ARCHITECTURE / An American in Paris: In the French counterpart of our Docklands, a dramatic building is about to open: the American Center, built by Frank Gehry. Naomi Stungo went to see it

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The Independent Culture
HEMINGWAY, Pound and Henry Miller lived there. Josephine Baker gave her greatest performances there. Jim Morrison breathed his last there, fulfilling Oscar Wilde's remark that 'when good Americans die they go to Paris'. The French capital has long been a mecca for cultured Americans. But, on 7 June, this enduring entente cordiale will be further reinforced with the opening of the striking new American Center.

The centre is a cultural institute for Americans in Paris, a meeting point between French and American culture. In the Sixties, Parisians and Americans alike flocked to the centre's old premises in the Boulevard Raspail in Montparnasse to listen to readings of beatnik poetry. In the Seventies it swung to the beat of jazz and soul. By the early Eighties, a generous grant from the Rockefeller Foundation enabled it to stage appearances by big-name artists such as Merce Cunningham and Samuel Beckett. So successful was the centre that, by the late Eighties, it became clear that it was getting too big for its small, though charming, location.

The new American Center has been designed by Frank Gehry, the controversial Canadian architect who has divided critics with wildly exuberant - some say showy - buildings such as the California Aerospace Museum (1985) and the new Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Gehry has provided the centre with expanded and better-equipped facilities to carry out its ambitious programme of exhibitions, lectures, plays, films and dance performances. And, for the first time, artists will have a chance to live on the premises.

The centre both promotes and is itself the result of Franco-American co-operation. In the early Eighties, the Parisian planning authorities, alarmed by the loose sprawl of the city to the west, devised a massive plan to redevelop the east of the city and return Paris to its traditional tightly knit, high-density plan. The result is Bercy. Formerly a semi-derelict wholesale wine area, Bercy is now a bustling quartier. For, unlike its contemporary, the disastrous free-for-all redevelopment of London's Docklands, it was developed along carefully planned lines, using a mixture of public and private backing to generate prosperity and new life.

At the heart of this redevelopment is the Parc de Bercy - reputedly the largest park to be built in a big European city since 1914. Modelled on the Tuileries, and so linking Bercy with the heart of Paris, the park is bordered in each direction by important new buildings. On the west side is the Palais Omnisport de Bercy, Paris's answer to Wembley Arena, and the daunting colossus of the finance ministry; to the east, the enormous hulk of a huge new office complex; to the south, the four glass towers of the Bibliotheque de France. And, to the north, the American Center.

The mix of buildings around the park was no accident. Bercy was planned with diversity in mind. Hearing that the American Center was looking to relocate, the planning authorities encouraged it to come to Bercy, seeing that an important cultural institution would bring in visitors during those all-important weekend and after-work periods.

This sense of collaboration between the city and the centre, between Parisians and Americans, is reflected in the style of the building. 'It's a kind of 'American in Paris',' Frank Gehry says. 'I tried to deal with the mixture of cultures. I see the building as very Parisian and very American.'

The building's Parisian persona is clearly visible in its north facade. Here, the centre had to fit in politely with neighbouring office and apartment blocks: everything is demure and sober - definitely what the French would call BCBG (bon chic, bon genre). The massing of the building reflects the surrounding blocks and the stone-clad walls are punctuated with ordered rows of neat, narrow windows. The only hint of playfulness is the way the facade seems to slip alarmingly down the building - a pun on the typical Parisian mansard roof.

The contrast with the building's south side could not be greater. Like some scruffy American tourist with tousled hair, a loud, rumpled shirt, camera flying in one direction as he leaps to catch a bus in the other, the centre erupts in a riot of shapes and angles. Here, facing the park - where there are no buildings to have to kowtow to - Gehry has let rip with his customary Californian exuberance. 'We put all the animation on the park side and it's very unconventional, very American,' he says. This is, if anything, an understatement.

More than any of today's leading architects, Gehry has absorbed the lessons of contemporary art. His buildings are sculptural explosions. Not only has he collaborated with Claes Oldenburg, Ed Ruscha and other leading American artists, but he has also drawn on their work for inspiration. 'There's an immediacy in painting,' he explains. 'You feel like the brush strokes were just made. I think about painting all the time, so one part of architecture that I felt an interest in was how to bring these ideas to buildings.'

Gehry's architecture is a vivid exploration of how far he can push composition. Unlike Britain's hi-tech architects, who are primarily interested in experimenting with materials, Gehry plays with shapes. And often to great

effect. Materials are important: Gehry's are often 'found', sometimes scruffy and usually outlandish. But they are secondary to his passion for juxtaposing volumes to create bizarre new forms. To walk through a typical Gehry building is to experience an unfolding sequence of surprises.

That said, for all the noise and excitement of the exterior, the building is curiously tame inside. This is, no doubt, partly because an enormous amount has been shoe-horned into the building: two 'black-box' studios, a theatre, cinema, exhibition space, restaurant, bookshop, language school, dance and art studios and artists' apartments. Yet while particular rooms - the exhibition space with its views over the park and southern Paris, or the compact ground-floor theatre - are pleasing, the circulation spaces and public areas lack charm. There is no sense of being able to stroll around the building. Instead, visitors have to nip in and out of lifts and down dark corridors to get to where they want to be. If this is an American in Paris, then his insides are looking constipated.

The American Center: 51 rue de Bercy, Paris (tel 010 33 1 Frank Gehry gives the Academy Architecture Lecture, Royal Academy, London W1 (071-494 5733), 11 June: some tickets remain, at pounds 16 (students pounds 9), to include admission to Summer Exhibition and drinks. Naomi Stungo is assistant editor of the 'RIBA Journal'.

(Photographs omitted)