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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.

In 1981 Gehry was actually asked to submit to a sham audition by a MoCA trustee who told him, as Gehry reports in the Forster dialogue, “We’re probably going to give it to Isozaki, but we need to interview a Los Angeles architect…. You won’t get the job, it’s just to make it look good.” Even more amazingly, the architect agreed to appear, perhaps thinking he still had a chance. As a consolation prize, he was asked soon afterward to remodel two downtown Los Angeles warehouses into the Temporary Contemporary of 1982-1983, intended as MoCA’s interim display space during the construction of the permanent building, but retained after Gehry’s exhilaratingly gritty space became more of a critical and popular success than Isozaki’s constricted and mannered scheme.

In attempting to win the MoCA project, Gehry had counted on the backing of the Los Angeles artists he had long courted and who were consulted about the commission. Earlier in his career they had tolerated his presence in their studios, but they came to value him as his reputation grew. Ultimately they felt he dropped them for bigger New York fish like Oldenburg, Richard Serra (he has collaborated with both), and Frank Stella (who has himself conceived structures in the late Gehry mode). However, in his interview with Forster, the architect tells how he felt betrayed by the LA contingent:

…I found out that the artists had dumped me. [Robert] Irwin, [Tony] Berlant, [Ed] Moses, [Robert] Graham, Alexis Smith, the people I had considered to be friends for many years. I was very hurt. I found out later, because somebody weaseled. There is always a weasel. Someone called and said, “Frank, we’ve been to the meeting, and guess what they said about you?”

…The reason was that, as long as I was the architect hanging out with the artists, I knew my place. They knew I was talented, and they supported me. But as soon as they realized that I had ambitions, that I wasn’t just a wallflower and I was going for it in my own way, it freaked them out a little.

2.

Today it is a common misperception that Gehry practiced for the better part of two decades before demonstrating any discernible artistic inclinations. To make his dramatic mid-career transformation seem all the more astounding, there has been a recent tendency to present his oeuvre up to 1977-1978—the years of his pivotal scheme, his house for himself in Santa Monica—as little more than competent hack work. In Gehry Talks, Sorkin characterizes the architect’s early work as “acceptable corporate design, always decent, never especially innovative…. Search as one does for hints of things to come, there’s little to recommend itself as the harbinger of genius.” But as is amply demonstrated by Francesco Dal Co and Kurt W. Forster’s large and impressive compendium, Frank O. Gehry: The Complete Works, the quality of the architect’s little-known early output (illus-trated there more fully than ever before) was high indeed and is filled with clues about his future direction.

To be sure, Gehry, like most other young architects, did his share of forgettable commercial and residential construction. But he was fortunate to receive several large commissions from James Rouse, the most enlightened American developer of the 1960s and 1970s, for whom the architect designed a corporate headquarters and several other structures in the planned community of Columbia, Maryland. From Rouse, Gehry learned about organizing large-scale projects, office management, and other practical concerns that have served him well in establishing his bona fides as a reliable practitioner, even when his wildly imaginative proposals might indicate the opposite to apprehensive clients. For all his ambitions, he also prides himself on running an efficient firm, which cannot be said of some of his fellow artist-architects.

Early indication of Gehry’s artistic interests can be found in two related schemes begun in 1968, one for a hay barn in San Juan Capistrano (see illustration on page 13), the other for a studio and residence in Malibu commissioned by the artist Ron Davis. Working with the galvanized corrugated steel and plywood that were to become two of his favorite building materials, he engaged in sophisticated play with perspective in those extremely low-budget jobs. (The hay barn cost $2,500.) He took his original idea for the angular, slant-roofed farm shed and expanded on it for Davis’s project after discussions with him about geometry and the nature of visual perception, themes Davis explored in his own work. By skewing the rooflines and wall heights of the various elevations of those simplified structures, Gehry was able to create the illusion that the buildings were being viewed in a deepening perspective even when one was standing in front of them, as Rosemarie Haag Bletter pointed out.1 At a time when mainstream American architects thought that new kinds of mirror glass marked the outer limits of formal investigation, Gehry’s physically modest but daring conceptions marked a radical departure from the accepted norms of practice and opened up to him uncharted territory.

Gehry’s major artistic turning point is generally agreed to have been his own house of 1977-1978 in Santa Monica, a remodeling of a 1920s gambrel-roofed bungalow on a quiet residential street (where he raised two of his four children and still lives with his second wife, Berta, having renovated and expanded the structure in 1991-1994). Wrapping the ground floor of the existing pink-shingled façade in an angular palisade of corrugated steel and screening the upper story with chain-link fencing, he inserted two crystalline, wood-framed window-skylight forms, one of them a rotated cube that adds to the Caligari-like sense of Expressionist distortion. As Gehry later explained in language quite unlike that of his matter-of-fact co-professionals, “I fantasized that when I closed in the box (the old house) there were ghosts in the house that would try to creep out, and this window was a cubist ghost.” Neighbors of course were outraged, though Gehry responded that his new industrial vocabulary was no different from that of the boats and campers they kept parked next to their houses, a response akin to Venturi and Scott Brown’s ready embrace of the roadside vernacular scene.

Inside his house, Gehry stripped away plaster wall and ceiling surfaces to lay bare the wooden laths, beams, and joists beneath; he paved the floor of the new kitchen in the metal-and-glass addition with asphalt, and in places left ductwork and pipes exposed. As Forster writes in The Complete Works, that act of creation-through-demolition had a direct counterpart in the contemporary American art world, one which few Gehry commentators mentioned before:

Only a few years earlier, the artist Gordon Matta-Clark, who died while Gehry was finishing his house, had exhibited wall segments he had cut from a condemned house in a New York gallery. Notwithstanding the violence that had brought them into being, Matta-Clark’s segments made for unwittingly pretty parts.

The Los Angeles-based architect Charles Moore, whose historically nostalgic architecture was the antithesis of Gehry’s, nonetheless had a similar response to his colleague’s ostensibly mangled house, writing that

…for all its astonishing differences with what’s around it, [it is] a cheerful and pleasant addition to a cheerful and pleasant neighborhood…. It has that same kind of “Maybe it seems naive but you know it isn’t” apparent ingenuousness that makes houses built out of bottle glass or broken plates or other unusual materials become monuments that people travel halfway around the world to see.2

There is a vast difference between Gehry’s sensuous and engaging manipulations of space and the obscure and disorienting gamesmanship of his no less artistically aspiring colleague Peter Eisenman. As Gehry put that distinction to Forster (whose greatest enthusiasm in contemporary architecture before Gehry had been Eisenman):

I don’t have the need like he does to torture them when they use the building. In the Wexner Center [in Columbus, Ohio], for example, Eisenman made it so that people who worked there would have to look down a certain way to see the view. I mean, I wouldn’t think to do that. I’m more user-friendly.

Another major factor in Gehry’s widening appeal during the past decade is his increasing use of fine materials. What he referred to in a Columbia University lecture last spring as “my old chain-link fetish from years ago” undoubtedly scared off a number of potential clients. He has long explained that his original intention was to demonstrate that no building product is inherently disreputable and that its value derives from how creatively it can be used. But as the Pop architects Venturi, Scott Brown, and Moore discovered in the 1960s and 1970s when they variously incorporated neon lighting in a church, a faculty club, and a civic plaza, the public’s negative reactions to such commercial features cannot be easily overcome. Gehry moved to more expensive materials in designing his Winton guest house of 1982- 1987 in Wayzata, Minnesota, in which he used stone, brick, and lead-coated copper (albeit in combination with his familiar plywood, sheet metal, and chicken-wire glass). This was a response to the nearby brick house (by Philip Johnson) of his fastidious and well-to-do art-collecting clients, and the requirements of the harsh climate. Gehry’s increasingly international practice further prompted the shift to more durable materials, which simply would not last as long in Northern Europe as they have in Southern California.

3.

Gehry’s ability to please the public and make places that feel good even though they look strange is central to his success at Bilbao. J. Carter Brown likened entering the museum’s 150-foot-high atrium to “throwing your cap in the air,” and that simile nicely approximates the almost palpable sense of propulsion the visitor feels as he walks into and moves through the ebullient structure, one of the boldest reconceptions of architectural space since the Age of Baroque.

All architecture, classical or not, must have some sense of order, and order is much harder to achieve without the straight lines and right angles that have dominated the building art from time immemorial. The voluptuous outburst of Bilbao is an amazing feat in large part because it seems so orderly even as it overturns conventional notions of regularity, and seems so well-considered. Like his artist friends, Gehry simply eyeballs his designs, adjusting them intuitively, and has come up with a persuasive new conception for his convention-bound colleagues to follow. Bilbao hints at far greater possibilities than it embodies, making it a work of enormous artistic optimism.

When a museum building is an exceptional work of architecture, there is a tendency to overlook its limitations in the presentation of art, epitomized by Wright’s Guggenheim (which shows off some things brilliantly and others poorly). In a characteristically impudent remark about Gehry’s masterwork, Philip Johnson said, “If the architecture is as good as in Bilbao, fuck the art!” (misquoted in Gehry: Forster with the last word in the plural); but such disclaimers are not needed.

In fact, artworks of many differ-ent kinds can be accommodated by Gehry’s design in Bilbao. A recent exhibition combining old-master drawings from the Albertina with modern drawings from the Guggenheim collection was effectively displayed in Bilbao’s smaller, rectangular galleries, while panoramic 1960s Pop paintings were well shown in the larger right-angled rooms, though with less eye-catching works those boxy galleries can look dreary. (Some leftover spaces, such as that for the museum restaurant, are quite awkward.) At the same time, the museum’s most idiosyncratic space—a 450-foot-long, 50-foot-high volume shaped like a fish and nicknamed the Fish Gallery—was dominated by a stupendous mounting of Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses, a series of eight rusting-steel sculptures, some thirty feet high, which joined a permanent Serra installation piece, Snake. The main shortcoming of that cavernous, undivided enclosure is that it can make even very large works seem puny, as it did with the inaugural survey, which included Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s sculpture Swiss Army Knife, whose hugely inflated scale, its primary attribute, was cut down to size by the architecture. There was no such problem with the monumental Serras, however, and it is doubtful that either those curvaceous sculptures or Gehry’s sympathetically contoured architecture will ever experience a more energizing pairing.

The fish is a leitmotif Gehry has employed in several earlier works, from a series of handmade plastic-laminate lamps to a seafood restaurant in Kobe to an enormous sculpture for a hotel in Barcelona. As the architect has often recalled, the ichthymorphic theme harks back to childhood memories of his grandmother keeping a live carp in her bathtub with which to make ge-filte fish for the Sabbath meal. Several possible interpretations have been offered for Gehry’s piscine fixation, from an analog for the movement and animation he seeks to bring to his static medium to the sexual connotations of the fish as symbol of the life force. Emblem of vitality though the fish may be, Sorkin is right to suggest another interpretation:

Looking back at that Proustian carp alive in the tub, one reads not just animation but imprisonment, circumscribed desire: fish gotta swim, after all, and in the tub they don’t get far.

Gehry has freed that fish—a metaphor for his own long-constrained creativity—so fully with the Guggenheim Bilbao that it is natural for him to have given that form its most spectacular expression there.

The Guggenheim Bilbao is not a mere architectural cult object but a wildly popular tourist attraction that cuts across divisions of age, class, education, and nationality. On a weekend last spring, busloads of Spanish pensioners mixed with multigenerational Bilbao families, French schoolchildren, German tour groups, American art collectors, and pairs of young Japanese women. Tourism in Bilbao has increased fivefold to 500,000 per year since the museum opened. It has been estimated that almost 80 percent of all visitors to the city now come expressly to see Gehry’s Guggenheim, and a year after the completion of the $100 million structure more than twice that amount had been returned to the local economy by pilgrims to the museum.

The Guggenheim is not a one-shot bid at civic celebrity but was conceived as the centerpiece of a citywide improvement campaign. For the better part of a decade Bilbao has been in the midst of an extensive public works program that has thus far included a rapid transit system by Norman Foster and a bridge by Santiago Calatrava, and there are forthcoming projects including a new airport terminal by Calatrava, a riverfront promenade and master plan for the business district by Cesar Pelli, a transportation hub by Michael Wilford, and a concert hall by a local Bilbao firm, chosen to mollify Basque critics of the all-star international roster. Like Barcelona, the longtime center of modern Spanish architecture, Bilbao has come to understand the value of adventurous and well-constructed buildings.

Not all Basques were initially enthralled with the Guggenheim, however. Among its most outspoken early opponents was Joseba Zulaika, who teaches in the Basque Studies Program of the University of Nevada at Reno. His 1997 book Chronicle of a Seduction: The Guggenheim Bilbao3 was critical of the impact he said the museum would have on the cultural life of the city and region. In a magazine article distilling his argument, Zulaika wrote that the actual cost of the project—almost none of which is being borne by the Guggenheim itself—far exceeds the officially reported $100 million cost of the building paid for by the Basque government itself:

The Guggenheim operation will cost the Basques 36 billion pesetas ($250 million at the present exchange rate; when the deal was signed in 1992, it amounted to $360 million) by 2000….

The museum will require a public subsidy of $7 million to $14 million per year. To give you an idea of what these numbers mean to Basques, the annual research budget for the Public Basque University’s 3,500 professors and 60,000 students is $15 million….

One might wonder how a museum that is going to generate indefinitely an annual deficit of about $10 million is going to revive an economy….

The unmentioned possibility, the one that has Basque officials really worried, is that the miraculous building might become a millstone hanging from the neck of Basque society, whose economy and culture might be overwhelmed by the museum’s great weight.4

Zulaika reported immediate cutbacks in government funding of other cultural programs to pay for the museum scheme: two weeks after the agreement with the Guggenheim was signed, the director of a Basque bibliography project, begun some forty years earlier at Columbia University, was informed that a $100,000 annual subsidy would end. Two years later, however, Zulaika has a far different attitude. As he told me:

When we look forward to what history will say of this, the fact is that it was a great thing for Bilbao. Those of us who were critical of it didn’t foresee that one building could do this much for a city and never suspected that Gehry’s building would be such a stunner. The politicians really hit the jackpot with Gehry. In actual economic terms, I don’t believe their numbers. But in terms of psychology, it is doing wonders for Bilbao. What they paid for it now looks like peanuts. The great thing about the Guggenheim is that it’s allowed Bilbao the discourse of optimism—“we can do it again.”

4.

Gehry’s best prospect for making another impression comparable to that of his work in Bilbao is his Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, a project begun in 1989 and only now about to start construction. Though he has had his share of disappoint-ments throughout his career, the near-abandonment at an extremely late phase of this auditorium for the Los Angeles Philharmonic was unlike anything he had faced before. As Friedman writes, the problem lay with a standard division of labor in American architectural practice. Many small and mid-sized firms engage outside executive architects to prepare the construction documents from which estimates are made. For a structure as complex and audacious as Disney Hall—a cluster of undulating, flaring forms originally to be clad in limestone, but now planned to be sheathed in stainless steel—the baffled executive architect gave a cost estimate so high that the donor balked; the scheme was shelved, and Gehry was stigmatized in his home town as an impractical experimenter. It took what Eisenman has called the Bilbao Effect to shame Los Angeles civic and cultural leaders into reviving the dormant commission, by which time Gehry was armed with a powerful new technological aid to prevent another such debacle.

Using modern building materials for the fancifully distorted shapes that fascinate Gehry has become his greatest challenge. Though Antoni Gaudí produced detailed drawings for his irregular Art Nouveau structures at the turn of the century, he made experimental models that he would photograph and then trace over to create the drawings. Furthermore, he worked with traditional materials—brick, stone, and tile—central to the Catalan crafts tradition and with forms achievable through skilled but cheap labor, making it possible for him to rework ideas during construction. The unheard-of things Gehry proposes, and the materials he wants to do them with, are of another order. To construct the 160-foot-long, 100-foot-high stone, glass, and steel fish sculpture for the Vila Olimpica of 1989-1992 in Barcelona, Gehry’s office began working with Catia, a computer program devised by the French firm Dassault Systèmes for designing complex shapes for the aerospace industry. It opened the way for making the building at Bilbao possible and saved the day for the concert hall in LA.

Gehry has no interest in using the computer for design, preferring his long-accustomed method of first sketching an idea and then moving on to an extensive series of developmental models, which often begin informally with a sheet of crumpled paper or some found object. But the Catia software made it easy to scan free-form models and translate them into highly accurate working drawings. As Friedman writes:

Most schools teach and most architects use visualization or rendering computer programs. But because [Gehry’s partner and the firm’s chief computer specialist] Jim Glymph wants to use the computer to get buildings built, there were no graphic rendering programs in the Gehry office for a long time. No pretty pictures. He wants a direct link to the craftsmen who are building the buildings. He explains, “It’s the old image of the architect as master builder.” Control is back where it belongs, he believes, in the hands of the architect from beginning to end.

More specifically, as Gehry himself said in his recent Columbia lecture, “This computer technology design is a miracle for all of us, because it reclaims our position as the parent over the contractor, to get them to build what we want.” This may sound like the position of yet another architectural control freak, yet Gehry has always been noteworthy for his willingness to allow the possibility of alternate outcomes to a design problem. “There’s not one way of doing things,” he remarked in that same talk, “and that’s really interesting to me.” Nonetheless, he has long been wary of having any other medium—whether drawing, photography, or computer imaging—compromise the immediacy of the final artifact; and thus he regards everything up to the finished building itself with a healthy skepticism, as something much less than the real thing.

Today, in the aftermath of Gehry’s masterstroke, the world of architecture is transfixed by the Bilbao Effect, the desire of clients to have their own projects win immediate international acclaim. There is no question that several radical schemes were recently made possible by that phenomenon. The architect Zaha Hadid lately won the commission to design a new contemporary arts center for Cincinnati, and Daniel Libeskind’s plan for an addition to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London was reactivated after a long delay. Both were a clear indication that the clients were taken with Gehry’s example and wanted another Bilbao. Critical and popular consensus on the order of Bilbao is almost never achievable in these pluralist times (to say nothing of high quality being rare in any period), but that seems to be no excuse to unrealistically demanding patrons. Gehry himself is under particular pressure to carry off a similar coup in every one of his subsequent projects.

The danger for Gehry is that the silvery-skinned, billowing forms he perfected for Bilbao will become so identified with it that anything else in his turbulent-titanium idiom will seem like an afterthought. Thomas R. Krens, the controversial director of the Guggenheim Museum whose image as a sharp operator Gehry’s success did much to enhance, is himself seeking to re-create the Bilbao Effect by having the architect design a new downtown branch in New York. Some of the smaller schemes Gehry now has in the works—including an addition to the Beaux-Arts Corcoran Gallery in Washington and the Schmidt Museum of Coca-Cola Memorabilia in Elizabethtown, Kentucky—are unlikely to eclipse the Bilbao museum in the public imagination, much less in critical opinion. However, one especially appropriate pairing of subject matter and architect is Gehry’s projected Mississippi museum for the ceramics of George Ohr, the turn-of-the-century “Mad Potter of Biloxi” whose extravagantly distorted, weirdly pleasing forms now look as if they could have inspired Gehry. Whatever turn his work may take, it is likely that Gehry will continue to draw on the work of such like-minded fellow artists, living or dead.

Letters

Not Basque November 18, 1999

  1. 1

    Rosemarie Haag Bletter, “Frank Gehry’s Spatial Reconstructions,” in Bletter et al., The Architecture of Frank Gehry (Walker Art Center/Rizzoli, 1986), pp. 25-47.

  2. 2

    Charles Moore, Peter Becker, and Regula Campbell, The City Observed: Los Angeles (Vintage, 1984), p. 162.

  3. 3

    Crónica de una seducción: el Museo Guggenheim, Bilbao (Madrid: Nerea, 1997).

  4. 4

    Joseba Zulaika, “The Seduction of Bilbao,” Architecture, December 1997, pp. 60-63.

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