Rising from the skyline of Arles, the tower appears like a futuristic structure from a Marvel movie with nearly 11,000 stainless steel panels gleaming in the Provençal sun.
Here, at what was once the centre of the Roman empire in France, this twisting structure is the 92-year-old architect Frank Gehry’s tribute to Arles’ most famous residents: the Romans and the artist Vincent Van Gogh.
The tower, with its glittering facade meant to evoke Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night, will be the literal high point of a new “creative campus” called Luma Arles, a multidisciplinary art and culture complex sprawling over 27 acres at the Parc des Atéliers, the site of former railway workshops.
At the base of the tower is a vast steel and glass rotunda, also by Gehry, nicknamed the Drum, a structure he said was inspired by the city’s noted Roman amphitheatre.
At a press conference on Friday, Gehry explained his thinking behind the building that has taken 13 years and a reported €150-€225m to complete.
“I visited here when I was living in Paris and studying Roman architecture and I was very moved by it,” he said. “This is my first Roman building.”
The Tower’s opening exhibition will include works by Diane Arbus, Annie Leibovitz, Olafur Eliasson and others, and will have a permanent room dedicated to a rotating display of the collection of Maja Hoffmann, whose Luma Foundation commissioned the building.
The Swiss film producer and philanthropist’s grandmother, Maja Sacher, was a well-known collector of Picasso works, and her father, Lukas Hoffmann, was a co-founder of the World Wide Fund for Nature.
In France, Gehry is best known for his Iceberg building housing the Louis Vuitton Foundation in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, a cloud of glass that opened in 2014. Worldwide he is famous for the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain.
“I love the light in Arles and the wind, the mistral that is here,” he said. “I liked the idea of capturing and reflecting the light in this region and this city. It is not a cold building … the metal has a softness about it, even inside. It plays with the light in the extraordinary way I hoped for. It is part of the city and I wanted it to be soft and welcoming.”
Maja Hoffmann, who was born in Switzerland but grew up in the south of France, said the “creative campus” of Luma Arles, which will be free to enter, was the foundation’s gift to the city.
“I hope the people of Arles will get to know this tower. It represents a notion of hope, an archipelago where everything is possible. It is a place where the past, present and future come to mix,” she told reporters on Friday.
Patrick de Carolis, the mayor of Arles, said Gehry had produced “something extraordinary” for the town.
“It’s also an extraordinary challenge that Arles now had to rise to in terms of having the infrastructure, including hotels and transport, to welcome the visitors it will attract,” De Carolis said. “Now we have to be able to match that level of ambition.”
Gehry, from Canada, worked with two Belgian architects, Bas Smets and Jan Boelen, to create the building.
“It has been a long and interesting, sometimes difficult but great journey to get here, but I am very proud of what Maja and I have created together,” he said.
“I tried to make a building that was welcoming and inviting. The Drum is not architecturally complicated. At street level it’s meant to invite you in. It’s not postmodern. It’s trying to be something of its time, and it has feeling, I hope.”