PRINT Summer 2001

Aformal Affinities

A conceptual building is as likely to be aformal as it is to be formal.”
—Reyner Banham, 1955

“MORE GARBAGE HAS BEEN WRITTEN about [Frank Gehry] than any other architect of his generation,” Reyner Banham noted in 1987, “but all attempts to push him into any known taxonomy—even postmodernist—tend to leave him uncategorised.” Banham himself had tried often enough to place him. In his breakthrough 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, he attempted to assimilate Gehry into the LA Modern tradition, from R. M. Schindler forward, as he saw the Danziger Studio and Residence of 1964–65 both as a stucco box, common enough in the West Coast style, and as a studio of the kind made “modernist” by Europeans like Le Corbusier. In a later article, “Building Inside Out,” published in the New Society in 1987, Banham tried to connect Gehry to a hippie/beat tradition, comparing the residence he built for himself in Santa Monica with that of Wonko the Sane in the late Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker trilogy, whose house was literally “inside out”: bookshelves and carpet on the outside, rough brickwork within.

The difficulty of categorizing Gehry reemerged a decade later in Fredric Jameson's attempts to summarize the characteristics of postmodernism. But for Jameson, problems of nomenclature did not prevent Gehry from being squarely situated, if uncomfortably, in a postmodern of a certain kind—a concept, as he writes in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, that “is not merely contested, [but] also internally conflicted and contradictory.” Jameson, like Banham, takes the “inside-out” house as paradigmatic; and not just of certain formal tendencies of postmodernism such as “wrapping” but in relation to what Jameson identifies in the postmodern as a residue of that modern impetus toward the utopian and the entirely new, a pressure ostensibly negated by the rhetoric of postmodernists. “It is well known,” he writes, “that postmodernism is at one with a negative judgement on these aspirations of the high modern, which it claims to have abandoned—but the new name, the sense of a radical break, the enthusiasm that greeted the new kinds of buildings, all testify to the persistence of some notion of novelty or innovation that seems to have survived the modem itself.” Jameson accomplishes his discovery of a quasi-utopian impulse in Gehry by the analysis of the spatial constituents of the house on Twenty-second Street: features like “the strange new feeling of an absence of inside and outside,” the “messiness of an environment in which things and people no longer find their 'place,'” features that enter into a tautly thought dialectic between the remains of the traditional (rooms from the old house, preserved like archaic dream traces in a museum of the modern), and the “new” wrappings, themselves constituted in the base materials of the American wasteland.

But the point here, as Jameson realizes, is that a figuration of the house in these terms at once brings it into line with, and distances it from, the theorist's earlier consideration of the lobby space in John Portman's Hotel Bonaventure as the somehow quintessential postmodern space. While the house shares something of “the bewilderment and loss of spatial orientation” that characterizes Portman's LA atrium, the preservation of the traditional “room” as “an ultimate, tenuous, reference, or as the last stubborn, truncated core of a referent in the process of wholesale dissolution and liquidation” marks Gehry's structure as entirely distinct. Indeed, for Jameson, the dialogue between this “room” preserved from old space and the interstitial space created by the wrapping is precisely one that establishes a kind of “new space,” one that poses a question fundamental to thinking about contemporary American capitalism: that between advanced technological and scientific achievement and poverty and waste. While Jameson resists seeing the pure geometries of the “cube” suspended between old and new in Gehry's house as in some way symbolizing this double reality, he nevertheless proposes that in the very spatial manipulation characteristic of the architect, in thinking through a “spatial problem” in “spatial terms,” Gehry may have generated a new kind of utopian language speaking a “new living space.”

In these different ways, Banham the technological optimist and Jameson the critical pessimist sought to take Gehry out of the reach of what by the late '80s was already a “conventional” postmodernism. In doing so they tried to reframe his popular image as “outsider” and “crazy man” in terms that both complicate postmodernism and situate his practice as fundamental to that persistent, and more or less continuous, reworking of the modern which itself, in Jameson's terms, “could not not be anything else than postmodern.” Indeed, Banham and Jameson apparently both were responding to a self-conscious antipathy to style labels inherent in Gehry's practice. Resisting the traditional appellations of “modernist,” “postmodernist,” or “late modernist,” applied by critics and art historians to the art and architecture of the last fifty years, Gehry's work seems to beg another kind of framing, another category indeed, that will enable us to establish reference points for its interpretation.

In a series of lectures recently delivered at UCLA, Jameson, meditating more than a decade later on the very categories of “modern” and “postmodern,” hazarded that perhaps it was not until after World War II that “modernism” as we now know it was fully formulated as a theory and ideology; that the first modernists, indeed, acted without the benefit of a unified theory of “modernism”; and that this theory, as developed in the hands of critics such as Clement Greenberg, was in fact the operative mythology for the generation that included the Abstract Expressionists. We might, following this perception, in turn propose that only now can the “postmodern,” offered as a category, not as theory, in the late '70s and '80s—a category that posed few unifying principles across the various arts and was wielded in different senses according to the need for these arts to distinguish themselves from what had come before—be turned into theory and principle, even if negatively stated (a thought that would perhaps signal at least the tenuous ending of postmodernism itself).

If this is so, then one test of this theory would be the later works of Gehry, those that turn away from the overt manipulation of already figured codes of “high” and “low,” “traditional” and “new,” “modernist” and “not modernist” to point to something else that we might call, with reference to their free-flowing and undulating surfaces, “aformal.” Here, I do not mean to link Gehry to another recent tendency that has seen digitally produced morphologies as harking back to a Surrealist “informe,” itself a concept extruded from its origins in Georges Bataille by critics such as Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois to account for a wide spectrum of production, both contemporary and historically modernist. Where the informe—the amorphous blob, the “gob of spit” in Bataille's formulation—stands in opposition to any hint of compositional technique whatsoever, the “aformal” would imply more simply an indifference to the strategies and rules of academic composition.

In this sense, the specific transformation of the nature of wrapping and surfacing evident in all Gehry's projects since the Walt Disney Concert Hall (1987–), popularly summed up as the Bilbao Effect, represents something of a new stage that goes beyond a simple aesthetic shift in the work of an architect self-confessedly “more interested in this hands-on thing, and not in telling stories.” One might cite the complete transformation of the “wrapping” that was so important in Jameson's 1990 reading and now comprises not only high-tech materiais in place of lowly chain-link but elaborate and complicated forms generated by a combination of modeling, physical and virtual, that certainly could not be seen as arguing against some kind of “composition.” Such a design process has created a complication, only sketched in the straight-line approximations of chain-link, that creates a free-form aesthetic of its own, now entirely independent of the inner, inhabited space, and with little or no intention for this interstitial space to become a “new” inhabited realm, as in the Santa Monica House. Set free at last from its modernist reliance on inner space, or on plan as generator, the outer manipulation emerges as a triumphant image of such freedom.

To use the word “image” in this context is of course to conjure up all the specters of spectacular culture, of surface and mass ornament, that from Kracauer through Debord to Baudrillard have generally indicated a capitulation to the (postmodern) culture of capitalism at its worst. But in the case of Gehry's “images” of architectural freedom, I would want to refer more to that notion of the “image” first posed by Gombrich in the '50s and adopted by Banham in his characterization of that first “postmodern” British architecture movement, Brutalism. There, Banham uses the term to escape from classical aesthetics, to refer to something that, while not conforming to traditional canons of judgment, nevertheless was, in his terms, “visually valuable,” requiring “that the building should be an immediately apprehensible visual entity, and that the form grasped by the eye should be confirmed by experience of the building in use.” For Banham, this “imageability” meant that the building was in some way “conceptual,” more an idea of the relation of form to function than a reality, and without any requirement that the building be formal or aformal.

In the case of Gehry, the notion that Bilbao and buildings like it are both “conceptual” and “aformal” is easy enough to grasp; that it is also an “image” can be readily confirmed by their immediate adoption into the popular iconography of contemporary museum architecture as its “latest” form. And certainly, if for Banham “aformalism” implied a compositional method “based not on the elementary rule and compass geometry which underlies most architectural composition, so much as an intuitive sense of topology,” then Gehry's work can be seen to have always been aformal. Aformalism, in these terms, would then have replaced the traditional aesthetic properties of “beauty” linked to “geometry” with the equally powerful and still conceptual terms “image” and “topology.”

And if, in art, these tendencies are still unevenly represented, as in the current “BitStreams” exhibition at the Whitney—where experiments in Web and Net art sit side by side with digital animations of abstract screen art, and these in turn beside installations that pose critical questions to the digital itself—in architecture the particular nature of the “spatial” in the digital, a direct outgrowth of the characteristics of spatial postmodernism but fundamentally transformed by morphing and animation computer programs, is already well developed. Enough, at least, to see Gehry in the past decade as not simply a transitional figure but a paradigmatic starting point in a shift toward another kind of compositional outgrowth of modernism, one that has been present from the beginning but that now takes its power from his unique combination of aformality and compositional intuitiveness.