The Gehry Effect
One sure way to get the architecture community riled up is to write something about the work of Frank Gehry. Ever since the days when he had the audacity to use chain-link fence and exposed plywood as building materials, critics (more than clients or passerbys) have found the work either exhilarating (as I usually do) or execrable. My favorite apocryphal story is the one when a former L.A. architecture critic trained his dog to always do its business on the lawn in front of the architect’s house in Santa Monica.
So I should have expected the vehemence of the comments when I wrote about the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas. One reader called it a “crumpled car wreck of a design.” “What kind of architectural metal scrap is this?” asked another. “The design reminds me of the stage set for Dr. Caligari's Cabinet. Let's hope that the patient's brains do not suffer any setback after visiting the building,” opined a third. My favorite was the commenter who suggested that the title of my little blog should have been, “This is your brain on drugs.”
The two more serious criticisms I read concerned functionality and appropriateness of medium. Probably because of the recently settled lawsuit about leaks at the building Gehry designed for MIT, several observers guessed that the roof would leak. I should point out that Gehry’s buildings, despite their formal complexity, do not have more than the usual share of leaky roofs or other problems, though some of the issues are unusual—like the reflection of the Disney Hall skin into neighboring apartments, until a coating was applied to the skin.
Architecture that produces buildings of a complexity greater than minimal cover would necessitate taking chances, as well as using more resources of all sorts. It must justify itself by being able to deliver something in return. In my opinion, the soaring quality of the space Gehry produced here, both inside and outside, and the manner in which this building helps to establish a sense of place in its still barren site, more than justifies that risk-taking. Moreover, Gehry’s architecture-producing machine is by now well-oiled, and he knows how to limit his risks, both monetarily and in terms of effects.
Several others took the tack that this was architecture attempting to be sculpture, and was bad sculpture at that. About taste, we cannot dispute (well, we can, but what would be the point?), but I agree that architects trying to be sculptors are as bad as sculptors trying to be architects. That does not mean, however, that architects cannot use sculptural techniques in shaping their buildings. The difference is that an architect such as Gehry is able to use the folds, curves, and contorted masses as part of the assemblage and composition of a building that encloses inhabitable space. What he learned by looking at everything from medieval wood carving to Bernini’s marble clothes to the work of contemporary abstraction in steel has become part of the repertoire he uses when he shapes buildings, and thus he translates those effects to a different scale, a different purpose, and creates a different relationship with the human body and the body politic.
I think the result in this case is magnificent, and I am glad to argue the merits of the building with anyone. I would also caution that imitating such work without the skill that he and his designers have developed from years of analysis and practice, and without the competency of his office, is almost always doomed to failure. But that is the case with most imitative art.
On another note, a commentator complained that I had not credited him for a photograph of the Whitney Museum I used in another blog. I apologize, Richard, but your image was un-credited online, and you posted anonymously (as do most of you!). I will be happy to give credit where credit is due if you can provide the information, and apologize for not doing so initially.