Who knew that architecture could be a model for global diplomacy? Former Secretary of State Hillary of Clinton has elevated the world’s second oldest profession to that status with one sentence in her farewell speech: “We do need an architecture for this new world: more Frank Gehry than formal Greek,” Clinton said. Does this mean that Gehry will be advising her in her possible second run for the presidency in 2016? Can we expect candidates’ debates in which the all-American virtues of Frank Lloyd Wright battle it out with the serenity of a Jeffersonian Classicism, or in which trickle-down Beaux-Arts opposes inclusive, open Modernism? I am afraid it is not likely, but it is worth parsing the statement for a moment. I assume that what Clinton meant (somebody should really ask her) is that a more complex and even messy set of formal relations might be a better model for how to respond to the fluidity of global relations than a set of forms whose arrangement is the result of centuries of refinement and rule making. Yet there is more than that in Gehry’s architecture that might be interest as a model. It also represents the notion that you invest in the making of expressive form that, at best, drinks in and translates context, function, and character to reinvents them as an iconic object that attracts and celebrates. Might the United States want to be such an icon, collecting people and cultures from all around the globe and presenting a difficult whole that celebrates our coming together? Or should Gehry’s architecture be a model because of its abstraction and its presentation of the new and the unseen?
I would argue that at the core of this architect’s work is also a gathering of the bits and pieces that make up our daily lives, reimagined and reinvented in a new whole that always threatens to fall back apart into that messy vitality. Using Gehry as a model means that you choose for modernity, for a certain bravura or chutzpah, and for complexity. It also means you choose to invest, for his buildings do not come cheap. In that sense, his architecture would seem like a good model for a Democratic candidate, as we currently understand that political party’s mainstream.
Does that mean that Classicism is Republican? It certainly is more beloved by the Grand Old Party’s leaders—there is a reason that George W. Bush chose Robert A.M. Stern, FAIA, to design his presidential library.
I would like to think that there are other models. Obama has apparently said that David Adjaye, the Nigerian-born British architect, is his favorite designer. His work might present a model of dense abstraction, an acceptance of different cultural traditions, and a belief in making modest, often enigmatic forms. An Obama presidential library designed by Adjaye might not be a bad memorial to Obama’s manner of governing. But what about less form- and formal-based architecture? What about the attempts to adapt technology is such a way that we can both celebrate it and become aware of its dangers, as in the work of Diller Scofidio + Renfro? Or what about the notion of tactical urbanism conquering unused or misused territories bit by bit to make them available for communities? Or what about another kind of order, that of parametricism, whose proponents say it is truly open, fluid, democratic, and progressive?
For now, we have a neat binary set: Gehryian complexity versus classical clarity. It is in many ways a false opposition, as Gehry’s work is deeply steeped in classical forms and neo-Classicism is, in the hands of skillful practitioners, a malleable and expressive way of making buildings. I hope this will be the beginning of a debate that will make it clear that architecture can offer models through which we can imagine and build a better set of global and domestic relations.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.