Paris: Centre Pompidou, 256 pp., €42.00 (to be published in the US by Prestel in February 2015)
Frank Gehry: The Fondation Louis Vuitton
Fondation Louis Vuitton/Frank Gehry
Strange as it may seem, Frank Gehry, the volcanic improviser of freeform structures unlike anything seen since the irrational fantasies of German Expressionists a century ago, has attained the stature of those visionaries’ contemporary, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the hyperrational codifier of modern architectural reason. Though Gehry’s precepts are not at all as regularized as Mies’s, Gehry Technologies—the computer-programming offshoot of the Los Angeles–based Gehry Partners—has disseminated the digital means for his coprofessionals to realize irregular structural shapes (colloquially known as blob architecture) of a kind once attainable only through laborious skilled craftsmanship, like that of nonconformist predecessors including Antoní Gaudí. The world today perceives architecture in an entirely different light thanks to Gehry.
His firm’s pioneering application to architecture of the aeronautical computer-design program CATIA en abled the construction of his masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao of 1991–1997 in Spain. The rapturous reception of that building led to the so-called Bilbao Effect, a salubrious influence on that city’s economy that in turn has spurred countless other municipalities to fund avant-garde architectural schemes to attract cultural tourism.
Gehry’s software has since made the creation of eccentric buildings economically feasible for clients of a sort who once would have rejected deviations from the cost-efficient regularity of Mies’s rectilinear modular formula. As a result, Gehry’s transformative contribution to the building art has become an intrinsic part of present-day practice, which makes it easy to take his revolutionary advances for granted, in the same way that Mies’s were by the end of his life.
Recognition of Gehry’s singular place in contemporary architecture was particularly evident in Paris this fall with the conjunction of his new Fondation Louis Vuitton of 2005–2014, which opened in October, and a retrospective of his six-decade career at the Centre Pompidou. This large show, which comprises 255 drawings and sixty-seven models covering sixty projects, traces his rise from a scrappy Los Angeles maverick with artistic hankerings to the most important American architect since Louis Kahn. It’s a thrice-told tale (if one counts the Walker Art Center’s reputation-making 1986 Gehry survey organized by the late Mildred Friedman, who also curated his attendance-record-breaking Guggenheim Museum overview in 2001) but one well worth reiterating given the impact he has had.
Looking back on the self-consciously artful designs Gehry began to produce in the 1970s, after he’d put in twenty years as a commercial architect for development firms such as the socially conscious Rouse Company (which promoted racially integrated communities when that was still rare), what stands out most is an essential and quite touching humility. That quality is present even in such radical proposals as his unexecuted Familian house of 1977–1978, a multiangular design for a Santa Monica site that evokes a veritable avalanche of lumber. But even though that client got cold…
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