The Paris-based writer William Middleton is the author of Double Vision, a biography of the legendary art patrons and collectors Dominique and John de Menil, published in 2018 by Alfred A. Knopf. He has contributed to such publications as W, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Architectural Digest, House & Garden, Departures, Town & Country, the New York Times, and T. Middleton’s most recent book is Paradise Now: The Extraordinary Life of Karl Lagerfeld published by HarperCollins in February 2023.
“I see him as a real collector,” says Tatiana Trouvé of François Pinault, “in that I see a collector as someone who, rather than just accumulating rare objects, wants to acquire some part of an overall artistic vision. It is as though every piece that enters the collection is, for him, the chance to open a door and enter another room.”1
Pinault, of course, is the collector and patron behind the Bourse de Commerce in Paris, which, upon its inauguration this spring, immediately became one of the city’s most exciting cultural institutions. It is the result of the fusion of the collector’s artistic vision, the architectural talent of Japanese master Tadao Ando, and the design skills of Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec. The Bourse de Commerce, a former stock exchange built in the eighteenth century, is a majestic circular building with a central rotunda topped by a massive steel-and-glass skylight that in turn is ringed by a nineteenth-century mural of international trade. Ando has sliced through this historic space with a thirty-foot-tall cylinder in the most impeccable light-gray concrete. The result is a 113,000-square-foot concentration of great art, architecture, and design.
The first exhibition, Ouverture, which runs through December 31, was actually curated by Pinault. Pulling from over 10,000 pieces in his collection, he and his curatorial team have come up with a focused look at an international selection of contemporary artists, both well-known and lesser-known, particularly those focused on issues of social and racial justice, identity, and the fragility of contemporary society. In the central rotunda stands Urs Fischer’s monumental Untitled (2011), a full-scale re-creation of Giambologna’s marble The Rape of the Sabine Woman (1579–83), surrounded by seven humble chairs representing the continents, all in wax, pigment, steel, and candle wicks, and all meant, over the life of the exhibition, to melt down to nothing. Other works in the exhibition range from Michel Journiac’s 24 Hours in the Life of an Ordinary Woman (1974), a series of self-portraits in drag, to a retrospective of twenty-seven paintings and sculptures by David Hammons. “Ouverture is a manifesto on the multiplicity of practices—painting, sculpture, video, installation, photography, sound works, light works, and performance—of the balance between the generations, cultures, origins, and genders of the artists present within the collection,” Martin Bethenod, the deputy CEO of the Bourse de Commerce, writes in the exhibition catalogue. “It is also a manifesto on the diversity of its themes, its driving forces: obsessive questions about death; the ‘passage of time’; vanity; the passion for minimalism; an affirmation of a modest materiality; the radicality of approaches engaged with issues of politics, society, gender, etc.; a profoundly humanist vision, in short, turned toward artworks that tirelessly question the human figure, the face, the body.”2
Pinault has tremendous respect for the role of the artist, and Ouverture is a manifesto for his approach. “Artists are people who are constantly working, always questioning themselves,” Pinault has said. “And it’s not a walk in the park—they can struggle, be anguished. They are constantly reevaluating everything and they have a vision of the world that we don’t have, because they are not just settling for comfort. Not all of them, of course, but the ones that I like.”3
The Bourse de Commerce is the third major institution built by Pinault and Ando. Their first project began in 2001, when the architect, winner of the Pritzker Prize in 1995, began planning a building for the Pinault Collection on the Île Seguin, an island in the Seine on the west side of Paris. That idea was abandoned after several years of complications, leading the collector to focus instead on Venice. There, he had Ando renovate the imposing eighteenth-century Palazzo Grassi, on the Grand Canal, which opened in 2006, and the Punta della Dogana, a seventeenth-century former customs house, inaugurated in 2009. In 2013, Ando also did the Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi, a 225-seat auditorium for lectures, education, and performance.
The Bourse de Commerce, an imposing but long-overlooked structure, is made up of layers of French history. The oldest element dates from 1575: this is the Medici Column, a ninety-foot-high fluted column erected in front of the building by Catherine de Medici so that her astrologer could watch the stars from the top. The circular interior of the building dates to 1767, when it was known as the Halle au Blé, the grain exchange. The dome was added in 1813, when the building became known as the Bourse de Commerce, or commodity exchange. The sixty-five-foot-tall mural along the top of the interior façade was installed for the Exposition Universelle of 1889, which also gave the world the Eiffel Tower.
Pinault and Ando first visited the Bourse de Commerce in April 2016. Seeing the scale of the space and the grandeur of the rotunda, their teams broke into applause. From that first moment, Pinault made it clear to Ando, through a French-Japanese interpreter, what the project needed to achieve. “The architecture that he has to create is that of the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries,” Pinault has explained. “It needs to be completely radical. It has to have a respect for the past but turned to the future.”4
The architect was clear about the significance of the project, Pinault’s largest to date and his first in Paris. Ando was pleased to note that his work with Pinault has involved all of the essential forms of geometry: the square, at Palazzo Grassi; the triangle, at Punta della Dogana; and now the circle. He was immediately struck by the magnificent rotunda, seeing it as an echo of ancient forms. “I think the Pantheon in Rome, built by Hadrian, is the most important architectural masterpiece in 2,000 years of history,” Ando has said.5 And the architect has made it clear that one important objective was to achieve a sense of the sacred: “François Pinault told me one day that the ideal museum, in terms of its architecture, should be like a Gothic cathedral and Romanesque chapel, to be a building filled with nobility, meant for serenity and introspection,” Ando has stated. “For twenty years, I have tried to respond as well as possible to his request. In this way, the Bourse de Commerce has been designed as a place of meditation.”6
Trouvé, who has known Pinault since 2007, is well placed to study his relationship with architecture. “François Pinault is someone who is very faithful and that is seen in the architects with whom he works,” she points out. “So he called on Tadao Ando, who very much reflects the spirit of François, meaning connected with history but also completely contemporary. Tadao Ando is able to intervene perfectly in a historic monument but with something that is still extremely contemporary. And there is no compromise in his work. It is very recognizable visually and yet the two periods are able to live together beautifully, two eras that appear to be fused together, without one overpowering the other.”
When it is suggested that Ando seems intent on producing architecture that is respectful of art, Trouvé is more specific. “Respectful of the art, yes, while still being an architecture that is incredibly strong,” she points out. “It is not just a white cube. There is a principle of construction, of molding the concrete in a way that leaves the technical specificities visible, but with a very graphic element to his architecture. It is very present and yet it disappears at the same time—and I find that fascinating.”
Trouvé’s first installation for the Pinault Collection was in 2011, at Punta della Dogana, so she has observed firsthand how the collector interacts with artists. “He is someone who is very, very passionate, who really loves,” she explains. “He is not afraid to go to artists’ studios. The first time he came to mine, it was in the suburb of Pantin, and it was also a living space. It was in the middle of nowhere. But he had no problem coming—he is someone who really loves going to places where artists work.” And Trouvé has a sense of what inspires him as a collector. As she says, “I think that he’s looking for pieces that are really pivotal, works that speak to what came before and what will come after. It’s really a history that he’s looking for, a continuity. When looking at the works in his collection, we see that he often takes works from a moment for the artist that really represents a shift in their work.”
Trouvé has eight sculptures in Ouverture. For this exhibition, the collector and the artist decided to concentrate on her sculpture series The Guardian, which he had begun acquiring in 2017. They selected pieces that he had already acquired and he commissioned new works for the show. “I have always made sculptures that are in dialogue with a space,” Trouvé explains. “But at the Bourse, I wanted to make pieces that were in dialogue with the collection, in dialogue with other artists, with their visions, with their universes. The ‘guardians’ are supposed to take the place of a true guard in an exhibition, but in fact they are sculptures that guard other works of art. They are benevolent forces.” Trouvé was struck by the collaborative spirit of Pinault and his team, which she had first encountered for her earlier show in Venice. “The curators had an idea where they wanted to install the pieces but they called me to ask me to come and make sure that I was happy, and if it was not quite right, to move them. It was really a conversation and that is very, very rare.”
Albert Oehlen is another artist whose work Pinault has acquired for many years. He, too, sees Pinault as an enlightened collector. “Monsieur Pinault is a real visionary,” Oehlen explains. “His personality and connections with artists are truly unique. He provides artists with great platforms and spaces for the work to be shown. When he supports an artist, he engages with them completely.”7
In 2018, Oehlen was the subject of a major solo exhibition, Cows by the Water, at Palazzo Grassi, curated by Caroline Bourgeois. The exhibition included eighty-five works, from the 1980s forward. Pinault and Bourgeois made trips to Oehlen’s Zurich studio to discuss the making of the exhibition. “I felt like I was given total freedom with that show, a rare and generous opportunity,” the artist says. “With every exhibition, a collaborative spirit is evident. With Pinault, you can tell that the artist comes first, and that feels really good. Beyond that, his team is remarkable.”
Ronan Bouroullec and his brother Erwan have known Pinault for twenty years. In the spring of 2016, just as work was beginning on the Bourse de Commerce, the Bouroullec brothers were the subjects of four exhibitions in Rennes, the capital city of Brittany, the region where Pinault was born and raised. The four presentations, each in a very visible spot in the city, offered a complete look at the designers’ oeuvre: multimedia screens, room dividers, and wall systems; urban-design projects such as fountains, pergolas, and tents; a full-scale modular building; as well as a full retrospective of their twenty-year career as industrial designers with such manufacturers as Vitra, Magis, Alessi, Hay, Artek, and Samsung. The collector asked if they would give him a tour of the exhibitions, and then flew them to Rennes for it. “Several weeks later, he called to ask if we would be interested in thinking about the Bourse de Commerce, about everything that is around the building,” recalls Ronan Bouroullec. “And that is the way it began.”8
The Bouroullec brothers ended up having a profound impact throughout the project. Outside, they designed dramatic metal masts holding minimalist banners of a silvery metallic fabric, with no lettering or image, as well as benches of low curving tubes of copper-aluminum alloy. They also used cobblestones to create a new plaza around the building. “He came to our studio a lot to discuss every detail,” Bouroullec says. “He is never satisfied, and neither are we, so our mandate began to increase progressively, until eventually we did all of the interior of the Bourse.”
Inside the building, from the entrance to the restaurant on the top floor, the Bouroullec brothers designed chairs, benches, tables, rugs, textiles, window coverings, bannisters, and lamps. They worked with century-old Jacquard looms from northern France to create rugs with abstract designs, they placed their light-gray “Rope” chairs and benches in front of Ando’s concrete walls, and they executed such standout pieces as a crystal lighting fixture that drops down several floors through a marble and wrought-iron staircase, tying together the modernism of Ando’s architecture and the historic structure.
This was not the first time the designers had intervened in a monumental space. In 2013, they installed a remarkable lamp in the Château de Versailles, suspended from the ceiling of the grand staircase to the king’s apartments—interlocking chains of LED lights within eight hundred blocks of Swarovski crystal, the first piece of modern design in the eighteenth-century palace. In March of 2019, they unveiled a series of six fountains at the Rond-Point of the Champs-Élysées, with rotating masts of bronze, aluminum, and Swarovski crystal. But they had never worked on this scale before, interior and exterior design for an entire museum. “One of the things that’s unusual about our work is that we can design a small piece of jewelry as well as something monumental like the fountains for the Champs-Élysées,” says Roman Bouroullec. “So we ended up working on elements that required a great amount of time and technical prowess as well as those that were incredibly light.”
FRANÇOIS PINAULT is someone who has great respect when he is in front of an artist. He wants to understand, he wants to know, he wants to be on an equal footing.Ronan Bouroullec
Their most notable contribution might in fact be their simplest. “One of the things that touches us the most are the banners out front. They ended up having an extraordinary impact. So many pieces were incredibly complicated and expensive to make, while one that has such a surprising effect, a presence that is very absolute, is something that was not complex at all and cost 500€. It is nice to see something so spectacular that is done with practically nothing—it’s a good lesson.”
When touring the finished building with his team, Pinault asked whether the blank banners should instead say “Pinault Foundation.” Reminded by Bethenod that the banners are meant to be objects, that they are better this way, Pinault acquiesced. “He was only joking,” Bouroullec recalls of that moment. “We had discussed this for a long time, that today, we don’t need such overt signals, that everyone has Google Maps to direct them. And he agreed right away. We made full-scale mock-ups, hesitating for some time between gold or silver banners. But he is someone who likes to test, François Pinault. He likes to make sure that people are certain about their choices. And he often reposes a question that has already been settled, just to verify. Because there are a lot of people around him who are very docile, ‘Oh yes, Monsieur, of course!’ So I think that when artists, or designers like us, resist, are sure of our choices, that’s important for him.”
Like Trouvé and Oehlen, the Bouroullec brothers are struck by Pinault’s reverence for the role of the artist. “It’s a little surprising from someone who is such a force, who has so much power,” points out Ronan Bouroullec. “He is someone who has great respect when he is in front of an artist. He wants to understand, he wants to know, he wants to be on an equal footing. He’s someone who in other situations might not hesitate to use his power, but as soon as he steps into an artist’s studio, it’s as though he makes himself small. You can tell that he is impressed by the inventive capacity of artists and creators. He is just really passionate about that—it fascinates him.”
1All quotations of Tatiana Trouvé are from an interview with the author, June 23, 2021. This and all later translations from the French are the author’s.
2Martin Bethenod, “Une saison manifeste,” in Ouverture: Bourse de Commerce – Pinault Collection (Paris: Éditions Dilecta, 2021), p. 18.
3François Pinault, in Arte Concert, Le musée et la milliardaire anticonformiste, March 2021, online video. Available online at https://www.arte.tv/fr/videos/078722-000-A/le-musee-et-le-milliardaire-anticonformiste/ (not available in the United States).
4Pinault, in ibid.
5Tadao Ando, in ibid.
6Ando, in Francesco Dal Co, “Interview de Tadao Ando,” in La Bourse de Commerce (Paris: Éditions Dilecta, 2021), p. 56.
7All quotations of Albert Oehlen are from an e-mail to the author, June 22, 2021.
8All quotations of Ronan Bouroullec are from an interview with the author, July 13, 2021.