Why all the hoopla?

Hal Foster

  • Frank Gehry: The Art of Architecture edited by Jean-Louis Cohen et al
    Abrams, 500 pp, £55.00, May 2001, ISBN 0 8109 6929 7

For many people, Frank Gehry is not only our master architect but our master artist as well. In the current retrospective which is about to transfer from the Guggenheim in New York to the one in Bilbao, he is often called a genius without a blush of embarrassment (Thomas Krens, Guggenheim director and Gehry ‘collaborator’, can’t get enough of the word). Why all the hoopla? Is this designer of metallic museums and curvy concert halls, luxury houses and flashy corporate headquarters, truly Our Greatest Living Artist?

The notion that he might be points to the new centrality of architecture in cultural discourse, a centrality that goes back to some of the early debates about Post-Modernism in the 1970s. These were focused on architecture and also looked forward to contemporary crossings of art and architecture in installation art, fashion display, museum design and so on. But it’s also the case that to make a big splash in the global pond of spectacle culture today, you have to have a big rock to drop, maybe as big as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and here an architect like Gehry, supported by clients like the Guggenheim and the DG Bank, has an obvious advantage over artists in other media. Such clients are eager for name recognition, or brand equity, in the global marketplace – in part the Guggenheim has become brand equity, which it sells on to corporations and governments. This, too, favours the architect who can deliver a building that will also serve as a logo. (Bilbao uses its Gehry museum this way: it appears on the first sign for the city you see on the road, and it has put Bilbao on the world-tourist map.) But why is Gehry singled out?

His beginnings were humble enough, and he has retained a rumpled everyman persona. Born in Toronto in 1929, he moved to Los Angeles in 1947, where, after stints at Harvard, in Paris, and with various firms, he opened his own office in 1962. Influenced by Richard Neutra, the Austrian emigré who also practised locally, Gehry gradually turned a Modernist idiom into a funky LA vernacular. He did so primarily in domestic architecture through an innovative use of cheap materials associated with commercial building – exposed plywood, corrugated metal siding and chain-link fencing. As is often the case with architects, his first landmark was the renovation of his own home in Santa Monica (1977-78), which has functioned as a laboratory-cum-showroom ever since (he redesigned it again in 1991-92). He took a modest bungalow on a corner lot, wrapped it in layers of corrugated metal and chain-link, and poked glass structures through its exterior. The result was a simple house extruded into surprising shapes and surfaces, spaces and views. It is justly admired, but it also serves strategically, as the primal scene of his practice: ‘The House that Built Gehry’, as Beatriz Colomina puts it in the catalogue.

Gehry extended the lessons of this house to other designs, in which Modernist geometries were also disrupted – the plan rotated off axis, the skin pierced by wooden bridges, pavilions made of chain-link and the like. The unfinished look of this early style seemed right for LA: provisional in a way that was appropriate to its restless transformations, but also gritty in a way that resisted the glossier side of Tinsel Town. In effect Gehry devised a ‘critical regionalism’ (I borrow Kenneth Frampton’s term): even as he used new materials, he rejected the formal purities of modern architecture, burst open its abstract boxes and plunged the rearranged fragments into the everyday ground of Southern California life. But this LA vernacular needed the foil of a reified International Style to make its points, and with the prominence of Post-Modern architecture in the 1980s, full of classical symbols and Pop images, his style began to lose its edge. Gehry came to a subtle compromise with the new Post-Modern order: though he never fell into the historical pastiche of Michael Graves or Charles Moore, he did become more imagistic in his design. The great interest of this retrospective is to trace his passage from the early grunge work, through an elliptical Pop style, to the lavish ‘gestural aesthetic’ of the present. For throughout the 1980s and 1990s Gehry went upscale in materials and techniques, clients and projects – from the improvised chain-link of Santa Monica to the recherché titanium cladding of Bilbao, from unbuilt houses for local artist-friends to mega-institutions for multinational elites.

Such repositioning, in which reception feeds back into production, is neither immediate nor final, but its trajectory is clear enough. Take the cardboard furniture that Gehry designs from cut-out sheets stacked, laminated and shaped into chairs and divans. When it first appeared in the early 1970s, it was edgy, materially and formally inventive, and potentially cheap. But as it became more studied as design, the populism of the cardboard began to look fake or worse, a kind of homeless chic, attractive only to people far removed from any actual use of the stuff. His Pop tendencies also became more pronounced as the 1980s progressed. In his Indiana Avenue Studios (1979-81, in Venice, California), he had already made imagistic use of materials and elements: he defined the first studio, in blue stucco, by a big bay window; the second, in unpainted plywood, by a huge chimney; and the third, in green asphalt, by giant steps cut into the roof. Typological signalling can be effective as an architectural language, and Gehry often makes it witty. But it can also be manipulative in its Pop imagery and inflated scale.

Gehry’s work of the mid to late 1980s moves back and forth between a material-formal inventiveness and a Pop-imagistic obviousness, and often resorts as a compromise to a collage of forms and images. On the one hand, there are projects like the Winton Guest House (1983-87, in Minnesota), in which separate rooms are cast in bold shapes, sheathed in striking materials and set in a dynamic ‘pinwheel plan’ that Gehry has often used since. In such domestic projects he composes the house as a kind of intimate town; and when he turns to commercial projects, such as the Edgemar Development (1984-88, in Santa Monica), he reverses the process, and treats the urban complex as a sort of extended house. This is imaginative and, as Jean-Louis Cohen demonstrates in the catalogue, it can be contextual. On the other hand, there are projects that simply go Pop, such as his Chiat/ Day Building (1985-91, in Venice), where, under the influence of Claes Oldenburg, Gehry designed a monumental pair of binoculars as the entrance to the offices of a large advertising agency. This may suit the client, but it manipulates the rest of us, and reduces architecture to a 3-D billboard. The Pop dimension remains strong in his work, even when disguised as a symbolic use of otherwise abstract materials, colours and forms; and it came as no surprise when Gehry began to design for the Disney Corporation in the late 1980s.

There’s a big difference between a vernacular use of chain-link in a house, or of cardboard in a chair, and a Pop use of giant binoculars as an entrance, or of a fighter jet attached to a façade (as in his Aerospace Hall, 1982-84, in LA). There’s also a big difference between a material rethinking of form and space, which may or may not be sculptural (Gehry is influenced by Richard Serra), and a symbolic use of a ready-made image or commercial object (in which he is influenced by Oldenburg). The first option can bring elite design into contact with common culture, and renew stale architectural forms with fresh social expressions. The second tends to ingratiate architecture, on the model of the advert, to a public projected as a mass consumer. It is this dialectic that Gehry surfed into the early 1990s, and it swept him from LA architect to international designer.

His finessing of architectural labels helped, too: for all that Gehry first extended Modernist structures and then dallied with Post-Modern symbols, he is not saddled with the stigmas of either. In effect he trumped both movements in a crafty way that might be understood by reference to Learning from Las Vegas (1972), the principal manifesto of Post-Modern architecture. There, in a famous opposition, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown distinguished Modernist design, in which ‘space, structure and programme’ are subsumed in ‘an overall symbolic form’, which they called the ‘duck’, from Post-Modern design, in which ‘space and structure are directly at the service of programme, and ornament is applied independently of them’: they called this the ‘decorated shed’. ‘The duck is the special building that is a symbol,’ Venturi and Scott Brown wrote; ‘the decorated shed is the conventional shelter that applies symbols.’ And in an argument that supported the ornamental basis of Post-Modern architecture, they insisted that, however appropriate the formal duck was to the object world of the machine age, the decorated shed was only fitting for the speedy surfaces of the car-and-television age. Since Gehry privileged neither structure nor ornament, he seemed to transcend this opposition, but it is more accurate to say that he collapsed it, and often combined the duck with the shed. His ‘sculptural’ architecture is not really that, for it breaks down into front and back more often than it reads in the round. Furthermore, his interiors are difficult to decipher from his exteriors and vice versa, whether they are read structurally as with the Modernist duck, or ornamentally as with the Post-Modern shed. This disconnection between inside and outside can be beguiling, as it is in his Vitra International Headquarters (1988-94, in Switzerland) or his EMR Communications and Technology Centre (1991-95, in Germany). But as his ‘duck sheds’ expanded in scale – as he slouched towards Bilbao – so did the liabilities of this combination, for it risked the most problematic aspects of both Modernist and Post-Modern architectures: the wilful monumentality of the first and the faux populism of the second.

Gehry combined duck and shed almost literally in his huge Fish Sculpture for the Olympic Village in Barcelona in 1992, a work at once eccentric and central to his career (he has adopted the fish, the catalogue tells us, as his ‘private totem’). If the Santa Monica house was the primal scene of his early career, this gold-ribbed leviathan is the primal scene of his later career, for it marks his first use of a technology that has guided his practice (and many others) ever since – computer-aided design and manufacture (a.k.a. Cad and Cam), in particular a program called Catia (computer-aided three-dimensional interactive application). Developed first in the motor and aerospace industries, such programs are also used in film animation, and Fish Sculpture does indeed suggest a futuristic fossil version of the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (maybe it can serve as a prototype when Disney animates Moby-Dick). A trellis hung over arched ribs, the Fish is equal parts duck and shed – a combination of Serra and Oldenburg, it is at once all form and all surface, with no functional interior. And yet Gehry’s Catia-designed buildings also privilege shape and skin, the overall exterior, above all else. In large part this is because Catia permits the easy modelling of non-repetitive surfaces and supports, of different exterior panels and interior armatures, which has encouraged Gehry to play with wacky topologies that overwhelm straight geometries – the non-Euclidean curves, swirls and blobs that became his signature gestures in the 1990s. These effects are most evident in the Guggenheim Bilbao (1991-97), ‘the first major project in which the full potential’ of the Catia program ‘was realised’. (Cad and Cam are said to be cost-effective, but they are not necessarily so, and their use is as much rhetorical as actual; for example, the thin titanium panels in Bilbao were partly cut on site and manually bent into place.) A cross between an ocean liner run aground and a spaceship landed in the Basque country, the Bilbao museum is deemed the masterpiece of his ‘sculptural’ style, and it has served as the model for his subsequent mega-projects, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA (under construction), the Experience Music Project in Seattle (1995-2000), and the proposed Guggenheim near Wall Street.

So what of the claim that Gehry is Our Greatest Living Artist, or at least our great sculptor? First we need some definition of modern sculpture, and a good one (certainly a laconic one) comes from Carl Andre, a Minimalist sculptor of the sort said to have influenced Gehry. ‘I want to give you the three phases of art as I know it,’ Andre remarked in a 1970 radio interview, with the Statue of Liberty as his test case. ‘There was a time when people were interested in the bronze sheath of the statue … And then there came a time when artists … were interested in Eiffel’s iron interior structure, supporting the statue. Now artists are interested in Bedloe’s island’ (the site of the statue). Andre sketches a particular passage in modern sculpture from an academic modelling of the human figure supported by a hidden armature (most statues are like the Statue of Liberty in this regard), to a Modernist exposure of the ‘interior structure’ of the object (think of the open framework of Constructivist sculpture of the 1920s), to a contemporary interest in a given place – the expanded field of sculpture that extends from earthworks in the 1960s and 1970s to site-specific projects of various sorts today.

How does Gehry the architect-sculptor fit into this history? In a kind of time-loop. Like many other new museums, his colossal spaces are designed to accommodate the expanded field of postwar art – of Andre, Serra, Oldenburg, and assorted descendants. In fact, these museums trump the art: they use its great scale, which was meant to challenge the museum, as a pretext to inflate the museum itself into a gigantic spectacle-space that can swallow any art, let alone any viewer, whole. In short, museums like Bilbao use the breaking-out of postwar art as a licence to corral it again, and to overwhelm the viewer as they do so. At the same time, considered as sculpture, the recent Gehry buildings are regressive: they reverse the history of the medium sketched above. For all the apparent futurism of the Catia designs, these structures are akin to the Statue of Liberty, with a separate skin hung over a hidden armature, and with exterior surfaces that rarely match up with interior spaces. Again, Gehry is frequently associated with Serra, but Serra exposes the construction of his sculptures for all to see, while Gehry is often tectonically obscure. Some of his projects resemble the baubles set on corporate plazas in the 1960s and 1970s blown up to architectural scale, and some look as though they could be broken into with a tin-opener.

With the putative passing of the industrial age, Modernist architecture was declared outmoded, and now the Pop aesthetic of Post-Modern architecture looks dated as well. The search for the architecture of the computer age is on; but, ironically, it has led Gehry and others to use academic sculpture as a model, at least to a degree. (Imagine a new ending to Planet of the Apes where, instead of the Statue of Liberty being uncovered as a ruin in the sand, the Guggenheim Bilbao pokes through, or the Fish Sculpture in Barcelona.) The disconnection between skin and structure represented by this academic model is at its most radical in Gehry’s work in the Experience Music Project, commissioned by the Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen because of his love for Jimi Hendrix (a fellow Seattleite): its six exterior blobs clad in different coloured metals have little apparent relation to its many interior displays dedicated to pop music. Just as Gehry wanted to make Bilbao legible through an allusion to a splintered ship, here he makes an allusion to a smashed guitar (a broken ‘fret’ lies over two of the blobs). But neither image works, even as a Pop gesture, for you have to be well above the buildings to read them as images at all, or you have to see them in media reproduction – which is indeed a primary ‘site’ of this architecture.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not pleading for a return to a Modernist transparency of structure (that was mostly a myth anyway, even with such purist architects as Mies van der Rohe). I’m simply suspicious of a computer-driven version of a Potemkin architecture of conjured surfaces. For the disconnection between skin and structure that one often senses in Gehry can have two problematic effects. First, it can lead to spaces that are not surprising (as in the early houses) so much as mystifying (as in Bilbao or Seattle) – a strained disorientation that is frequently mistaken for an Architectural Sublime. (Sometimes it is as if Gehry and others have taken the famous critique of delirious space in Post-Modern architecture, first presented by Fredric Jameson in the early 1980s, as a guideline for practice – as if they designed expressly to suit what Jameson calls the ‘the cultural logic of late capitalism’.) Second, it can lead to a further disconnection between building and site. ‘The great strength of Gehry’s architecture,’ the catalogue insists, ‘lies in its response to existing conditions.’ But this insistence suggests that the reality is otherwise, and his sensitivity to context is exaggerated. The Bilbao museum, we are told, ‘adapts to its setting with billowing forms that face the river and evoke marine imagery’. Likewise, the metallic curves and swirls of the proposed Guggenheim near Wall Street are said to mediate, like so many waves and clouds, between the East River in front (the museum is to span three piers) and the downtown skyscrapers behind (it includes its own tower). But this isn’t description, much less analysis: it’s Whitmanesque gush about New York warmed over as press copy. And it’s simply not true: the Wall Street Guggenheim is even more anti-contextual than the Bilbao – swollen to twice the size and propped up on super-pylons like a giant metal dodo.

An obvious point of comparison is the Frank Lloyd Wright Guggenheim, built in 1959. It, too, is often seen as a sculptural object, but has a formal logic (the whitish spiral), as well as a programmatic conceit (the museum as continuous ramp), that the Gehry Guggenheims do not possess. Moreover, the Wright uses its difference from its context smartly: it breaks with the line of Fifth Avenue and bows into the greenery of Central Park. Its form is expressive because it appears motivated in different ways. Can the same be said of the ‘gestural aesthetic’ of Gehry? The gestures of his early houses were often idiosyncratic, but they were also grounded in two ways – in an LA vernacular of common materials and against an International Style of purist forms. As these gestures began to lose the specificity of the former and the foil of the latter, they became not only more extravagant (almost neo-Expressionist or neo-Surrealist) but also more detached: they became signs of ‘artistic expression’ that could be dropped, indifferently, almost anywhere – in LA, Bilbao, Seattle, Berlin, New York. Why this curve, swirl or blob here, and not that one? If there is not much in the way of apparent constraint – of formal articulation derived from a resistant material, structure or context – architecture quickly becomes arbitrary or self-indulgent. (Here again part of the problem might be the technical facility of Catia, which is said to translate ‘the gestural quality from model to built work’ all but directly.) The great irony is that Gehry fans tend to confuse his arbitrariness with freedom, and his self-indulgence with expression. The New York Times greeted the retrospective with the banner ‘Gehry’s Vision of Renovating Democracy’.

So what is this vision of freedom and expression? Is it perverse of me to find it perverse, even oppressive? In one sense – the sense of Gehry as Our Greatest Living Artist – it is oppressive because, as Freud argued long ago, the artist is the only social figure allowed to be freely expressive in the first place, the only one exempted from many of the instinctual renunciations that the rest of us undergo as a matter of course. Hence his free expression implies our unfree inhibition, which is also to say that his freedom is mostly a franchise in which he represents freedom rather than enacts it. Today this exceptional licence is extended to Gehry perhaps more than to any other artist – certainly with greater consequences.

In a related way this vision of expression and freedom is oppressive because Gehry does indeed design out of the ‘cultural logic’ of advanced capitalism, with its language of risk-taking and spectacle-effects. In ‘The Social Bases of Art’, an essay published in 1936, Meyer Schapiro argued that the Impressionist painter was the first artist to address the new modern world of speed and glitz. ‘For this individual,’ Schapiro wrote, ‘the world is a spectacle, a source of novel pleasant sensations, or a field in which he may realise his “individuality”, through art, through sexual intrigue and the most varied, but non-productive, mobility.’ So it is still today – for our privileged artists, architects and patrons – only more so. Yet ‘such an art cannot really be called free,’ Schapiro cautioned, ‘because it is so exclusive and private’: to be deemed free at all, its ‘individuality must lose its exclusiveness and its ruthless and perverse character’.

I was reminded of this old warning at the Gehry retrospective, for the individuality of his architecture does seem more exclusive than democratic. Rather than ‘forums of civic engagement’ (the catalogue again), his cultural centres appear as sites of spectacular spectatorship, of touristic awe. Thirty years ago Guy Debord defined spectacle as ‘capital accumulated to such a degree that it becomes an image’. With Gehry and other architects the reverse is now true as well: spectacle is an image accumulated to such a degree that it becomes capital. Such is the logic of many cultural centres today, designed, alongside theme parks and sports complexes, to assist in the corporate ‘revival’ of the city – its being made safe for shopping, spectating and spacing out. ‘The singular economic and cultural impact felt in the wake of its opening in October 1997,’ the catalogue says of ‘the Bilbao effect’, has ‘spawned a fierce demand for similar feats by contemporary architects worldwide’. Alas, so it has, and it is likely to come to your hometown soon.