PARIS — “I think there are so many 21st-century things, so many exceptional cultural spaces being built, that there is a kind of fatigue setting in — certainly on my part,” said Rem Koolhaas, standing in front of a scale model of the future Galeries Lafayette Foundation headquarters in central Paris.
“When you see the gigantic scale of art institutions worldwide, I am happy that we are minuscule in comparison. I think this modesty of scale gives a better chance of success,” he said.
Koolhaas and Guillaume Houzé, director of image and patronage of Groupe Galeries Lafayette and its department store branch, on Wednesday unveiled the project conceived by the Dutch architect’s OMA agency at a press conference held inside the building that will house it.
Construction is to begin this summer and the foundation is due to open to the public in late 2016. The project comes on the heels of the Foundation Louis Vuitton, a new museum on the leafy fringes of Paris designed by Frank Gehry and due to open in October.
The Galeries Lafayette Foundation will occupy a five-story industrial building on Rue du Plâtre, a few streets behind the retail group’s BHV department store opposite Paris City Hall. Built in 1891, it was used as a warehouse for BHV and most recently served as a school.
Because of strict conservation laws governing the historic center of Paris, the shell of the building will remain intact, but its inner courtyard will be transformed into a steel-and-glass exhibition tower with four mobile platforms that can be raised or lowered to create performance and exhibition spaces.
“We see it as a new institution built on the basis of numerous exchanges, which aims to function in a collaborative and extremely convivial way — a building, as you can see, on a human and modest scale,” said Houzé, who is president of the foundation.
“The real nerve center of the project will be invisible to the public and totally dedicated to and centered on the needs of the artists,” he added.
Koolhaas, whose recent projects include the loop-shaped CCTV tower in Beijing, said he was happy to work around the existing building. “I am not a destroyer, in principle. If I can avoid it, I prefer to,” he explained. “It is a real conviction, and I am not always convinced that building something totally new makes sense today.”
The ground floor, which will be open to the public for free, will become a passage linking Rue du Plâtre and Rue Sainte-Croix de la Bretonnerie. In addition to hosting exhibitions, the 2,700-square-foot building will house basement workshops for artists, a teaching space and offices.
Since October, the raw space has hosted a series of cultural events. The latest of these, “Venir Voir Venir” (“Come See Come”), is open to the public from Thursday to Sunday. It includes a presentation of the architectural project, works by resident artists and performances.
Houzé said the foundation had a budget of 21 million euros, or $28.7 million at current exchange, over five years and forecast it would attract some 100,000 visitors a year. He noted it is geographically close to the Centre Pompidou and numerous art galleries, but it aims to have a global reputation.
“We want to have absolutely international standards in the conception of our projects,” he said. “We would like the foundation to establish a concrete network of relationships with other institutions throughout the world.”
Houzé is a descendant of the store’s founder and, together with his grandmother, Ginette Moulin, has established a large private collection from which items are regularly displayed at the Galerie des Galeries, an exhibition space inside the Galeries Lafayette flagship on Boulevard Haussmann.
He is also the driving force behind the retailer’s annual “Windows on Art” project, under which its stores across France display works on loan from leading art institutions.