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So Long Frank O. Gehry?

by Gavin Keeney

While in Los Angeles, in 1998, Frank Gehry’s architecture was required viewing. The Gehry tour included: 1/ The Chiat-Day thing (1991), with its gigantic Claes Oldenburg binoculars marking the entrance to the parking garage; 2/ Rebecca’s (1985), the Venice club-restaurant that resembles nothing less than the underside of the Santa Monica Pier; 3/ The nameless parking garage in downtown Santa Monica swaddled in chain link; 4/ Gehry’s residence (lost somewhere in the vacuous grid of greater Los Angeles); and 5/ Edgemar (1989), a curious pile of forms topped by an open-air box fashioned from Cor-Ten steel I-beams, this latter item perhaps signifying the bleak prospects of the mini-mall syndrome of which it is part and parcel despite its self-conscious ‘edginess’. At this time Edgemar contained: 1/ A restaurant; 2/ An architectural bookstore; 3/ An ice cream parlour; 4/ An exhibition hall; 5/ A gift shop; 6/ A beauty salon; 7/ Some other forgettable stuff; 8/ An upper echelon of tiny offices for aspiring media companies; and 9/ A cavernous sub-grade parking garage. In-between all of this was a rather non-descript concrete plaza with a few tables, chairs, umbrellas, and a ramp beloved by skateboarding teenagers.

Gehry’s studio, a notorious redoubt for aspiring young architects (many from the chic Southern California Institute of Architecture), is also in Santa Monica. The studio’s equally renowned model shop, where Gehry’s preliminary crumpled-paper forms are worked up into a somewhat more presentable product, was, in 1998, considered a kind of ‘Siberia’ for interns–one could disappear into that wilderness and never be heard from again. For non-rising (frustrated) interns there was a weekly, Gehry-free session at the Chateau Marmont bar at 8221 Sunset Boulevard, where, no doubt, the latest rumors from Siberia were aired. Or, tired of all that, perhaps the conversation drifted to the re-telling of tales about celebrity architect Richard Meier’s sexcapades in the construction trailer high above Los Angeles, where he lolled like a movie star on location, throughout the 1990s, as bulldozers destroyed the chaparall-covered hilltop in Brentwood where the new Getty Center was under construction. As the Getty ploughed ahead, approaching a one billion dollar price tag, Gehry’s own Disney Concert Hall (designed between 1988-1991) was ostensibly, intractably stalled for lack of cash–something current Gehry projects consume mountains of. Sometime in the late 90s, however, a benefactor finally stepped forth and downtown L.A. will soon inaugurate yet another wild bit of stand-alone architecture. This one will be set on a giant podium (concealing yet another parking garage) and surrounded by a garden. Gehry decided, late in the game, that the foliage of the plants would look terrific reflected in the Bilbaoesque metal-clad facade. Given the episodic nature of L.A. architecture, this newest bit will at least feign a user-friendly ambience unlike Arata Isozaki’s Museum of Contemporary Art (1986), with its anti-urban anxiety, its throw-away Marilyn Monroe curve, and its sterile and foreboding plaza with surveillance cameras.

It was Gehry’s now bankrupted and sold American Center in Paris (1994), the lithesome Fred and Ginger Building (1996) in Prague (with Vlado Milunic), and the extravagant Bilbao Guggenheim (1997) that put the Canadian-born, L.A. architect on the map–not these homegrown confections. His reputation is now ‘sealed’, as it were, like a grand jury indictment. Gehry is now architecte du jour for new museums and left-leaning civic structures worldwide. Once called “the most psychoanalyzed architect in the world”, Gehry can now afford the very best psychoanalysis in the world–something quite necessary should he suffer the same inversion of reputation now eating away at the fortunes of the other big star architect of the 1990s, Rotterdam-based architect Rem Koolhaas.

Gehry broke free of the regional stranglehold of L.A. architecture with the completion of the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, in 1987. Two years later he won the coveted Pritzker Prize, the equivalent in architecture of a Nobel Peace Prize. (Vitra is actually an ensemble of buildings, strewn across post-agricultural landscape, and includes Zaha Hadid’s iconic, bright-red Fire Station.) The collision of angular and curvilinear tectonic forms of the Gehry portions was striking, then, and architecture critic Martin Filler ably noted that Gehry was, in fact, triangulating with two other legendary expressionist structures in the hinterlands where Germany, France, and Switzerland meet. According to Filler, Gehry’s Vitra pays homage to Le Corbusier’s Notre-Dame-du-Haut (1955), at Ronchamp, in the French Jura, and Rudolf Steiner’s Second Goetheanum (1920s), near Basel. The neo-expressionist label has followed Gehry ever since, even if his buildings are perhaps more properly neo-surrealist pace André Breton’s diktat that Surrealism gives “free rein” to fantasy. As such, one must ask, after neo-Marxist critic Manfredo Tafuri, if these buildings are not actually “emblems of an intellectual bad conscience” (Architecture & Utopia). Perhaps this will be the first line of inquiry when Gehry hits the analyst’s couch in the near future; that is, if he is not already the most famous architect-analysand in the world.

Curiously, Gehry was first branded a deconstructivist architect in the 1980s. As deconstructivism is a particularly virulent strain of post-modernist architecture based on formalist language games, Gehry denied the association. Of the two dominant streams of architectural post-modernism–1/ The semiologically bastardized version promulgated by British critic Charles Jencks and 2/ The all-enquiring deconstructivist type derived from French post-structuralism and represented by architects such as Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi, and Daniel Libeskind–Gehry’s middle work mostly resembled the latter though it never quite fit the pigeon hole.

Over-exposure, not to mention under-exposure, is the artist-architect’s worst best friend … Ubiquity breeds contempt (if not envy and/or ennui). Repeating one’s self ad nauseum, or recycling one’s triumphs, is a sign of impending bad weather. Gehry’s new Manhattan Guggenheim, proposed for a site at the edge of the lower East River, is, fortunately, hopelessly stalled (as was the Disney Concert Hall?) pending the outcome of the twin financial misfortunes of New York City and the cash-strapped Guggenheim Empire (grossly over-leveraged by ‘CEO’ Thomas Krens).

Neither of these problems is irreversible, however, given the recent resurgence of noblesse oblige amongst the rich and chattering classes–the same that loved the Bilbao Guggenheim. Perhaps the Guggenheim elite will cut a deal with the City and push the new museum across New York Harbor to Governors Island, a prestigious, unclaimed bit of New York real estate and former Coast Guard station. The future of the island, an as-yet-unresolved gift to New York from the Clinton Administration, was batted about by the Giuliani Administration without ever coming to closure. Now that Giuliani is ‘history’, and his scheme for casinos and other “public-private” development on Governors Island has been universally panned, a “cultural campus” of one sort or another is the preferred option. Unfortunately, for both the Guggenheim and Frank Gehry, a titanium-clad, neo-surrealist museum would clash terribly with the colonial and neo-colonial architecture of the island.

That said, one cannot help but point out Gehry’s recent, albeit minor contribution to Condé Nast’s image problems … I recently went to the Condé Nast HQ on Times Square, for lunch, with an editor of House & Garden. The main course was the Frank Gehry designed cafeteria (2000)–a bizarre ‘salad’ made out of leftover bits from Bilbao. (Entrée to this luscious enclave is strictly by invitation.)

The building is billed as “green” architecture, a term denoting environmentally-friendly building technologies. It’s greater bulk is by Fox & Fowle, a New York architecture firm of little distinction. The cafeteria was swarming with twenty-somethings (interns?) and swirly-twirly, signature Gehry forms. Along one edge of the careful clutter of tables and banquettes, tucked here and there into a rather small amount of space, Gehry inserted an impressive wave wall of reflective material that resembles a funhouse mirror. The editor told me that they invited a Feng Shui expert to see the new building after it was built, ass backwards, so to speak. (Expect most Condé Nast publications to continue to hemorrhage money.)

It seems everything is wrong, not the least the NASDAQ electronic billboard on the west-facing, black rotunda at the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway. This particular piece of nonsense wraps the Times Square side with flashing electronic images. One upper suite within this section also happens to be the graphic art department for Condé Nast publications (Vogue, House & Garden, Architectural Digest, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, etc., etc.). Gratuitous imagery, indeed! The BID (Business Improvement District) that runs the newly renovated and sanitized Times Square has decided that high-voltage signage is what people (i.e., tourists) wish to see as they wander aimlessly up and down Broadway.

The absurd expense of this garbage, the mega-wattage required to light up the acres of billboards, is highly questionable. Gehry’s contribution to this bad joke is admittedly minimal, and private, toxic metal tidbits notwithstanding, but it is prototypical of current architectural jouissance, that so-called “free rein of fantasy” again, but, hey!, in this case it’s New York, New York–the place so self-important ‘they’ named it twice.

Gavin Keeney is a landscape architect in New York. He edits the web “anti journal” Serious Real. He can be reached at: ateliermp@netscape.net

OUTTAKES

Gehry, Not @ The Guggenheim–A “review” of the 2000 Gehry retrospective at Frank Lloyd Wright’s New York Guggenheim
Gehry projects on the Guggenheim Web site–Leftover stuff from the exhibition

Vitruvio–Swiss site for architecture, including links to Gehry memorabilia.

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