Frank O. Gehry's Peter B. Lewis Building

October 26, 2014

 

People talk about the architectural gesture, but Frank Gehry has hit a new level of directness with the middle finger he displayed in a recent press conference, which is ricocheting through the internet at great speed.  It’s high grade click bait, not least because it has the easy capacity to polarize. Gehry is either a hero or a jackass, and there seems little room for middle ground. In fact, that’s exactly where a realistic assessment lies. 

 

You have to start with the white people problems end of this, because no one with Gehry’s level of power, money, fame, and comfort really needs to be flipping people off in response to public comments, even if the remarks are ill-considered and distasteful. 

 

And Gehry has a tendency to draw plenty of ill-considered and distasteful comments. But the question arises as to whether he is a true talent or a shallow impresario. I can and will make the argument that he is a sophisticated practitioner and a real artist. Alas, many things he has done have been spectacles whether he wanted them to be or not. 

 

You could start with his house in Santa Monica. The early twentieth century bungalow became something that he cut into and re-articualted with oddly shaped wooden frames here and cyclone fencing there. He wanted to reshape considerations about architecture intellectually at precisely the sorts of odd angles that he was cutting into and adding onto his otherwise cozy and traditional house. Gehry was always a practitioner rather than a theorist, but the ambitiously confrontational nature of his work made him fit very easily (at least in the minds of some observers) within a group of avant-garde practitioners of the 1970s and 80s. Call it Deconstruction, and watch the academic debates ensue. 

 

Notably, Gehry practiced for years without making much money. He was known within the profession for his compelling works of those early years. But part of his appeal was his interest in modest materials and humble circumstances. He was reputed but not rewarded. I can still remember a news item in the early 1990s that talked about how Gehry had finally completed enough well-paying commissions (a psychiatric medicine facility at Yale, a lively guest house in Minnesota) that he was buying a new car–a Honda CRX. Woohoo. He paid his dues in architecture. 

 

Yet, it seems as though the global definition by which we know Gehry is the Guggenheim Bilbao. Finished in the 1990s, it was indeed spectacular, so successfully so that it lent its name to the phenomenon of spectacular architecture–the Bilbao effect. The Bilbao effect is supposed to refer to how a piece of great architecture can revive a town. Associated with it seems to be the propensity for people to make shallow arguments about dramatic architecture. Or dramatic arguments about shallow architecture. 

 

Regardless, Gehry has hardly turned back since then. The gleaming waves of metal clad architecture seem somewhere between a three dimensional version of abstract expressionism and perhaps flames made architectural. Gehry, for good or ill, has a signature style. He is in high demand as an architect, and he epitomizes the term starchitect. 

 

Within this context, controversies abound. His visually remarkable building at MIT has been the subject of a major lawsuit. His Disney Concert Hall, with its curving metal surfaces, suffers from the seemingly easily anticipated problem of focusing fame-inducing rays of intense sunlight on nearby structures.

How could good architecture have such issues? How could a capable architect find himself in such problems? 

 

One thing for certain is that each difficulty deserves a close investigation of the actual circumstances. The history of architecture is full of circumstances in which the architect is blamed for some failure that is actually the fault of the client or the contractor. This is not to excuse Gehry. They only way to know is to investigate in detail. 

 

In fact, the best case for Gehry comes through the buildings of his which are outstanding. Alas, I have never been to Bilbao, and I haven’t had good enough exposure to the Disney Concert Hall to be comfortable making a substantive critical judgement. 

 

But I have been to Gehry’s Buildings in Ohio, at the University of Cincinnati and Case Western Reserve University. At Case, the building is clad to a large degree in brick, with the signature metal waves fairly erupting from the center of the building.. Instead of forming rectilinear walls, it curves, ineffably. The realization of such an effect in brick as well as metal, a seeming reinvention of the fundamental properties of the material, was remarkable to behold. And the windows curved as well. A new sense of surface. As had been his practice in the genius-with-a- hacksaw approach in Santa Monica, Gehry was reinventing such a fundamental list of constituent elements of architecture that the discipline itself seemed to be wrenching through a revolution. No wonder he seems intoxicated by the process and results. 

 

But here’s something surprising. For all of its physics-defying drama, the Case building seemed in other ways to be perfect architecture as we had always known it. Somehow, it worked. I could find my way around. I could get in and out. And the interior experience was similarly enchanting. You could still see the structure. It wasn’t a house of horrors that defied expectations. Some of the material properties were changed remarkably. But those changes meant that some of the resonant and timeless questions for architecture, of structure and space and organization, were resolved with new certainty–really the best of both worlds. 

 

Gehry in this building proves to be a true talent of architecture. This little academic building Ohio has proven to be a masterpiece. 

 

What about the buildings where Gehry is acknowledged as a genius? The people whom I trust very often say that Bilbao is indeed a remarkable work, worthy of the reputation. That it works as a museum of dramatic spaces and not just a billboard. 

 

Are some of Gehry’s buildings flawed? Are there projects where, as I am increasingly fond of saying, his talents are spread thin? Where he is not permitted–by budget or zoning or client–to reach his full potential? Certainly. And part of the problem is that no architect can really afford to throw the client under the bus. Maybe someone at Gehry’s current stature can, but few have that luxury. 

 

Gehry has been an architect longer than most architects have been alive. He has made culture changing design out of materials such as chainlink fence, that others were too proud to consider. Likewise, having completed some buildings of astonishing material and programmatic multivalence, he has worked at a level of professional complexity that leads the profession, that a few can match, and that may others simply follow. People forget also that even though he does important work in famously crumpled analog materials, he was an early implementer of computer technology, adapting software from other industries when nothing was available for architects. He led the way in digitizing the discipline fundamentally guiding it toward where it is now. 

 

For someone to say that the work is simply about spectacle while clearly having no idea about  the technological and artistic advancement of what he does? F*** those people!  

 

There are many reasons to take Frank’s side. Yet, it’s still a terrible thing to say or gesture, especially publicly, especially when you are as rich and comfortable as he is. 

 

Because however true the sentiment might be, it does nothing to persuade people of the richness and value of what he does. I think the building at Case Western can do that really well. But his middle finger cannot. 

 

I think of Liberace, a much different pop culture figure than Gehry, but one who similarly received plenty of negative reviews. 

 

"Did you mind them?" an interviewer asked. 

"Oh, I cried," said Liberace. "All the way to the bank."

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