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Rankings reflect comments made in the past 14 days
Rankings reflect comments made in the past 14 days

Paradise Regained

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA Editor-in-chief


Photo: Courtesy of Fondation Maeght

Few architectural projects resonate the way the Fondation Maeght affected me. I must confess that this private museum, perched on a hillside near the French Riviera outside St. Paul de Vence, had escaped me, relegated to a vague smudge in my mind’s graphic memory bank. Perhaps that’s partially why, when I trudged up the hillside and encountered this serene masterwork by Josep Lluis Sert, the ensemble moved me so: it was as if I had ascended to another, wholly unexpected plane.

The setting seemed both sensually saturated and otherworldly, from garden wall to tower to bonneted museum, poised on a green field beneath the pines. Works by Chagall, Miro, Giacometti, stood like monitors throughout the property; art suffused the entirety. Also evident was the architect’s conscious delight and manipulation of the whole, the creation of an interlocked, paradisical puzzle of pathway, texture (stone, concrete, brick), spatial interplay, form, light, point of view, and the appeal to the senses (the odor of the pines, the splash of water in the azure tiled pools)—all graced with an overweening sense of the poet Baudelaire’s luxe, calme, et volupté. Somehow, Sert and the Maeghts collaborated to saturate the hilltop with a spiritual dimension, all through the power of art.

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An entire dissertation could be written on the mastery of interior light, in which Sert judiciously pours natural light through curved monitors onto the walls, warming what are often cool boxes with luminous energy. Or the control of the daylit Provencal vistas, beckoning along the axial pathways. On the day I visited, Kandinsky paintings glowed with jewel-like persistence in the galleries. The walls shone with the essence of filtered sunlight, while the chapel exploded with the sustained purple burst projected through a Braque stained glass window.

What other expressive modernist masterpieces achieve a blend of such equipoise and emotional force? Certainly Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp, or Kahn’s Salk Institute and Kimbell Museum. Mies’ more rigorous Barcelona Pavilion achieved a sense of unity in its elements and making that may be the equivalent, though the original escaped my personal experience. Here, on a remote French hilltop, is an obvious progenitor of details that continue to bloom in contemporary work.

What I know is that the Fondation Maeght moved me, stirred me, touched me as few works of architecture have. I will investigate it more, for it has much more to offer than could be explored in a single, brief encounter.

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