In 1971, when Felix Ciccolini begins his second term as mayor of Aix-en-Provence, he is faced with the administration of a city undergoing major changes.
At the time, Aix-en-Provence is benefiting from the emergence of new institutions of higher education as well as the industrial development of Southeastern France (creation of the Etang de Berre petrochemical industry park, the Cadarache Nuclear Research Center). Since the 1950s, the city is also reaping the benefits of mass tourism. Summer events continue to develop, such as the Festival de Musique Lyrique (created in 1948). During this period, Aix-en-Provence is known as a city of art and museums. With its seven museums, its ratio of museums to inhabitants is 1:25,000, while that of Paris is only 1:31,700. Museum visits continue to increase, largely due to the increasing demands of cultural tourism.
In the early 1970s, Aix-en-Provence was one of the most dynamic cities in France.
The population nearly tripled in thirty years, going from 54,000 in 1954 to 137,000 in 1982. All of the area surrounding Aix-en-Provence was now inhabited, and the city continued to overflow beyond its natural limits to allow the construction of big housing complexes. These were built on the hills north of the city in 1960s-70s, then west of the city in the Jas de Bouffan area.
On April 16, 1969 a decision was made to develop an Integrated Development Zone (Zone d’Aménagement Concerté – ZAC) in Jas de Bouffan. The project included 5075 medium-sized housing units, schools, shops, a secondary school for 120 students, a stadium and a sports center spanning 169 hectares of land.
In the newspaper Le Courrier d’Aix of December 22, 1973 (Issue #159), F. Ciccolini explained the need for this zone and how the city intended to implement it. “Indeed, this growing area symbolizes our entire city, which for several years now has undergone some of the biggest changes in its history.”
Aix-en-Provence once lived almost entirely on its past and its traditions. It was now opening to new industrial and commercial activities.
It became necessary to ensure economic balance while making the most of the region’s growth. Not only was it important that the city maintain its vitality but it also sought to prevent the creation of gigantic “commuter towns” and preserve the area’s cultural and tourist attractivity.
It wasn’t long before Victor Vasarely chose Aix-en-Provence. In a note he wrote on the subject, he explains: “The location of this center had been a concern to me for over twenty years. At first I imagined it in La Garrigue, near my house where I own a few acres of wild land. I then turned my attention to the magnificent ‘Cèdres’ site north of Cabrières d’Avignon… but the isolation, poor access and unfavorable opinion of the Historic and Cultural Sites Commission all drove me away from this option. At the same time, my Musée Didactique was taking shape at the Château de Gordes. Just two miles away from the museum, a site called ‘La Gardette’ offered a suitable alternative… and I wound up having to choose between three cities: Avignon, Marseille or Aix-en-Provence. Avignon offered a handsome but run-down building; there was even talk of a wing of the Palais des Papes. I decided that the classification of the Château de Gordes as a historic heritage monument was a sufficient architectural tribute to the past. For an avant-garde institution, I had to build an ultra-modern building. The vast space available around the Marseille-Luminy University was very seriously considered, but two major obstacles stood in our way. First, access to the site would be made difficult by the congested city streets of Marseille and second, the independence of the building was vulnerable in the long term… And the spirit and mission of the Foundation required complete freedom of action. In addition to the support and devotion of the city’s administration and personalities, the choice of Aix-en-Provence was dictated by the city’s rich history, its artistic and architectural activities, its world-renowned festival, its exceptional network of motorways and finally, my own personal admiration for Cézanne. The Foundation is located in the ‘Jas de Bouffan’ area, where the great founder of contemporary plastic arts himself lived”.
Victor Vasarely accepts the city’s proposal and on March 30, 1973 and July 9, 1974, the land is donated to the Foundation.
Starting in 1973, construction of the Foundation begins. Heritage monument architects John Sonnier and Dominique Ronsseray are commissioned by Victor Vasarely to implement the project he personally designed.
The building would include 16 hexagons, each 14 meters wide, from one side to another. The hexagons would come together in a rectangle 87 meters long and 40 meters wide.
On the ground floor, seven “cells”, each 11 meters high, would host Vasarely’s forty-two architectonic installations. The rest of the building included a conference room/auditorium, a library and storage rooms.
Upstairs, Vasarely planned to set up offices and workshops for conducting new research or designing new installations.
Companies were selected in a bidding process. Except for elements which required the most advanced technologies, Victor Vasarely and his team chose only local suppliers.
In December 1973, the first stone was laid. On this occasion, Victor Vasarely left in the building’s foundations a message of which he only shared the first words: “From Cezanne to Vasarely: we will be worthy.” A number of technical difficulties slowed down the construction process.
Made of aluminum plates anodized in black and white, the facade is an expression of plasticity. Each decorative panel spans a surface of 70 sq. meters. The layout and aesthetics must be perfect for the optical effect sought out by the artist to work.
While innovating with the development of space, lighting and the use of materials, Vasarely expresses his desire to capture the interest of history and culture when he commissions the construction of a staircase modeled on those of the Renaissance castles of Blois and Chambord. Shaped in a hexagon, the spiral double helix staircase connects the ground floor to the portion of the first floor which is open to the public. Each of the two ramps is divided into three successive flights of steps with two intermediate landings. The balustrade is modern for its choice of materials: metal panels and glass plates.
The first stage of work was commissioned in November 1975. At this point, Vasarely is preparing to realize the forty-two installations as well as the building’s interior design.
The installations are set up in such a way as to allow the visitor to progress through the discovery of colors, materials, optical illusions and kinetic effects which stimulate participation but also disrupt and lose the visitor physically, in a space overwhelmed with color and uncertain limits.
Companies from the initial construction phases would return to the site for further work… construction of wooden structures for the mosaic or Briare enamel works, suspension of glass kinetic works, installation of painted hand cut cardboard “plastic units” in the room dedicated to “Planetary Folklore”.
As for the rest, companies were selected based on the materials used. Using Victor Vasarely’s layout, these companies assembled installations which measured up to eight meters high and six meters wide.
The works were assembled on site, with the exception of the tapestries, carpets and two aluminum-based pieces. Architect Claude Pradel-Lebar serves as Victor Vasarely’s advisor for the realization of the 42 monumental works. He also runs the architectonic center from 1975 to 1982.
Just as for the building’s construction, Vasarely leaves no detail unattended with regards to interior design: marble stone from the Alps, state-of-the-art projection equipment for the auditorium, sound in the exhibition area, soundproof offices and research workshops, etc. Benches and seats were ordered from designer Veranneman, who in exchange “commissioned” a sculpture and a gate from Victor Vasarely to install in his own Foundation .
On February 14, 1976, the Vasarely Foundation was inaugurated in the presence of Mrs. Claude Pompidou, Jacques Chirac, prime minister at the time, and Michel Guy, Secretary of State for Cultural Affairs.
The building was built between 1973 and 1976 (year of its inauguration). Its architecture adheres to no specific movement even if its aesthetics do refer to the style of the Seventies, both for the choice of materials (glass, anodized aluminum), as well as for the very idea of bringing together architecture and technological design.
As a “Lumino-kinetic” monumental sculpture, it is a remarkable example of the synthesis between architecture and plastic art. In its blueprints, the artist and the architect Jean Sonnier opted for a system of 16 hexagon-shaped cells: a geometric shape which Victor Vasarely often used in his series “Hommage à l’hexagone”.
With 5,000 sq. meters of floor space, a remarkable amount of skylight shines through the building’s fourteen pyramidal cupolas. From outside, a creased curtain- like wall displays a binary alternation of black and white circles and squares. The animation of the facade and its optical illusions prepare the visitor for the kinetic and optical tricks that they will discover once they enter the building.