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Waves of the Future: Gehry at Corcoran

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 2, 2004; Page C05

Being around Frank Gehry buildings, even if they're just scale models, can be dangerous to your equilibrium -- physical, emotional, critical.

Take, for instance, the exhibition that opens today at the Corcoran Museum of Art and College of Art and Design (as the old institution is calling itself these days), "Frank Gehry, Architect: Design for Museums." While standing alone the other day in front of the spectacular model of Gehry's design for a Guggenheim Museum in New York, I found myself wanting to shout and sing and dance.

Frank Gehry, whose museum designs include the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, left, sometimes calls his idiosyncratic, distinctly non-rectangular buildings "funny shapes." (Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

Fortunately, I channeled the impulse into the domain of pure fantasy, imagining myself doing wonderful Gene Kelly swirls and leaps to the appreciative astonishment of fellow visitors. It got to the point that I expected, almost, the figures inside the model to break into Lilliputian dances of their own.

It was, I thought, an appropriate fantasy, for Gehry's buildings at their best are all about movement -- of the eyes, the body, the heart.

And then . . . I snapped out of it, irritably wondering, not for the first time, when in the world Washington might get its first building by Gehry, a certified made-in-North-America architectural genius.

We'll get it in 2009, says David C. Levy, president and director of the Corcoran.

That is, of course, a full decade after the Corcoran pronounced Gehry the winner of the international architectural competition for an addition to its 107-year-old building on 17th Street NW near the White House.

"I think we're in the homestretch," Levy said, relaxing in his office with the architect after the press preview of the show.

Fundraising was buoyed considerably, Levy pointed out, by the city council's vote last summer to provide a $40 million loan backed by future tax revenues, bringing the total so far to more than $106 million. That still leaves about $54 million for renovation and new construction, but Levy says he's confident.

The schedule, as outlined by Levy, is this: Next year, the federal government will begin work to shift the position of a steam tunnel outside the Corcoran building on New York Avenue, a job necessary to make way for the new building. The school and museum will begin moving to temporary quarters (not yet finalized) in May 2006. Construction of the addition will begin about that time and take 30 months, with completion toward the end of 2008. Give a bit of time to move in and we have -- presto! -- an opening in the fall of the following year.

Gehry listened attentively as the Corcoran director ticked off the milestones. "Let's see," the architect noted with a little smile, "I'll be 80 years old by then. But I'm in good shape, I'll be there."

The exhibition of Gehry's museum projects doubles as a fundraising promotion, an effort by the Corcoran to keep attention focused on its ambitious plans and venturesome design. Gehry was being thoroughly supportive. He spent two days in Washington last week, talking to whomever Levy wanted him to talk to.

Consisting mainly of large photographic panels and a selection of the splendid working models produced in Gehry's studio in Venice, Calif., the show provides a pretty good introduction to its subject. But it cannot be mistaken for a seriously analytical affair.

The lack of site plans and floor plans, in particular, limits understanding of the architecture's spatial and functional complexities. The absence of a catalogue and curatorial point of view deprive the show of serious intellectual underpinnings.

It would be relatively easy, then, to whip through in a few minutes, oohing and ahhing at the wonder of all these "funny shapes," as Gehry sometimes calls his idiosyncratic, distinctly non-rectangular buildings. But that would be doing the architecture, and yourself, a disservice. Even in model form, Gehry buildings repay concentrated attention.

If museums are the most important civic buildings in the contemporary city -- today's cathedrals, as is often said -- then Gehry is one of the great innovators of the civic architecture of our time. His museum buildings have helped to set new standards and establish new expectations.

But because many of Gehry's museums have metal skins, it is often said by inattentive observers that the architect stamps out repetitive "Gehrys" as if they were a product line. This is far from the truth, as this show demonstrates. The Gehry museums actually are varied in form and amazingly individualistic in expressive content.

Chronologically, the exhibition begins with the Vitra Design Museum, a little white building that packs a punch on a green field in front of a furniture factory in southern Germany. Though not the first of Gehry's museum commissions, the Vitra building, designed in the late 1980s, was vitally important to his development.

In it, you see the architect beginning to experiment with highly complex, interlocking forms and spaces. Struggling is perhaps the better word, for the building has an awkward, almost handmade feel to it, as if it were an accidental collision of odd, hollow forms. It's a terrific little building that gives you the sense that limits had to be pushed for it to get built.

The experience of designing and constructing Vitra and the more controlled, cubistic Frederick Weisman Museum in Minneapolis, done in the early 1990s, hastened the Gehry team's search for computer systems capable of translating this new complexity of forms into actual buildings.

That search ended triumphantly with the adaptation for architecture of French computer software initially developed to help make fighter planes. And that technical feat led, famously, to the 1997 Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, that titanium-sheathed architectural photo shot seen round the world.

As important as that shimmering skin is to the Bilbao design, it is but one part of a complex whole. Brilliant site planning, for instance, is even more crucial, and you can see this clearly in the large model on view here. Gehry settled his ship of a building on its riverside site with the steely skill of a veteran captain in the midst of a storm. The building actually envelops a section of a powerful steel bridge that slams across the site.

Looking at the great Guggenheim New York model, you have to feel that this building, too, belongs irreversibly to its particular location. With a background of downtown skyscrapers, it would have been a stupendously jazzy pinwheel. Sadly, however, the project was dropped in 2002.

The Bilbao and New York museums show Gehry's designs at their most powerfully exuberant. The Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, Miss., on the other hand, readying for an opening next year, is a suite in a different key, an assortment of related buildings, each one a spirited essay on the southern coastal locale.

And then, last but not least, there is the Corcoran design, shown here in a sequence of models revealing stages of the design process and, most refreshingly, giving visitors a sense of how the new interiors will look and feel. Gehry's Corcoran building will be a slow, graceful, billowing dance along New York Avenue. For that, 2009 cannot come soon enough.

Frank Gehry Architect: Designs for Museums opens today at the Corcoran Museum of Art, 500 17th St. NW, and will remain on view through Feb. 21. A complementary exhibition, "The Furniture of Frank Gehry," also is on view. Closed Tuesday, open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. all other days, and to 9 p.m. on Thursday. Admission: $6.75.

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