Saturday, May 28, 2005
The most frequently asked question about Frank Gehry's eagerly anticipated addition to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in the past few years has been, simply, "When?"
Early this week, the Corcoran board supplied an answer: Never.
Oh, no one came out and said it so precisely. But that is the almost certain result of the board's decision, in the words of a gallery press statement, to suspend "the expanded facilities portion" of its fund-raising campaign and to adopt "a new, more strategic approach to the Corcoran's future." And, by the way, to accept the resignation of longtime director David C. Levy, the chief champion and strategist of the Gehry addition.
Board members did allow as how they might resuscitate the Gehry design if a couple of donors were to come along with $50 million to $100 million in their pockets. But that's less a plan than a halfhearted prayer.
So, the time has come it seems to assess the sad loss. It is sad because -- let's see, how simple can I make this -- the Gehry building was going to be beautiful.
The design was unveiled to immense excitement six years ago, after a high-profile international competition between Gehry and two other famous finalists -- Daniel Libeskind and Santiago Calatrava. Then the Gehry design was changed, and changed again, and then again, until it fit the Corcoran site almost perfectly.
Gehry is one of the great architects of our time. An American original. (Actually, since he was born in Canada and spent a fair part of his youth there, I suppose we ought to say he's a North American original. Then again, crazy-quilt Los Angeles proved to be his essential creative milieu . . . but we digress.)
Rather late in his life, the 76-year-old architect transformed himself into the avatar of an aggressively experimental, emotionally charged, formally inventive architecture that challenged conventional orthodoxies of both modernism and postmodernism. Challenged, and then changed them.
Because of Gehry, more than any other single architect or architectural firm in the past quarter century, the possibilities of architectural expression have hugely expanded. With its sophisticated mastery of computer technology, Gehry's Los Angeles office has helped to provide a new model of architectural practice, one that maximizes the architect's control over the process of both design and construction.
Gehry has become modern architecture's grand old man, routinely attacked these days by younger architects, as grand old men always are. But his own creativity seems undiminished. His buildings are more elegant than they used to be but still can be radically surprising.
And that is one of the three things I really loved about the prospect of having Gehry's Corcoran addition built: The promise of surprise every time one would round the corner of 17th Street and New York Avenue NW. Subtle, almost calming surprise. Huge metal sails billowing elegantly outward, catching the changing light in wonderful ways, and looking right at home in supposedly conservative Washington.
Gehry's original competition design was explosive and exuberant, but, in its relation to the existing building, overpowering. In the process of consultation with Levy and others, including the federal Commission of Fine Arts and the city's historic preservation office, the architect gradually refined the design until it had the tightness of a site-specific sculpture.