influential French New Wave. For more than 100 years, the French have been the last people that could be accused of not taking film seriously.

After nine years of mothballs and chained doors, The Cinematheque Francaise moved into American Center in 2005, a subtle work of adaptive reuse for a building bizarrely only a decade old.

The architect selected for the job, Dominique Brard of Atelier de l’île, found himself in a bind neither he nor anyone else had ever faced before. How do you insert a radical and complex programmatic transformation into a new building with no patina of history and use, with no opportunity to draw distinctions between “old” and “new,” which also exists in one of the most historic and beloved cities of the world? The project called for intense programmatic re-organization, but with little room for one’s own vision and creativity; all dirty work, no magazine spread sheen. It was a commission specifically designed to be an ego-destroyer.

Honoring Gehry’s original design

Gehry approved of Brard’s selection (he was on the Cinematheque Francaise’s jury), and throughout, Brard never strayed far from Gehry’s original vision, which touched down in Paris a decade hence with disparate critical reactions. Some were wowed for the predictable reasons. In an article titled, “The Unquiet American” in Architectural Review, Catherine Slessor marveled that it was “almost Piranesian in its complexity. Any pretense of Euclidean geometry collapses in an astonishing sequence of abruptly truncated angles, colliding volumes and gravity-defying forms.”

Some said it was too polite, sitting too agreeably in its neighborhood for a Gehry showpiece. The buff masonry used for both its tumbling cones and staid apartment blocks is St. Maximin limestone, drawn from ancient mines north of Paris by Baron Hausmann and used in the Louvre. The easy legibility of these blocks, whether slotted between conventional punched windows or carved to form ship’s mast cylinders, makes it clear that these forms are made from something commonplace and familiar. In the May 1994 issue of Architectural Record (with American Center on its cover), Gehry says he was creating “a sculptural sense of the city” in one building. “The cityscape of forms expresses its diverse program,” the article continued, rectangles, cylinders, and cones forming a composite urbanism, united by a town square atrium at its center. Before the building was completed, Metropolis noted that here, “Gehry becomes an observer” that is “collecting a roofline here and a gap there, fascinated by the spaces that allow the city to breathe.” Perhaps the most trenchant American criticism of the building came from former AIA President Thomas Vonier in Progressive Architecture, who noted its “surprisingly warm unity.” “His trademark oddball protrusions and formal twists and turns seem muted and dignified here,” he wrote, underlining Gehry’s career-spanning drive to create new forms of harmony and synthesis, rather than disruptive provocations for their own sake, as is the common misconception.

For his part, Brard saw it as a contextual piece: “It’s very Parisian,” he says.  But that was likely not what he was expecting at the time. Gehry was largely seen as “an architect from the West Coast with many strange buildings,” Brard says. “He wasn’t the star that he is now.”

Gehry hadn’t yet arrived at the pure digital abstraction of his Guggenheim, which was executed through the use of aeronautical design software, but had wandered far from the charmingly informal collage of materials and forms of his early career, like his home in Santa Monica. At American Center, Gehry had to scale back its complexity for buildability’s sake, according to Paul Goldberger’s biography Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry. The design software Gehry used later helped bridge the gap between vision and execution, and as such American Center is a snapshot of how far his formal ambition could be pushed through traditional means.

The original design began with a glass-fronted atrium that served as a hinge for the building’s competing volumes. Topped by a fanning metal awning and his most exuberant forms composed of simple limestone blocks, this front façade announces, “Frank Gehry is here, and yes I’m aware this is Paris.” Rather conventionally, it’s flanked by an apartment block on one side and a theater, offices, exhibition halls, art and dance studios on the opposite end. During their design process, Brard and his team overlaid each floor plan of American Center in one diagram to illustrate its complexity. And what’s revealed here is the relentless layering of rectilinear spaces, and very little freehand whimsy. American Center’s layered plans are more graph paper than spaghetti bowl, and it’s clear that conversion to the Cinematheque Francaise was an exercise not in re-drawing Gehry’s lines, but in conventional—if intense—programmatic shuffling.

Interior vs. exterior changes

Critically, Brard’s design did not change the exterior, and it pared down the programmatic complexity slightly. Programs are re-reorganized across the main volumes a bit more heterogeneously, as the apartment block section now holds offices, the film library, and education spaces. Beyond the exterior, the exhibition halls, atrium, and some offices retained their original function. Most notably, American Center’s theater was converted into Cinematheque Francaise’s largest cinema (necessitated by the insertion of projection rooms), one of four movie theaters in the new plan. Two of these theaters were installed in the basement, and offices were crafted from apartments. Ticketed access to the theaters called for new circulation patterns, as did secured access to the film library. All told, the renovation cost $40 million, according to the New York Times.

“The essence of Gehry’s original design remains,” was the summation from a 2005 Architectural Record article.

Atelier de l’île’s renovation used same material palette as American Center—limestone, galvanized steel, glass, pine, and beechwood. Its most dramatic additions were largely ephemeral. “It wasn’t a rupture between what Gehry did and what we did,” says Brard. “The only thing we added was light.” The project brief for the Cinematheque Francaise called for its architects to “create a set,” a place where light is manipulated to fine-tune mood, and atmosphere. Visit the Cinematheque Francaise’ galleries, and you’ll see media screens glowing in inky voids, film noir shadows creeping across walls. Working with the medium of light, Brard was called to be a cinematographer as much as an architect. “In a movie theater, what you’re watching is light,” he says. “It’s nothing else.”

While Gehry still defines the geometry, form, materials of the building, Brard defines its expression and complexion. Throughout, sharp bands of light define grids and seams between volumes. In the movie theaters, wall panels are removed to make way for light fixture boxes that vary the texture of the interior. There are occasional splashes of color, and the mullions in the atrium and skylight apertures cast shadows on the pale walls alongside projections advertising films and exhibitions.

These are all transitory impositions of a new identity. “Our project is behind the stone skin,” says Brard.

“It is very striking that today everyone is looking at this building as Gehry’s and nobody remembers that another architect has worked on this transformation,” says Laurence Descubes, at the time Cinematheque Francaise’s project manager for the renovation, who is trained as an architect.

That’s something Brard is well aware of. “Nobody is talking about Atelier de l’île, when they go to the Cinematheque Francaise,” he says. “It’s still Gehry’s building.”

Uniquely, Descubes saw the unabashed contemporality Brard started out with as a blessing, not a fault. Its vibrancy gave it flexibility (and the exuberance to stay committed to the original design). “Its modernity would allow this Cinematheque to be radically transformed,” she says.

There’s perhaps an alternate past where Gehry didn’t execute his Guggenheim Bilbao with such rigor and grace, and thus remained an elite designer, instead of a world-historical one. In that timeline, it’s easy to imagine his American Center building falling into dust, as the magnetism of his designs waned and Cinematheque Francaise looked elsewhere for a new home. Love of Gehry’s architecture helped keep the building intact for Brard, but it also built the constrictive box he had to practice within. For him, adjusting the granular programmatic fit and identity of this building was a job largely for light fixtures and straight-laced programming diagrams; an odd couple only likely to be paired when the task is to change the way things feel and the way they work, if not the way they look.