The build­ing blocks of a famed ar­chi­tect

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY ERIC WILLS book­world@wash­post.com Eric Wills is a se­nior editor at Ar­chi­tect mag­a­zine.

Last Oc­to­ber, when a jour­nal­ist at a news con­fer­ence in Spain asked Frank Gehry whether his build­ings were more about spec­ta­cle than func­tion, the jet-lagged ar­chi­tect flipped him the bird.

Right­eous snub or in­so­lent pos­tur­ing? That de­pends on whether you con­sider Gehry, now 86 years old, to be one of our great­est liv­ing artists or a pur­veyor of self-in­dul­gent sculp­tural ex­cess.

It was in Spain, of course, that Gehry un­veiled his Bil­bao Guggen­heim in 1997 to white-hot ac­claim. (“I’ve been ge­niused to death,” the ar­chi­tect once lamented.) But as cities around the world have sought their own Bil­bao ef­fect— 15 years later, the mu­seum was still at­tract­ing a mil­lion visi­tors a year — the re­sult­ing wave of be­spoke ar­chi­tec­ture has inspired a back­lash. Crit­ics have as­sailed Gehry and his fel­low “star­chi­tects” for pro­duc­ing preen­ing build­ings that ex­hibit lit­tle re­gard for their con­text and the un­for­tu­nate souls who have to use them.

Such crit­i­cism may be in­evitable when your am­bi­tions are as sig­nif­i­cant as Gehry’s. Paul Gold­berger, in his new bi­og­ra­phy of the ar­chi­tect, de­fines the fun­da­men­tal ques­tions that have driven Gehry’s ca­reer as: “How much should ar­chi­tec­ture be con­sid­ered a hu­mane pur­suit, an artis­tic en­ter­prise, a cul­tural event, as op­posed to a prac­ti­cal work of con­struc­tion? And even when ar­chi­tec­ture is pur­sued with the high­est aims, how much im­pact can it have?”

“Build­ing Art” is a mea­sured at­tempt to see Gehry’s work in this larger con­text — to un­der­stand the forces that shaped him, from the co­terie of artists that he co­zied up to in Los An­ge­les to the shift­ing move­ments within the pro­fes­sion of ar­chi­tec­ture it­self, and to wit­ness how, with each of his com­mis­sions, he re­sponded to its unique set of re­quire­ments.

Gold­berger, a con­tribut­ing editor at Van­ity Fair, is an ar­chi­tec­ture critic by train­ing, and his por­trayal of Gehry’s child­hood and life out­side of his ca­reer is, for the most part, work­man­like. The son of Jewish im­mi­grants in Toronto, the ar­chi­tect had a hum­ble child­hood, his fam­ily fre­quently on the verge of fi­nan­cial ruin. Even now, Gehry can’t say for sure how his par­ents paid for him to at­tend ar­chi­tec­ture school at the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia in Los An­ge­les.

Mod­ernist ar­chi­tec­ture was as­cen­dant in Cal­i­for­nia in the 1950s, but Gehry— who was, ac­cord­ing to Gold­berger, a pot-smok­ing, so­cially con­scious lib­eral — soon re­belled against the pre­vail­ing aes­thetic of cool, straight lines. In the early 1960s in Paris, when he worked for an ar­chi­tect named An­dré Re­mon­det (who later de­signed the French Em­bassy in the Dis­trict), Gehry got his first in­ti­mate look at the ar­chi­tec­ture of the Old World, and he had an epiphany: Great build­ings could in­cor­po­rate or­na­men­ta­tion. “When I walked into Chartres I was fu­ri­ous,” Gehry re­calls. “I said, ‘Why why didn’t they tell us?’ ”

Inspired in part by the pain­ter and graphic artist Robert Rauschen­berg, Gehry started ex­per­i­ment­ing with in­dus­trial ma­te­ri­als, de­vel­op­ing a re­strained, rough-hewn aes­thetic. In at­tempt­ing to mimic the tex­ture of Le Cor­bus­ier’s Ron­champ chapel, Gehry used “tun­nel mix,” in­tended for free­way un­der­passes and tun­nels, to cover the ex­te­rior of his stu­dio for Lou Danziger, a Los An­ge­les graphic artist. His Mer­ri­weather Post Pav­il­ion in Columbia, Md., with a huge trape­zoidal roof, ex­posed steel joists and sides cov­ered by un­stained Dou­glas fir, was cel­e­brated for its acous­tics. The sem­i­nal house that he re­designed for his fam­ily in Santa Mon­ica, Calif., a non­de­script Dutch colo­nial that he trans­formed by wrap­ping it with cor­ru­gated me­tal and chain-link fenc­ing, fea­tured a se­ries of col­lid­ing forms and tex­tures that fore­shad­owed his sig­na­ture build­ings.

Bil­bao would never have been pos­si­ble, how­ever, if not for the com­puter. In the early 1990s, by adapt­ing French aerospace soft­ware, Gehry’s firm was able to trans­late his in­creas­ingly com­plex and un­du­lat­ing de­signs into de­tailed plans that en­abled more ef­fi­cient con­struc­tion, and at a rea­son­able cost. At the time, Gehry was work­ing on Walt Dis­ney Con­cert Hall in Los An­ge­les, and as he ad­justed to the tech­nol­ogy, his de­sign of the build­ing’s bil­low­ing sails grew ever more dy­namic. “The com­puter, Frank re­al­ized, could be the tool that freed him from lim­its.”

Gehry’s projects make for a kind of ar­chi­tec­tural Rorschach test. Con­sider, for in­stance, how clas­si­cists have evis­cer­ated the ar­chi­tect for his pro­posed de­sign for the Eisen­hower Me­mo­rial in the Dis­trict, which was likened to the fences around Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps. Gold­berger dis­misses such crit­i­cism in mak­ing the case for Gehry as a great artist, de­fend­ing him against the claim that his work is in­flex­i­ble or ar­bi­trary, the ac­cu­sa­tion that the ar­chi­tect him­self most de­spises.

But Gold­berger is sur­pris­ingly re­served in of­fer­ing his own crit­i­cal take on Gehry’s port­fo­lio, leav­ing largely unan­swered the ques­tion of why cer­tain build­ings suc­ceed in such bril­liant fash­ion, while oth­ers fail to live up to the ar­chi­tect’s lofty stan­dards. Gehry shouldn’t be blamed for the ex­cesses that Bil­bao inspired, the ego-fu­eled projects of our cur­rent Gilded Age. That doesn’t mean, how­ever, that he didn’t step up to the plate now and again and fail to de­liver.

In the midst of the Eisen­hower stand­off, Gehry had won­dered why he had gar­nered so lit­tle sup­port from his fel­low ar­chi­tects. “It did not oc­cur to him,” Gold­berger writes, “that [they] might have sim­ply viewed this one as a miss, as one of those mo­ments when Babe Ruth strikes out.”

KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Soft­ware ad­vances let Frank Gehry’s sig­na­ture style flour­ish with theWalt Dis­ney Con­cert Hall in Los An­ge­les, Paul Gold­berger writes in a book on the ar­chi­tect.

BUILD­ING ART The Life and Work of Frank Gehry By Paul Gold­berger Knopf. 511 pp. $35

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