PRINT Summer 2001

Applause and Effect

TWO YEARS AGO I made the trek to Bilbao to find out what all the commotion was about. I went with my critical antennae poised because the slavish adulation was getting irritating. The Bilbao Effect was visible everywhere, from professional journals to travel magazines to middlebrow glossies (the New Yorker was organizing group tours), from the cover of the New York Times Magazine to polemics like Victoria Newhouse's Towards a New Museum. Newhouse's book culminates with Frank Gehry, of course, and the allusion in her title is to Le Corbusier's revolutionary tract (was she implying that museums like Gehry's could save the world?). Other critics were blathering in metaphors: exultant eruption, frozen explosion, stormy volumes, floral splendor, titanium tentacles, Tower of Babel, a Basque bomb, “Lourdes for a crippled culture;” the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe (these last two from the imagination of Herbert Muschamp). Someone less charitable said something about a pheasant on a platter, but this was a minority opinion.

And I was disarmed, just like the Basque terrorists. Didn't they declare a cease-fire for a year and a half shortly after the building opened, all because the museum made everyone feel optimistic again about Bilbao? Right. Still, the eyewitnesses had hardly exaggerated. The building was a knockout. Standing in the colossal central space with all that glass, stone, and titanium splintering around you, you were reduced to monosyllables: Wow, wow. The installation of Serra's “Torqued Ellipses” in the soaring, 420-foot-long “fish” gallery. Wow. You could take all your architectural theory, Derridean, Deleuzian, whatever, and make a paper boat out of it and sail it right down Bilbao's muddy river Nervión standing, of course, on that marvelous promenade along the bank with the exhilarating view of the bridge that springs up and over to the far side of the city and getting mesmerized by the coruscating reflections in the metallic shingles.

What was so bouleversant was not just that one was in the presence of an auratic artwork. Everybody knows that Benjamin's notion that the aura would wither away in the age of technical reproduction was a pipe dream. The spectaculture demands its sites of pilgrimage; architourism requires destinations. But the concept that a single building in a marginal place could so destabilize the gyroscope of contemporary culture was something else. Hadn't the design of architecture been relegated to the job of infill and modification in the late-twentieth-century “collage city”? Wasn't postmodernism all about curbing architectural hubris? (Aldo Rossi: “To what, then, could I have aspired in my craft? Certainly to small things, having seen that the possibility of great ones was historically precluded.”) Wasn't the fetishization of bricks and mortar—even glass and titanium—strictly ice age in the epoch of electronic flows?

All the same, one could hardly get rid of the sensation that the architect was huddling behind a little curtain somewhere in that vertiginous atrium, working his effects like the humbug wizard. The spectacular, hyperkinetic play of surfaces, the concealment of the apparatus—unlike at Beaubourg, the counterexample, where the guts hang out in an ostentatious, color-coded display on the transparent facades—left one feeling not just bedazzled but weightless and disoriented. Only the construction photos betrayed the dinosaurlike carcass underneath.

If you want to know how a magician does his tricks, Manfred Tafuri writes (following Benjamin), it is better to observe him from backstage rather than continue to stare at him from a seat in the audience. Such a perspective has been largely absent from the purplish prose written over the years about Frank O. Gehry's creative genius, his intuitive method of design, his sculptural sensibility, his playful and irreverent disposition. He himself has headed off the critics, doing everything possible to bolster the myth of himself as an atheoretical practitioner, an “artist in architecture.” He has also presented himself as a kind of schlimazel-hero for the cult of personality—spontaneous, unaffected, an ice-hockey jock who admits that he strives to give his work an “edge” by making it look casual and unprecious. In “The House That Built Gehry,” a contribution to the catalogue of the current exhibition, Beatriz Colomina correctly draws attention to Gehry's construction of his own persona. But she misses the crucial point. Gehry isn't just another media phenomenon, despite the Guggenheim's recent efforts to turn him into a brand name and his long desire to be taken seriously as an artist. His self-fashioning is also part of a historically specific aesthetic discourse in which the disavowal of theory amounts to a theoretical position in itself.

In his introduction to an extended interview of 1999 titled “The Architect Who Fell Among the Artists,” signifying Gehry's reverse apotheosis, Kurt W. Forster attributes his status as a “late bloomer” to the fact that the practice of normative architecture constrained his artistic creativity for years. It is true that only a handful of the run-of-the-mill projects Gehry executed during the first two decades of his career, mostly for speculative developers and institutional clients, hint at what is to come. Among the significant exceptions are the Schindleresque Danziger Studio and Residence (1964–65), which Reyner Banham included in his 1971 Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, and the Ron Davis Studio and Residence (1968–72), with its forced volumetric perspectivalism. Both these projects, for a graphic artist and painter, respectively, demonstrate that Gehry was working through the issues of late-modernist form in sophisticated and original ways.

But it was only in 1978, when he was almost forty, that Gehry burst onto the scene with the modest pink bungalow he renovated for himself in Santa Monica, using materials like chain-link fencing, corrugated metal siding, cinder blocks, asphalt paving (in the dining room), and plywood. This was a full decade after Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's celebration of the ugly and ordinary landscape of Las Vegas as well as of the photos of Ed Ruscha, and in the midst of full-blown postmodernism in architecture. In other words, Gehry was hardly functioning in a theoretical void. Ten years later, when he found himself included in the Museum of Modern Art's “Deconstructivist Architecture” show, he made sure everyone knew he thought it was a case of strange bedfellows but happily took part in the poststructuralist pillow fight anyway. One would have to go back to Eero Saarinen in the late '50s to find an instance of a major architect who proved equally, but somewhat more innocently, immune to theoretical discussion; with Saarinen, whose career began and ended early, the “style for the job” was the best framing anyone could come up with. With Gehry, the anti-aesthetic aesthetic, the intensely studied unpretentiousness, continues to be received as a vaguely defined architectural expressionism (sources like Hermann Finsterlin, Erich Mendelsohn, Hans Scharoun, and inevitably Antonio Gaudi and Frank Lloyd Wright are invoked) rather than the consciously evolved position that it is. To say Gehry is “an artist” pure and simple is no more illuminating than to say the same of Le Corbusier, Wright, or Louis Kahn.

Gehry's process has also entered into the current mythography. The introduction of the computer into his practice over the last decade represents an extremely interesting development but also, to some extent, another smoke screen. What is enabled by CATIA—a sophisticated system of computer-aided design and fabrication that the office has adapted from the French aerospace firm Dassault Systèmes—is a rationalization and systematization of Gehry's empirical design method, which famously begins at the very low-tech level of crumpled-paper models and assemblages of found objects. As such, it translates the master's quite traditional and inefficient approach to design—based on massing studies, incessantly refined by trial and error—into the smooth logic of contemporary office and construction practice. But Gehry's process, as opposed to that of, say, a younger colleague like Greg Lynn, has never been technologically driven. To claim that CATIA is what gives Gehry's architecture its currency (as William J. Mitchell, guru of e-topia and dean of architecture at MIT, where Gehry's current Ray and Maria Stata Center is underway, does in another essay in the catalogue) is no more or less true than an analogous observation about Serra's method of fabricating his sculptures.

On the other hand, the influence of art-world ideas on Gehry's thinking has been profound, and as already suggested, affiliates his work with a specific set of historical and theoretical developments. It is worth noting that despite the often-repeated anecdotes of his early biography—the working-class liberal-Jewish upbringing in Toronto, the fish kept alive in the family bathtub for the Sabbath dinner, the initial job in Los Angeles as a truck driver, and so on—Gehry had a fairly broad and not unprivileged aesthetic, architectural, and intellectual formation. He studied studio art, art history, and architecture at the University of Southern California, where he met Raphael Soriano, Gregory Ain, Garrett Eckbo, and other members of the circle of architects around John Entenza's Arts & Architecture magazine. After receiving a degree in archtecture from USC, he worked for a year and half in the Los Angeles office of the Viennese émigré Victor Gruen, a pioneer designer of shopping centers and automobile-conscious downtowns. He then entered the program in city planning at Harvard on the GI Bill. Although disillusioned by the planning program's bureaucratic orientation in the mid-'50s, which caused him to drop out after a semester, he took advantage of the opportunity to sit in on lectures at the university by figures like J. Robert Oppenheimer, Margaret Mead, and John Kenneth Galbraith. He was also exposed at Harvard to the work of Le Corbusier and the tradition of European modernism by Josep Lluís Sert, Sigfried Giedion, and Jacob Bakema, all teaching in the architecture school at the time. Back in LA, he did a stretch in the office of Pereira & Luckman, big-time operators in the aerospace and corporate arena, and another three and half years in Gruen's office, before leaving in 1961 for a stint in Paris with the architect André Remondet (successor to Auguste Perret at the École des Beaux-Arts). He opened an office of his own in 1962 with a partner, finally establishing Frank O. Gehry & Associates in 1967.

Yet it was Gehry's contact during the late '50s and '60s with the leading artists on the LA scene and subsequently with East Coast figures like Robert Rauschenberg, Carl Andre, Claes Oldenburg, Richard Serra, Frank Stella, and others that was ultimately instrumental in shaping his iconoclastic attitude toward architecture and the city. It is no surprise, given Gehry's avoidance of ideological stances, that he would appropriate their ideas over the years in unorthodox and at times unrigorous ways. For example, when his clients for the Winton Guest House (1983-87) turned out to be too fastidious for the messy “potting shed” scheme he initially proposed to them, he was able to switch formal referents, without any sense of self-contradiction, from Rauschenberg to Morandi. As Serra has put it, not without admiration, “One of his greatest achievements is to collect the history of contemporary art and with an unabashed wit, cunning and playfulness make it his own vocabulary.”

Still, it is easy enough to trace a coherent path from the late-modernist object-volumetrics of Danziger and Davis in the '60s through the fractured assemblages of the Santa Monica house (first renovation, 1977–78), Loyola Law School (1978–), and the California Aerospace Hall (1982–84) in the late '70s and '80s to the more fluid, performative, and “baroque” idiom of the Guggenheim Bilbao (1991–97) and the Experience Music Project (1995–2000) in the '90s. Interestingly, Gehry's move toward a more disruptive and excessive formal language occurs (one might say creeps in) first at the roof level of his buildings—a literal example is the Norton Simon Gallery and Guest Facility (1974–76). Perhaps his trajectory from the aesthetics of late modernism to neo-Baroque spectacle most closely parallels that of Frank Stella in the art world during these same years, which is not to impute any direct influence (although there have been admiring exchanges between the two over the years, and Stella has attempted a Gehry-inspired architecture) but rather to suggest that they were responding to similar aesthetic intuitions.

Gehry relates in his 1999 interview with Forster how an installation of a double row of firebricks by Carl Andre at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1966 was a kind of epiphany for him. Not only did they evoke the world of industrial production, but more important, as installed in the space of the gallery, they offered a radically new form of aesthetic experience. The standardized building material had a tactile and sensuous dimension, but it wholly lacked the interiority associated with more “humanistic” substances like wood and stone. The Minimalist installation thus induced an experience of depthlessness, the ungroundedness of the copy without an original—not 155 firebricks, as Gehry puts it, but “firebrick, firebrick, firebrick, firebrick. . .” This experiential paradigm extended from the object to the space of the gallery or museum.

Paradoxically, of course, it was precisely the revelation of the lack of depth that proved fatal to the high-art practice of Minimalism. It was no longer possible to sustain the myth of art's autonomy, nor that of the inviolate space of the gallery, nor to draw distinctions between artifacts of industrial production and those of mass culture. The difference between an Andre and, say, an Oldenburg was erased. The whole debased world of consumerism, embraced by Pop art, could thus enter Gehry's architecture. He now turned to the visual chaos and junkscape of the late-twentieth-century city as his material stratum. Ultimately, the ephemerality and superficiality of that world would open the doors to the more fantastical and spectacular conception of architecture he pursues at present, as if to exploit the junkscape's alchemical rather than chemical potential. “I'm taking your language [and] making it into something better,” Gehry says he tells his clients. “I'm taking your junk and making something with it.” Thus, unlike some of his architectural contemporaries, who continue either to resist the chaos by returning to Minimalist precepts (for example, the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron) or else to analyze and comment on it (Rem Koolhaas), Gehry deliberately seeks to aestheticize, to transmute dross into art. His ribbonlike metallic walls, warped volumes, and bulging window frames evoke a dream—or nightmare—world of sand castles and fairy tales, but uncannily realized in three dimensions and made to accept practical functions. What distinguishes this world from that of Disney, aside from its greater artistry, is its radical heterogeneity and the euphoric acknowledgment of its own superficiality.

In an essay of 1982 entitled “The Beaubourg-Effect: Implosion and Deterrence,” Jean Baudrillard described the Centre Pompidou as a centripetal and diabolical machine that sucked culture into the void of the warehouse/supermarket for art. The Bilbao Effect (a term Peter Eisenman claims, perhaps with some envy, to have coined) is predicated on opposite dynamics. Centrifugal rather than centripetal, magical rather than machinic, Bilbao celebrates the reconsecration of the museum as a space of art. Here Paul Scheerbart's and Bruno Taut's early twentieth-century vision of a crystalline necklace of “city crowns”—jewel-like buildings serving as both local centerpieces and constituents of a far-flung utopian community—is reprogrammed for the commodity culture's logic of endless circulation. The global Guggenheim materializes in the hollow space of Gehry's architecture.

I am reminded of an old cartoon by Gahan Wilson. A figure in a foolscap is standing on a soapbox inscribed with the letter “N” in the middle of a public square filled with an enormous, cheering crowd. The image is reminiscent of the Bilbao museum in the center of its swirling urban plaza—or perhaps of Jeff Koons's topiary Puppy guarding the descent to the museum's threshold. In the cartoon two tiny figures deep in the crowd are whispering to one another, “Is Nothing sacred?” In the Gehry universe, the answer is that nothing is sacred but Art. Art, that is, understood as an excessive, impossible, even farcical dream of freedom, imagination, and pleasure. No wonder the crowd is cheering.