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The Corcoran Shows Gehry at the Top of His Bent

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2004; Page N08

Architecture and design fans should thrill to the Frank Gehry extravaganza coming to the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

It has been five years since Gehry was chosen to design an addition to the Corcoran's building on New York Avenue at 17th Street NW, and it will be another five before it is completed. The projected cost has risen to $120 million, but the Corcoran believes it can break ground in the spring of 2006. The two shows this fall ought to generate plenty of excitement in the meantime.


In 1998, Frank Gehry began work on this audacious design for a Guggenheim museum on the water in Lower Manhattan. After Sept. 11, 2001, plans changed, and only the model remains. (Photo Courtesy Of Frank O. Gehry & Associates)

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First up is a small display of the architect's furniture organized by the Corcoran College of Art and Design. Vintage cardboard, 1990s bentwood and models in plastic and aluminum unveiled this spring in Milan will go on view Sept. 22 in the Hemicycle Gallery.

On Oct. 2, "Frank Gehry, Architect: Designs for Museums" will open the door to a Lilliputian tour. Eight miniature Gehry-designed museums will be installed in Corcoran galleries. The intricate architectural models are the main draw, but drawings and videos will add to the evolving picture.

Even schoolchildren recognize that Gehry changed the way we perceive buildings. Corcoran President and Director David Levy suggests that "Frank Gehry's designs mirror the changing roles of museums" as well.

The innovations include Gehry's first metal-clad building, the stainless-steel Weisman Art Museum, completed in 1993 at the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis. The Weisman created the "Designs for Museums" exhibition to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its topsy-turvy New Age castle, where attendance rose from 40,000 a year to a sustained figure of 135,000. The exterior provides its own show, taking on colors of sun, sky and water as the sun sets over the Mississippi River.

Before Gehry began to wrap sculptural buildings in glowing metals, he deconstructed geometries for a small, cheery, white-walled Vitra Design Museum, an early 1990s success set amid green fields and flowering trees at the Vitra furniture factory in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany.

Models show how the Vitra's edgy boxes reappear at the Weisman, but with softer outlines and a metallic sheen. Those tentative curves evolved four years later into exuberant waves at the titanium-clad Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain. Seattle's Experience Music Project building, with its fusion of textures and colors, looks like an architectural breakout. By comparison, the Corcoran's silvery unbuilt wing looks utterly serene. Seven models of the Corcoran project are included in the show.

The Corcoran's dream of a Gehry museum goes back to 1999, when the architect was selected over two now-familiar contenders. Finalist Daniel Libeskind went on to become the master planner of the new World Trade Center. And Santiago Calatrava, the architect-engineer whose daring stadium superstructure provided dazzle at the Athens Olympics, has won plenty of plaudits for a mass transit hub of glass and steel wings that he is designing for the Trade Center site. Calatrava is also working on a cantilevered apartment tower for Manhattan.

It is ironic, and ultimately moving, that Gehry's presence in New York has remained tentative. In 1998 he began work on an audacious plan for a Guggenheim-on-the-water in Lower Manhattan. The extraordinary model -- it rises like a glowing curvilinear cloud over the East River -- was a centerpiece of a 2001 show of Gehry's work at the Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York, and promises to be the showstopper at the Corcoran as well.

That model retains special power beyond its architecture. Only weeks after the Guggenheim show, the World Trade Center was attacked and plans for Lower Manhattan altered. Only the architectural model remains, a poignant reminder of lost dreams.


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