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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)

1.

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’s clever variations on classic modernist themes suggested there was life left in the old movement yet. But no betting man would have put his money on Gehry, already fifty and with no major public buildings to his credit, to become the leading architectural figure of the rest of the century.

Born Frank Owen Goldberg in Toronto in 1929, Gehry moved with his working-class family to Los Angeles after World War II. The haphazard and improvisational building style of his adopted region, to say nothing of the premium the Hollywood myth places on personal transformation and creative fantasy, made a deep impression on the young man. Though he is resolutely antihistorical in his impulses and catholic in his cultural references, he is unimaginable as the product of any other American metropolis. At twenty-five he took on a new surname, which he has come to bitterly regret. Discussing the possibility of what a biography may some day reveal about him, he recently told me, “I haven’t done anything bad, except for changing my name.”

Gehry received a degree from the University of Southern California, briefly attended the Harvard Graduate School of Design, then worked for firms in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, and Paris before setting up his own office in Santa Monica (where he still practices) in 1962. He accomplished his remarkable, though slow, ascendance by refusing to take the usual American pathway to architectural success: remaining with a large organization and seeking bigger and bigger commissions regardless of their potential for creative expression. Resisting the lure of such hollow prestige, he looked elsewhere for models to admire, and he found them in the world of contemporary art.

The role of the architect as artist is an ancient one, but it was de-emphasized with the rise of modernism, which rejected the drawing-based Beaux-Arts tradition in favor of a more technocratic approach. The flamboyant Wright was at once a pioneer of modernism and the last Arts and Crafts movement aesthete. Though Le Corbusier was also an accomplished painter and sculptor and craved recognition for his art as much as his architecture, early in his career one of his studied poses was that of a bourgeois businessman. With the triumph of the International Style in the United States after World War II, a further permutation occurred as the architect adopted the persona of corporate executive. The new postwar image was typified by such architectural powerhouses as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which tried to accommodate its commercial constituency by copying the complex organizational structures, rationalized management techniques, and even conformist personal manner of major firms like IBM.

By the early 1950s, Louis Kahn began to challenge the prevailing image and outlook of the American architect and sought a return to the earlier identification of his profession as a form of art, even though the ferment of postwar American art itself was of little consequence to him. Rejecting the can-do ethos of the war years and their optimistic aftermath, the classically trained Kahn presented himself as an artist-philosopher who questioned the basic premises of architecture rather than as an efficiency expert with all the answers. It is little wonder that he never attracted the corporate patronage that went to his vastly less gifted colleagues; he had to content himself with working for cultural, educational, and foreign institutions more attuned to his lofty visions and Luftmensch temperament. During the 1960s, Kahn’s young followers Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown openly acknowledged the affinity between their work and that of such Pop artists as Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol, who were likewise appropriating commercial imagery, in what was at once a paean to and critique of American values.

No American architect of his generation has had a stronger self-identification as an artist, has associated as closely with contemporary painters and sculptors, or has tried more diligently to be accepted as a fellow artist by them than Gehry. As Kurt Forster writes in Frank O. Gehry: Kurt W. Forster, which is largely based on an interview with Gehry:

…When Gehry was a student [in the 1950s], artists represented something approaching the incarnation of personal freedom in American culture. Money could buy you liberties, politics a share of power, and Hollywood notoriety and fame, but all of these blandishments exacted the same heavy toll: the sacrifice of personal freedom. Only artists seemed able to win privileges without incurring the terrible losses that other careers entailed….

At the same time as he sought the company of artists, he competed with them on turf of his own choosing. It wasn’t really being an artist among artists that he strove after, but rather to become an artist in the field of architecture…. He could not escape the constraints of his profession, but as an artist he might be able to change the rules of the game.

During the 1960s, Gehry drew considerable inspiration from contemporary art, taking cues from sources as diverse as the “combine” paintings of Rauschenberg and the minimalist sculpture of Carl Andre and later applying them to his own designs. Andre’s work taught Gehry about the potential power of the humble found object, specifically through a floor piece of common bricks that the architect cites as a revelation in Gehry Talks. Though modern architects had long idealized off-the-shelf building materials as the quintessential benefit of mass production, it took this sculptor to show Gehry that such components could be liberating for artistic purposes as well, just as Duchamp had inspired the Pop artists.

From Rauschenberg Gehry learned to use incongruous assemblaged juxtapositions to striking effect. The artist’s Painting with Grey Wing of 1959—a canvas with a bird’s wing affixed to it—is echoed in Gehry’s California Aerospace Museum of 1982-1984 in Los Angeles, to the façade of which is clamped a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter jet. And Gehry’s Late Entry to the Chicago Tribune Tower Competition of 1980—a sketch of a skyscraper sprouting a realistic eagle’s head and wings—derives exactly from Rauschenberg’s combine sculpture Coca-Cola Plan of 1959, which likewise has bird’s wings emerging from the sides of an upright rectangular form.

Gehry has long cherished, and exploited, a view of himself as embattled creative outsider, based on the Romantic cult of the tragically misunderstood artist, but for years now that position has seemed forced. In 1986 he was the subject of a traveling retrospective organized at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis by his longtime advocate Mildred Friedman. (Her informative Gehry Talks covers the architect’s career since that show, and is valuable for the subject’s comments on his work, particularly as he seldom writes.) For the epigraph of the Walker catalog, Gehry chose his earlier remark, “Being accepted isn’t everything.” It was an ironic statement from the subject of the largest one-man museum show accorded a living American architect in recent memory.

Admittedly, Gehry did not benefit much from the building boom of the 1980s, when his postmodernist co-professionals received commercial commissions more visible and profitable than his low-profile, low-budget projects. More gallingly, during that decade he lost several major museum commissions for which he was eminently qualified, having designed a number of superb museum installations from the mid-1960s onward. Furthermore, he possesses as good an understanding of contemporary art as many curators and has been a more prescient collector than most museum donors. He was considered for three prestigious projects in his home state: the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) and the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He received none of these commissions, which went respectively to Arata Isozaki, Richard Meier, and Mario Botta, each with deeply disappointing results. The insecure boards of directors of those museums, fearful of seeming unsophisticated if they picked a Californian, passed over the genius in their own backyard and thereby missed the architectural opportunity of a lifetime that was to be realized so stunningly at Bilbao. This was provincialism at its worst.

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