FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

So Long Frank O. Gehry?

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.

More articles by:

November 20, 2018
John Davis
Geographies of Violence in Southern California
Anthony Pahnke
Abolishing ICE Means Defunding it
Maximilian Werner
Why (Mostly) Men Trophy Hunt: a Biocultural Explanation
Masturah Alatas
Undercutting Female Circumcision
Jack Rasmus
Global Oil Price Deflation 2018 and Beyond
Geoff Dutton
Why High Technology’s Double-Edged Sword is So Hard to Swallow
Binoy Kampmark
Charges Under Seal: US Prosecutors Get Busy With Julian Assange
Rev. William Alberts
America Fiddles While California Burns
Forrest Hylton, Aaron Tauss and Juan Felipe Duque Agudelo
Remaking the Common Good: the Crisis of Public Higher Education in Colombia
Patrick Cockburn
What Can We Learn From a Headmaster Who Refused to Allow His Students to Celebrate Armistice Day?
Clark T. Scott
Our Most Stalwart Company
Tom H. Hastings
Look to the Right for Corruption
Edward Hunt
With Nearly 400,000 Dead in South Sudan, Will the US Finally Change Its Policy?
Thomas Knapp
Hypocrisy Alert: Republicans Agreed with Ocasio-Cortez Until About One Minute Ago
November 19, 2018
David Rosen
Amazon Deal: New York Taxpayers Fund World Biggest Sex-Toy Retailer
Sheldon Richman
Art of the Smear: the Israel Lobby Busted
Chad Hanson
Why Trump is Wrong About the California Wildfires
Dean Baker
Will Progressives Ever Think About How We Structure Markets, Instead of Accepting them as Given?
Robert Fisk
We Remember the Great War, While Palestinians Live It
Dave Lindorff
Pelosi’s Deceptive Plan: Blocking any Tax Rise Could Rule Out Medicare-for-All and Bolstering Social Security
Rick Baum
What Can We Expect From the Democrat “Alternative” Given Their Record in California?
Thomas Scott Tucker
Trump, World War I and the Lessons of Poetry
John W. Whitehead
Red Flag Gun Laws
Newton Finn
On Earth, as in Heaven: the Utopianism of Edward Bellamy
Robert Fantina
Shithole Countries: Made in the USA
René Voss
Have Your Say about Ranching in Our Point Reyes National Seashore
Weekend Edition
November 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jonah Raskin
A California Jew in a Time of Anti-Semitism
Andrew Levine
Whither the Melting Pot?
Joshua Frank
Climate Change and Wildfires: The New Western Travesty
Nick Pemberton
The Revolution’s Here, Please Excuse Me While I Laugh
T.J. Coles
Israel Cannot Use Violent Self-Defense While Occupying Gaza
Rob Urie
Nuclear Weapons are a Nightmare Made in America
Paul Street
Barack von Obamenburg, Herr Donald, and Big Capitalist Hypocrisy: On How Fascism Happens
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fire is Sweeping Our Very Streets Today
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s New President, Other European Fools and the Abyss 
Pete Dolack
“Winners” in Amazon Sweepstakes Sure to be the Losers
Richard Eskow
Amazon, Go Home! Billions for Working People, But Not One Cent For Tribute
Ramzy Baroud
In Breach of Human Rights, Netanyahu Supports the Death Penalty against Palestinians
Brian Terrell
Ending the War in Yemen- Congressional Resolution is Not Enough!
John Laforge
Woolsey Fire Burns Toxic Santa Susana Reactor Site
Ralph Nader
The War Over Words: Republicans Easily Defeat the Democrats
M. G. Piety
Reading Plato in the Time of the Oligarchs
Rafael Correa
Ecuador’s Soft Coup and Political Persecution
Brian Cloughley
Aid Projects Can Work, But Not “Head-Smacking Stupid Ones”
David Swanson
A Tale of Two Marines
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail