Ghosts in the House

Frank O. Gehry: The Complete Works

by Francesco Dal Co, by Kurt W. Forster
Monacelli, 614 pp., $85.00

Frank O. Gehry: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

by Coosje van Bruggen
Guggenheim/Abrams, 211 pp., $27.50 (paper)

Frank O. Gehry: Kurt W. Forster Art Publishers)

edited by Christina Bechtler, in collaboration with Kunsthaus Bregenz
Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Cantz (distributed in the US by Distributed, 131 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Just as the annals of twentieth-century architecture began drawing to their close and the grand summations were being written, a thrilling and largely unexpected denouement was provided by Frank Gehry. The completion of his Guggenheim Museum Bilbao of 1991-1997 in the Basque country’s largest city caused an architectural sensation of a sort not experienced since Frank Lloyd Wright’s original Guggenheim opened in New York almost forty years earlier. The first Frank’s startling concrete coil on Fifth Avenue has long been widely regarded as the museum’s own greatest work of art, and now so is its biomorphic, titanium-swathed Spanish branch.

In an orgy of worldwide publicity, journals as oblivious of architecture as Hello! lined up to praise Gehry’s bizarrely beautiful and unfailingly photogenic structure, which opened just weeks before Richard Meier’s Getty Center in Los Angeles and rather overshadowed it. The spontaneous epithets that are a sure sign of a building’s having captured the public imagination have compared the Guggenheim Bilbao to everything from a gigantic writhing fish on the banks of the Nervión River to a colossal metallic artichoke, the favored local simile.

Several monographs on the museum have been published, including one by Coosje van Bruggen (wife and partner of the architect’s old friend and sometime collaborator Claes Oldenburg) and another by the architectural historian Kurt W. Forster, whose three new books on Gehry indicate the degree of current interest in him. At the age of seventy, the plain-spoken, unpretentious, and unprepossessing Gehry now finds himself a most unlikely international celebrity.

The city of Bilbao was itself raised to global prominence on the strength of this one project. To reverse the once-thriving industrial center’s sagging fortunes through cultural tourism had been the expressed intention of local sponsors when they invited the New York museum to establish an offshoot there, but not even the most sanguine among them could have predicted the extent of the building’s immediate renown or immense magnetism. The architect and critic Michael Sorkin sums up the ecstatic critical reception of the Guggenheim Bilbao in his introductory essay to Gehry Talks: “Many have described the building as the first of the twenty-first century, although I prefer to think of it as the apotheosis of our own.”

Two decades ago, Gehry was one of a number of emergent avant-garde American architects beginning to propose intriguing new design directions during the breakdown of Late Modernist orthodoxy—the International Style that drew on the work of Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe, among others. It did not appear possible that Gehry’s provocative and intentionally unpolished architecture, made from such low-grade materials as corrugated metal, unfinished plywood, chicken-wire glass, and chain-link fencing, could ever win a wide audience, despite younger critics’ enthusiasm for its raw power and unconventionality. Michael Graves’s ravishing colored pastiches of Tuscan and Vienna Secession forms seemed the most promising in their potential for popular appeal, while Richard Meier’s and Peter Eisenman …

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Letters

Not Basque November 18, 1999