Notebook, 1993-


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Frank Gehry

"Will Gehry's serious irreverence and non-formulaic art survive the institutional embrace? Poetry, that closely-guarded secret of all great architecture, rarely scans well in the corporate boardroom. But this architect is very much in control. He is a cool romantic, a rational expressionist, a mature adventurer. He will continue to work at the less-than-easy edges, turning the practical into the lyrical, and architecture into art . . . . "

1989 Laureate Frank Gehry considers the Walt Disney Concert Hall to be his first major project in his own home town. No stranger to music, he has a long association with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, having worked to improve the acoustics of the Hollywood Bowl. He also designed the Concord Amphitheatre in northern California, and yet another much earlier in his career in Columbia, Maryland, the Merriweather Post Pavilion of Music.

The Museum of Contemporary Art selected him to convert an old warehouse into its Temporary Contemporary exhibition space while the permanent museum was being built. It has received high praise, and remains in use today. On a much smaller scale, but equally as effective, Gehry remodeled what was once an ice warehouse in Santa Monica, adding some other buildings to the site, into a combination art museum/retail and office complex.

The belief that "architecture is art" has been a part of Frank Gehry's being for as long as he can remember. In fact, when asked if he had any mentors or idols in the history of architecture, his reply was to pick up a Brancusi photograph on his desk, saying, "Actually, I tend to think more in terms of artists like this. He has had more influence on my work than most architects. In fact, someone suggested that my skyscraper that won a New York competition looked like a Brancusi sculpture. I could name Alvar Aalto from the architecture world as someone for whom I have great respect, and of course, Philip Johnson." Born in Canada in 1929, Gehry has become a naturalized U.S. citizen. In 1954, he graduated from USC and began work full time with Victor Gruen Associates, where he had been apprenticing part-time while still in school. After a year in the army, he was admitted to Harvard Graduate School of Design to study urban planning. When he returned to Los Angeles, he briefly worked for Pereira and Luckman, then rejoined Gruen where he stayed until 1960.

In 1961, Gehry and family, which by now included two daughters, moved to Paris where he worked in the office of Andre Remondet. His French education in Canada was an enormous help. During that year of living in Europe, he studied works by LeCorbusier, Balthasar Neumann, and was attracted by the French Roman churches. In 1962, he returned to Los Angeles, setting up his own firm.

He has said on more than one occasion, "Personally, I hate chain link. I got involved with it because it was inevitably being used around my buildings. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

A project in 1979 illustrates his use of chain-link fencing in the construction of the Cabrillo Marine Museum, a 20,000 square foot compound of buildings which he "laced together" with chain-link fencing. These "shadow structures" as Gehry calls them, bind together the parts of the museum.

Santa Monica Place has one outside wall, nearly 300 feet long and six stories tall, hung with a curtain of chain link, and then a second layer over it in a different color spells out the name of the mall.

For a time, Gehry's work used "unfinished" qualities as a part of the design. As Paul Goldberger, New York Times Architecture Critic described it, "Mr. Gehry's architecture is known for its reliance on harsh, unfinished materials and its juxtaposition of simple, almost primal, geometric forms . . . . (His) work is vastly more intelligent and controlled than it sounds to the uninitiated; he is an architect of immense gifts who dances on the line separating architecture from art but who manages never to let himself fall."

One building that is part of the touring Pritzker exhibition is the Chiat/Day Office for Venice, California. The proposed three story, 75,000 square foot building will sit above three underground levels of parking for 300 cars. The entry to the building is through a pair of 45' tall binoculars designed by Oldenburg and his wife Coosje van Bruggen. The shafts of the binoculars will contain an office and a library. A guest house he designed in 1983 for a home in Wayzata, Minnesota that had been designed by Philip Johnson in 1952 proved a challenge that critics agree Gehry met and conquered. The guest house is actually a grouping of one-room buildings that appear as a collection of sculptural pieces.

He did a monument to mark the centennial of the Sheet Metal Workers' International Association. It was built by 600 volunteers from the union in the cavernous central hall of the National Building Museum (formerly known as the Pension Building) in Washington, D.C. The 65 foot high construction was galvanized stainless steel, anodized aluminum, brass and copper.

There is an interesting note regarding a statement Gehry prepared for the 1980 edition of "Contemporary Architects," Gehry states, "I approach each building as a sculptural object, a spatial container, a space with light and air, a response to context and appropriateness of feeling and spirit. To this container, this sculpture, the user brings his baggage, his program, and interacts with it to accommodate his needs. If he can't do that, I've failed."

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"In an artistic climate that too often looks backward rather than toward the future, where retrospectives are more prevalent than risk-taking, it is important to honor the architecture of Frank O. Gehry.

Refreshingly original and totally American, proceeding as it does from his populist Southern California perspective, Gehry's work is a highly refined, sophisticated and adventurous aesthetic that emphasizes the art of architecture.

His sometimes controversial, but always arresting body of work, has been variously described as iconoclastic, rambunctious and impermanent, but the jury, in making this award, commends this restless spirit that has made his buildings a unique expression of contemporary society and its ambivalent values.

Always open to experimentation, he has as well a sureness and maturity that resists, in the same way that Picasso did, being bound either by critical acceptance or his successes. His buildings are juxtaposed collages of spaces and materials that make users appreciative of both the theatre and the back-stage, simultaneously revealed.

Although the prize is for a lifetime of achievement, the jury hopes Mr. Gehry will view it as encouragement for continuing an extraordinary "work in progress, "as well as for his significant contributions thus far to the architecture of the twentieth century.

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For Frank Gehry, like most architects, the art of building is a serious and searching business. He pursues his muse with love and frustration, with a sense of discovery in each undertaking, and an exceptional set of skills. At a time when retro reigns, he follows the modernist route of an original vision that postmodern traditionalists have tried so hard to give a bad name. He takes chances; he works close to the edge; he pushes boundaries beyond previous limits. There are times when he misses the mark, and times when the breakthrough achieved alters everyone else's vision as well. And he believes, as most architects do, that it is always the next project that will realize his aims and ideals his own.

For those that work this way -- exploring levels of philosophy and practice thaat renew both the spirit and meaning of an ancient art -- there is a quiet, but genuine joy that is the architect's secret elixir. Delight breaks through anything he has done that does nt make one smile. There are the fish, as pure sculpture or useful objects, ornamental or occupied, luminous or glistening, a piscine preoccupation that has led to lamps, anthromorphic (anthropofishic?) restaurants and skyscraper towers. There is the furniture of corrugated cardboard, a welcom old shoebox presence, ingratiatingly paper-pompous and comfortably user-friendly. There is wit, but no fashionable in-jokes or one-liners; these are light and lively designs and buildings that lift the spirit with revelations of how the seemingly ordinary can become extraordinary by acts of imagination that turn the known into new configurations that engage the mind and eye, that explore unexpected definitions of use and style. For Frank Gehry, these explorations characteristically take place at the point where architecture and sculpture meet in anxious and uneasy confrontation; this is the difficult, dangerous and uncharted area that he has made his own. That he has reconciled art and utility in a handsome, workable and intensely personal synthesis of form and function is his singnlar achievement. Gehry's work takes architecture a significant step farther as an evolving, challenging and creative art.

But there is more to Gehry's work than an adventurous spirit and original imagery. He combines building elements on a site in a way that is not only intrigningly sculptural but also innovatively contextual, whether it is the small gem of a law school at Loyola University in Los Angeles, an ambitious Amencan cultural center in Paris, or a commercial complex that suddenly sparks a humdrum block. What may look like arbitrary, and to some, offputting, abstract geometry outside reveals itself inside as a series of unusual and inviting relationships achieved through a thoughtful analysis of the program in terms of a multidimensional concept of sensuously orchestrated space.

If there are many facets to Gehry's work, there are also several Gehrys. There is the media Gehry as defined and promoted by the press: the casual, laid-back Californian whose work is touted as fashionably "pop" or "punk," who uses funny materials - chain link, exposed pipe, corrugated aluminum, utility-grade construction board - in a funky, easy, West Coast way. The image is part of the media-chic of Venice and the seductive charms of Santa Monica, the places he has made his habitat; this is nouveau California at the cutting-edge of style. It is the fashion to admire his ofibeat spirit but to wonder how well the work will travel.

An then there is the real Frank Gehry, who is all and none of this: an admirer of the quirky, the accidental and the absurd, tuned in to the transient nature of much contemporary culture, while he is deeply involved, personally and professionally, with the world of serious art and artists. There is a closet elitist, if elitism is equated with a fierce admiration for the great works of art, architecture and urbanism. Above all, he is an obsessive perfectionist engaged in a ceaseless and demanding investigation of ways to unite expressive form and utilitarian function. He practices architecture in the most timeless and sophisticated sense, but with a very special spin.

The spin is that Gehry's work goes to the heart of the art of our time, carrying the conceptual and technological achievements of modernism (as real and instructive as its much better-publicized failures) to the spectaularly enriched vision that characterizes the 1990's. He builds on the liberated "box" that Frank Lloyd Wright broke open forever, and the liberates spaces that Le Corbusier raised to luminous heights. ("Ronchamps humbles us all," he says.) Gehry continues and personalizes the 20th century tradition. This is a kind of architecture utltimately made possible and logical only by modern technologies and lifestyles. He pushes the modern miracle of radically redefined structure and space into sudden bursts of "pure" form -- a surprising exterior stair, a skylit room that offers as much abstract art as illumination inits crowning construction.

In every case, the building is painstakingly programmed, and the program is the generator, or at least, the co-generator, of the solution. Sometimes the parts are broken down into the "single room" elements that Gehry favors for their plastic possibilities. But the choices are never arbitrary; he does not seek novelty or superficial effect. He does not make sculpture and stuff it with after-the-fact uses. Nor does he sheathe his unconventional forms and spaces in trompe l'oeil masonry to suggest a weight and solidity of construction that are not there. They are wrapped in skins of metal, plywood, composition board or glass for flexibility and appropriateness of scale, for transparency, opacity or reflection, for changes of color, climate and light. As an alchemist of sorts, constantly changing dross into something less than gold but much more than common aluminum, Gehry professes to be unsure of what is ugly and what is beautiful. It is irrelevant; he uses the everyday and ever present stuff of the expedient and low-cost construction of our immediate environment for surprising aesthetic revelations and unexpected elegance. The cultural references of these materials are as strong as the structural and aesthetic rationale.

One of Gehry's benign, mock-monumental cardboard furniture lines is called Easy Edges; even the name has a comfortable, laid-back sound. But his is not easy art; the more relaxed it seems, the more rigorous the creative effort that underlies it. Add wit, as Gehry does, and the deception is greater still; art mocks earnestness as life mocks art. But art and life are inseparable, whether the relationship is one of imitation, as earlier centuries believed, or observations on a world outrageously out of control, as is so often the case today. Architecture does more than comment; buildings define and accommodate attitudes, customs and style. This has made the art of architecture an unending series of sublime surprises. Whether it is the revolutionary vision of the Renaissance or the Baroque, the dramatic disruptions of classical convention of Schinkel and Soane, or the 20th century's intoxicated pursuit of the future, nothing goes back to the way it was before. In every case, architecture has been vitalized and opened up, with new directions charted that had not previously existed and that affect everything that follows. Today there are those who understand history so little that they would cut off all avenues of discovery in favor of reworked revivals. They beg the issues of art and life and shortchange the one art that serves both.

And so debate will continue about Frank Gehry's work. It is hard to imagine a "finished" Gehry look, except among his imitators, who are legion, or an oeuvre that will not continue to evolve. There has been much that was tentative or unresolved in his earlier projects, as he set the mot difficult problems of the union of art and architecture as his highest task. Today his ever-larger and increasingly international commissions are marked by an impressive, hard-won clarity and order. He has achieved a documented success, and is being "mainstreamed," as the saying goes, into the establishment. Will Gehry's serious irreverence and non-formulaic art survive the institutional embrace? Poetry, that closely-guarded secret of all great architecture, rarely scans well in the corporate boardroom. But this architect is very much in control. He is a cool romantic, a rational expressionist, a mature adventurer. He will continue to work at the less-than-easy edges, turning the practical into the lyrical, and architecture into art.

[The Pritzker Architecture Prize World Wide Web Site provides current information about
the world's most prestigious architecture award and its Laureates.]



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