PRINT September 1984


DURING THE WEEKEND OF FEBRUARY 25–26, 1984. Claes Oldenburg and I met with Frank Gehry in New York to talk about a combined architectural and theatrical project for Venice originally proposed by the critic Germano Celant in connection with his exhibition “Art & Theater 1900–1984,” planned but not realized for the 1984 Venice Biennale. The events are now planned for the spring of 1985.

The Venice project provided a focus for a dialogue on art and architecture that the three of us had begun the previous year. Oldenburg and I spent two weeks in Gehry’s office in Venice, California, where we sharpened our understanding of by following his daily routine. We made a tour of his current projects in the area which were in various stages of completion—from a newly excavated site at Exposition Park, where the skeleton of the California Aerospace Museum was under construction, to the nearly finished campus of the Loyola Law School in downtown Los Angeles.

Because Oldenburg wanted to discover the different aspects of Gehry’s work method, he made the architect’s individuality his subject. As a sculptor he is inclined to observe houses for their own sake, “not for living or use,” as he says, but as indicators of a particular scale, as objects. His previous experience with architects had been limited to consultations about the building specifications needed to translate his scaled-up objects into structural frameworks (for example, he had worked in this way with Stuart Cohen of Chicago, who drew up the plans for the Mouse Museum and Hay Gun Wing). Now, surrounded every day in Gehry’s office by architectural scale models, he began to perceive things in terms of an architectural vocabulary. Since Oldenburg’s own concern is with the tension between “thing-ness” and abstraction. the subject of buildings opened up a new, abstract manipulation of forms—if a building functions at all, it will always be identifiable as a building, as a thing, no matter what is done to it. In the back of Gehry’s office Oldenburg studiously built sonic architectural structures front materials at hand; one of these he paradoxically called a “bag shack,” and another, a “hay high-rise.” However, his efforts in this direction did not prevent him from coming up, true to form, with a sculptural proposal for the Loyola Law School, the Toppling Ladder with Spilling Paint, which celebrates Gehry’s architectural practice of “disorganized order.”

Gehry, for his part, had always had productive contact with artists; he even responded to such doctrinaire “situationalists” as Daniel Buren. Dan Graham, Michael Asher, and John Knight, who might turn commenting on architecture into art but who maintain a strict separation between the two disciplines. When in 1980 Gehry worked with his friend Richard Serra on a visionary project for a bridge in Manhattan which was to have spanned the distance between the Chrysler Building and the World Trade Center, each from his side tried to expand his territory—Serra by proposing the use of two smooth steel slabs the size of buildings, which were to support the bridge on one end, and Gehry by designing biomorphic architecture, in the form of a huge scaly fish, which would have supported the other end.

Gehry’s working method converged with Oldenburg’s in its recognition of the sculptural abjectness of architecture/and in its identification of the shell of a building as in Oldenburg’s design for a museum based on a cigarette package and tobacco tin, done in 1968. At the time, the proposal was offered as an alternative for the Pasadena Museum then being planned. “Using a tobacco ad in the Los Angeles Times, I made my proposal and followed it to its conclusion, Oldenburg wrote in his notes of 1968. ”The telescoped construction suits the different scales required for a museum’s function—food/books, exhibitions, and auditorium. Beautification is achieved by literal rendering of the original—its color, the revealed tobacco in relief and the ripped-open silver paper of the cigarette package (a flourish). In the scale I imagine, the source of the structure would not be obviously identifiable, except from an airplane."

The concept of making a museum out of a found object, to which this new function would be arbitrarily assigned, intrigued Gehry. He himself would never start out with an object or image that, taken out of its context, creates an illusion, but instead he begins with a conception of what is needed for a museum in terms of materials, building codes, and structure. In Gehry’s opinion the selection of a found object, as Oldenburg has proposed, need not preclude so-called “serious” architecture. Since serious architecture is also determined by such incongruous factors as economic and social conditions, building codes, traditions, and available construction methods, the end result of any building project is to a large degree accidental.

Oldenburg’s concept of the enlargement of stereotypical objects to an architectural scale so that people can relate immediately to the exterior regardless of the building’s function coincided with Gehry’s declared desire to make “a stronger sculptural statement of the shell so that a person who comes in can make a response to it.” Gehry’s attitude rejects canned environments in which everything has a fixed place, a concept summed up in a Holiday Inn slogan: “The best surprise is no surprise.” To Gehry, “the notion that a building program is a rigid thing has been proven not important. People moved into warehouses in Soho, New York. I come from a background in commercial architecture where generalized spaces are designed in order to function for different purposes.”

The new Loyola campus is relatively small and compact; it has been designed as a cluster of architectural structures in different scales. Some, like the main office and administration building, which bounds the campus along one side, are radical alterations of existing structures. Others, like the moot court, classroom buildings, and chapel, are built in a smaller scale and are separate objects, each with a strong sculptural identity. Gehry’s concept transforms a nondescript site in the midst of urban confusion in downtown Los Angeles into a homogeneous complex. At the same time, the architecture of the campus connects with that of the city around it. Because of the scattered layout of the buildings, the hierarchical significance of the exterior of the main office building is reduced by inserting stairways with a dense overlay of detail into it, thus breaking it up into separate parts.

The architectural surfaces of the buildings interact with the textures of the environment. Some natural materials, such as the stucco in its unpainted cement color, blend into the surroundings. Others stand out from it, such as the galvanized steel used for the columns and the birch plywood sheets (of a material called Finply) with which the chapel is covered.

The classroom buildings have the quality of Roman court houses, conveying a sense of order to the campus. Immediately the Roman Forum comes to mind. Paradoxically, the irregularity of the landscaping, whose patches of green and octagonal brick flowerpots recall the Katsura gardens of Japan, offsets the symmetry of the building units. The fragmented effect in the plan of the campus is continued in the exteriors of the buildings themselves, in the form of disconnected parts. For the south classroom, Gehry set a row of four cement columns free from the facade. Originally he wanted to lay one of the columns on the ground, but the idea was rejected by the client.

Oldenburg’s 12-foot-high Toppling Ladder, made of steel and aluminum, would be situated slightly off the axis of the four columns and, in its implied fall, would break the rigidity of the row according to the architect’s unfulfilled wish. The sculpture is a sort of ironic “monument” to Gehry’s esthetic of precarious forms and basic materials, of revealed construction and the creative use of chance elements.

The model of the Toppling Ladder is made of four steel rods and two bars with a section of standard chainlink fence laid over the rods in place of steps. A segment of steel tubing is welded to the top of the ladder as a representation of the paint can; to it is attached a piece of organically shaped steel which signifies the paint flying out. The pastel blue color of the paint was suggested by the tilework used in one of Gehry’s houses (on a sailboat trip with his family one Sunday, we had noticed how prominently the blue tile wall of the Norton house on the Venice beachfront stood out from all the other colors along the shore). The paint flies sideways out of the can in one big spill in imitation of the lateral movement of an earthquake, a dominating factor in Los Angeles’ building regulations.

Gehry had first elevated chainlink fence, the most prosaic and inexpensive of building materials, into the most prominent element in the Santa Monica Mall, completed in 1980. By making this common element the essence of the sculpture, Oldenburg mimicked the architect’s approach, with the intent of monumentalizing it; the standard chain-link fence on the model will be enlarged six times in the final work. Finally, the sculpture “frozen in space” is in balance, like Justice with her scales. In reality the work is caught at just the moment before collapse, which symbolizes not only the vulnerability of law but also the delicate balance between art and architecture—both subject to, and beyond, laws.

In view of our concurrent ideas, we were eager to follow up on the proposal for the other Venice when we met again in February 1984. (We would continue with a one-week work session in March with students at the Polytechnical University of Milan.) The architecture and theater project seemed appropriate to that older Venice, a city laid out like a stage. Though the performance is conceived as a fantasy, it is intended actually to be executed. (Unfortunately our architectural structures, which would have dealt with real factors, will have to remain unexecuted due to their scale and complexity.) We decided to begin with a site about which all three of us had strong recollections, the Arsenale, an ancient citadel and abandoned Navy yard whose oldest sheds, along the Darsena Vecchia (Old Dock), date back to the 12th and 13th centuries.

We knew that discussions had been held at the Faculty of Architecture of Venice University about what to do with the Arsenale, whether to let it remain what it is, a slowly disintegrating ruin which might be preserved with great difficulty as a relic, or to revitalize it in some way. One plan was to convert the sheds into a Museum of Contemporary Art. Another was to make the Arsenale, which lies within the working neighborhood of Castello, part of the city again, and to bring back craftsmen and boat storage and maintenance yards, which are still needed in today’s Venice. We preferred to keep an area in which artisans could live and work.

Gehry associated the Darsena Grande with a project he had done during a “charette” in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in October 1981. His problem there was to bring housing back to a downtown area that contained mostly office buildings. The usual tendency in urban development is to erect high-rise apartments, but the small downtown area of Kalamazoo did not require that much housing. Instead Gehry proposed a stagelike setup of “bleachers” over a parking garage, next to a lake which would be developed by tapping an underground river. Separate houses would be placed on top of the bleachers at different intervals. For the scale of the houses Gehry selected that of the town’s standard clapboard houses, built with simple porches and adorned with fretwork exteriors in American Colonial or Gothic Carpenter style. The houses would serve to link the new development with the existing city so that the downtown area would receive new housing while retaining an iconic identity. This procedure was similar to ours in developing the Biennale project, in that we too were looking for a symbol associated with a particular urban site to serve as the subject for a large-scale sculpture. We would all now apply this method to Venice, with the Arsenale as the focus.

We needed a composite image, flexible enough to tie together the performance and the architecture, and to reconcile the past with the present. I envisioned, as the main performer, a red “Swiss Army knife” that Oldenburg had been doing studies of for a sculpture, but which had not yet been placed in a definite site. The knife could be used both in its normal function of cutting, as the recurrent theme in the architecture, and in a dislocated way, apart from its function, in the performance. We felt it should be a simple pocketknife, because a fancy one, with can-opener, and tweezers, and so forth, would complicate the meaning and detract from its archetypal form. In its reducibility to a horizontal body, with two perpendicular blades capable of 360-degree rotation and a spiral corkscrew, the subject would be as suitable to sculpture as to architecture.

The knife as icon could correspond structurally to ships in all scales: the ubiquitous gondolas, modern red tugboats, ancient galleys, and even the Venetian ceremonial ship, the “Bucintoro.” With its corkscrew and blades folded upward it would echo all kinds of vertical structures in Venice, including the campanile of San Marco and the parapets of the Arsenale. The color red could be associated with ceremonial events such as those shown in the paintings of Canaletto. Finally, its identity as souvenir and its foreign origin would point to Venice’s main source of income, tourism.

Metamorphically, the knife could be a fish as well as a gondola: “C’est un bâtiment long et étroit come un poisson, a peu près comme un requin. . . . Le bec d’avant de la gondole est armé d’un grand fer en col de grue, garni de six larges dents de fer." (It is a long narrow vessel like a fish, or perhaps like a shark. . . . The prow of the gondola has a large iron piece shaped like a crane’s neck, with six big iron teeth. Charles de Brosses, Lettres d’Italie, Dijon, 1739.) By happy coincidence, the knife and corkscrew could be equated not only with a fish but also with a snake, the two biomorphic shapes that Gehry was currently using in his architecture. This made Oldenburg think of the statue of St. Theodore and the Dragon on one of the columns in the Piazza San Marco. He also introduced into the discussion the play Othello, which sounded like coltello, the Italian word for pocketknife. The corkscrew, the eccentric element, could suggest the cone-shaped cap of Harlequin in the commedia dell’arte, thus giving the object a range of reference from the tragic to the comical. However, we decided to avoid the connotations of violence and present the knife constructively in ordinary activity, such as peeling, whittling, scraping, and so on, and to emphasize its capacity to alter form by carving and cutting, in all scales.

We also wanted to make a “cut” through the rhetoric of art and architecture and to cut ourselves off from the commercialized tradition of Venice as well. Any architect who tries to intervene in Venice is forced to take tradition into account to such a degree that the new architecture almost inevitably ends up conformistic. For this reason, Gehry wanted to make something that was “a clean cut” with the existing structures of the Arsenale, though adjacent to it. The bleacher structure developed for Kalamazoo, projected onto the north bank of the Arsenale basin, would provide the break that Gehry wanted and also counterbalance the structures on the opposite side.

Our February meeting ended with a mutual agreement to title the project “Il Corso del Coltello.” “Corso” (course) referred both to the impending session with the students who would work with us on the architecture and the performance and to the path that the performance would take through the canal that traverses the Arsenale. Gehry returned to California, and Oldenburg and I continued to elaborate the subject in New York. Just before our departure for Venice and Milan, Dr. Coltello surfaced in Oldenburg’s notes:

Dr. Coltello is a tour guide, harrassed, with no expectations, not at all honest or attractive, a man just getting on and waiting for his transformation, his “awakening.” He is our hero whom we now see wake and leave his miserable chamber in a forgotten part of town. He cuts his way out, just as the night before, wanting a bit of air, he cut himself a window. You can be direct with architecture, being a knife as he is.

On March 25th, as the first step in the “Corso del Coltello,” Gehry, Oldenburg, and I finally visited the Arsenale, having been given special permission to do so by the admiral in charge. Instantly it became clear that we would never want to change this amalgam of enormous brick sheds, workshops, and ramps, built over many centuries and mixed with rusting cranes and corroding machinery.

Gehry saw this conglomeration as an example of urban design in harmony with the natural development of the city. “The way I perceive urban experience is in a fragmentary form which I try to express in the combination of more or less unrelated objects which leave a fundamental but not obvious relationship,” he said later. This approach was comparable to the plotlessness of (our planned) performance, and seemed to apply to both projects. But since the north bank of the Darsena Grande was lined with 16th-century sheds and the impressive ruin of the Porta Nuova (New Gate Tower) from 1811, we had to abandon the idea of placing new housing next to the basin.

In the afternoon we met the students, who had taken the train from Milan, and their teachers, Germano Celant and the architect Maurizio Vogliazzo. Then we all set out to explore the site and to gather materials related to the Arsenale and Venice, such as snapshots, stock photographs, maps, souvenirs, and so on. We took Vaporetto No. 5, the boat line which operates through the Old Dock and canals of the Arsenale, then emerges out of a hole in the back wall into the Laguna Morta, giving a view of the cemetery and, in the distance, the islands of Murano and Burano. This waterway seemed an ideal layout for the performance,all the more so because the high, abrupt wall facing the uneventful expanse of the lagoon gave the feeling of being “backstage.” Later, as we walked along the passageway attached to the outside of the wall, Gehry found the solution to the architectural project: an entirely new section of the city, in the form of an island to begin about 150 feet from the shore behind the Arsenale.

After we had returned to Milan the following day, the students developed a model of the area around the Arsenale including the proposed new island—which we called "Coltello Island”—and another large model of the island itself, so that we could simultaneously work in two different scales. A building program was worked out which specified housing for about two hundred artisans, a post office, a medical clinic, a bank, a theater, a fire station, an office building, a swimming pool, and a fruit market.

The critical question of our collaboration would be how to relate sculptural architecture with objects that identify an exterior architectural shell; especially, how the two might meet—whether in a collision, in a clear cut, or in a gradual transition of the object into architecture, or vice versa. The following structures were projected: Gehry felt that the knife shape, which Oldenburg drew with the blades and screw up, was best suited to the bank. The fire station would be in the form of a snake and the covered swimming pool in the form of a fish, both based on earlier designs by Gehry for a folly. An office building shaped like the opened lid of a grand piano, designed by Oldenburg, would be placed next to the fire station, while a vast canopy over the fruit market would be suspended from a colossal corkscrew fountain. The facade of the theater would be a pair of binoculars, with a library located in the upper part. Instead of the houses being placed on bleachers, the bleachers would become containers for the housing, cut through and placed at different angles. The presence of the knife would be felt in other buildings as well; the esthetic of “cutting” would bind together all these scattered elements.

At this stage of the project we left Milan and the students. At the end of April Oldenburg and I traveled again to Los Angeles, where we continued to work on Coltello Island with Gehry. But the completion of a final model was set aside in favor of an actual project which would allow us to realize our joint working method—a commission to design a camp for children who have cancer, to be situated in the Santa Monica mountains above Malibu.

Coosje van Bruggen wrote the introductory text for this project: she is a freelance writer and curator, and collaborates on large-scale projects with Claes Oldenburg, to whom she is married. Frank O. Gehry is an architect who lives in Los Angeles. Claes Oldenburg is an artist who lives in New York.



Part One
Mode: present, absurd.
Spectators gather on the Campo A. Emo on the Riva S. Biagio. Soon a ship appears in the Canale di San Marco in the shape of a Swiss army knife (coltello), with its knives/sails up. The “sails” are lowered so that the ship may pass under the bridge into the Rio dell’Arsenale. The knives/sails are raised again as the ship moves slowly along the canal. The spectators follow on the east bank until the ship comes to a stop near the bridge before the entrance to the Arsenale.

The Coltello/ship is tied up while the spectators find seats at café-tables set up on both sides of the canal. Each spectator receives a souvenir coltello and a sliced guide book. Certain events now take place along the following lines, in no special sequence:

The properties of the knife are analyzed and described and the knife’s potential activity tested.

The knife is tried in different scales and functions. At each scale-stage, it is compared to objects and people. Its largest scale, as a “bank” building in the Laguna Morta, is prefigured.

The relation of the knife to things—close, distant, oblique—is explored. To Venice things in particular; to past things; personal recollections. Metamorphic capacities of the knife are discovered.

A number of events also occur which have no direct relation to the knife theme but are related to Venice and the surroundings.

With the final event, which may be celebrational, the knives/sails are folded down, the Coltello/ship casts off and departs between the towers into the Arsenale for Part Two.

Part Two
In the Darsena Vecchia and the Rio della Galeazze, the Coltello/ship sprouts oars, some soft, and raises its knives/sails again. (It will be necessary to hoist the screw over the bridges, unless some way can be found to lay it down.) The spectators follow along the west bank under the ruined arches. This takes place in twilight.

Part Three
The Coltello/ship lowers its knives/sails and passes through the hole in the outer wall of the Arsenate. It enters into the Laguna Morta, where it enlarges into its final scale to become a “bank” building at the center of a group of island-buildings formed in one way or another by the slicing of a knife. Now it is night.

Part Four
The labyrinth events are eliminated in this preliminary script, and can be combined with Part One.

—Claes Oldenburg