Monday, March 19, 2007

My love/hate relationship with Frank Gehry

Okay, here's the deal. What can you say about a man whose own house looks like this:

Mies van der Rohe, champion of the International Style of architecture, once said, “Less is more.” His predecessor, Phillip Johnson, said, “Less is a bore.” Frank Gehry, post-modern architect and starchitect of the 21st century, said, “Fuck it. Give me another shot of Jager and pass me the mouse.”*

Gehry (born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 1929 and now a naturalized American citizen) likes to do some wild shit. He uses software originally designed for the aerospace industry to design his buildings, which are hard to describe and I bet even harder to draw and still harder to build.

This is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. This disasterpiece really put him on the map as arguably the most forward-thinking designer of our recent history. It got to the point where one in ten visitors to Bilbao was there to see the building—not the art in it, but the building itself. Pollution and traffic has also greatly worsened in Bilbao due to the faithful flocking to see this building, his initial tribute to taking software to the next level.

Here are a few photos of his $400 million lab building he designed (and Bill and Melinda Gates paid for) on the campus of MIT. I snapped several photos of it when Guy and I visited Boston in the fall of 2006.

Usually, an architect describes a building by showing its four main elevations (or exterior sides): north, south, east, and west. Sometimes, they have to also draw elevations that are tucked in or at an angle to these four cardinal directions. Now, the thing about a Gehry building is that you cannot easily describe it with four, or even eight exterior elevations. You have to draw about twenty elevations, and you can only view them by taking a hit of acid and listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon while using the drawing set as a flip book.

What disturbs me about Gehry is what disturbs me about most starchitects these days: I really think he’s weird for weird’s sake. The swooping, bizarre, curvilinear forms that really took everyone’s breath away in Bilbao are now a motif, a logo, a signature. But not a signature on a finely handcrafted piece of art, but a signature on a receipt from the grocery store. It’s the same set of swoops and loops and points and squiggles that you can look at and go, “Oh, yeah, that’s Frank’s. Throw it in the trash can; looks like he already crumpled it up for you.” He uses the software because he can, cuz it’s there, and sometimes that’s just not a good enough reason anymore.

I find his buildings ignorant of place and climate. In an earlier comment post, frequent commenter Faded noted that the titanium panels on one of his buildings had to be sanded because they were shining sunlight into an office building, thereby blinding its occupants and rendering part of their building unusable. I find his buildings derivative of his Bilbao disasterpiece, like he just copies and pastes chunks of those drawings into all his other drawings.


I also have to give Gehry credit for taking a leap of faith and courage and using really advanced software. Our office is still bitching back and forth about going from AutoCAD/ADT to Revit, and for the love of Sheena Easton, we still have some people in our office using lines instead of wall objects. So I have to at least respect him for being willing to experiment and learn how to use new software. And along those same lines, Gehry uses his software fully to help the contractor build his building, which I know contractors appreciate.

I also have to hand it to Gehry: he knows his reputation and isn’t afraid to make fun of himself. In an episode of The Simpsons, Marge sends him a letter asking him to design the new Springfield Concert Hall. He dismisses the idea, crumples the letter, and throws it on the ground. He then looks down at the crumpled form and gasps, “Frank Gehry, you’re a genius!” and builds the Springfield Concert Hall to look exactly like Marge’s crumpled letter. Several other jokes about his architecture and persona were made in the episode, and he even did his own voice for the show. More recently, he designed the trophy for the World Cup of Hockey, which was revealed to pretty startled and lukewarm reviews to the press. During the awkward silence that followed the unveiling, Gehry said, “I can tell you don’t like it,” and chuckled. (He offered to redesign it, but the World Cup of Hockey powers-that-be passed, if I recall.)

Furthermore, he’s conscious of pop culture and has made attempts to make it a little better. He designed a digital watch that reads time in the way that you say it aloud. So when the time is 1:50, the watch face reads “10 til 2”. He also designed jewelry for Tiffany, which makes me happy cuz the Tiffany website and the Godiva website are like porn to me. Now, if he’d design a dark chocolate Walt Disney Performance Hall, I’d forgive him all his trespasses.

So, I hate Gehry because he’s overly-artsy and contrived of late, but I also like his humility. Overall, I can’t really complain too much. When I was growing up, I’d tell people that I wanted to be an architect, and they’d all say the same thing: “Oh, you’re gonna be a little Frank Lloyd Wright!” God, I hope not, I’d think. Wright was a philandering snob who thought he was God and died broke. But when architects become part of everyday culture, as Gehry has done, he increases the public’s ability to understand and even critique architecture. And that, after all, is not a bad thing.

*I don't actually know that Gehry drinks heavy when he designs. I'm just saying....


BaxterWatch said...

OK. Huh.

"for the love of Sheena Easton..."


I was going to say his MIT lab looked like buildings on acid, but you beat me to the acid reference.

But - you have to admire people who can make fun of themselves. Especially those people who have achived the level of fame he has. That's cool.

But you're right. I think he does it now because its expected of him, not because he's being all 'cutting edge.'

It would interesting to challenge him to do a building with only right angles. Wonder what it would look like.

p.s. - No tick searchign this weekend. Its been a long time. Remember where I live? The boys here have their own tick spray to go with their camo and deer stand. They would be more than happy to share. oh goodie.

Miss Kitty said...

"Frank Gehry, you're brilliant!"

I have to hand it to anyone who has the balls to build something that looks as if he took a looooong toke on a doobie before drawing it.

faded said...

A small side note. The builidng that Bill Gates bought and paid for does not have any computers running Windows in it. I am told the entire facility runs Linux.

My bias in all this makes wonder, how do you maintain a building like this? All those odd shapes will leak at some time. There is a reason (rain, sleet, snow, wind) why things get shaped certain ways.

Ketty said...

As far as modern Architecture concern ,one Museum that is quite certainly more spectacular than the artwork inside is the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Spain. it's exhibits are modern and contemporary, there architectural design is very fascinating.

Anonymous said...

miss kitty, I've been to the Walt Disney Concert hall and have written a case study on it, and as ironic as it is, the building controls and respects the technical and functional aspects of architecture as well as it expresses the "FrankO" signature. The interior (although not congruent to the exterior) still provides a sense of organization and a more 'controlled chaos'.

Whether the building's skin is irrelevant of the interior space or not, is a topic all in itself. Then you must bring other starchitects into the boxing ring ie) Renzo Piano and Jean Nouvel