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Frank Gehry's billowing design won a high-profile competition, but the gallery board pulled the plug on the project in favor of
Frank Gehry's billowing design won a high-profile competition, but the gallery board pulled the plug on the project in favor of "a more strategic approach to the Corcoran's future." (AP)

In its final form, the design represents a genuinely fresh -- indeed, brilliant -- solution to the age-old Washington challenge of fitting the new with the old. The design is contextual, as all good Washington buildings like to be, and yet it also is original and idiosyncratic.

The second aspect of the design that I love also has to do with delight and surprise: The interior spaces. The wrappings of Gehry's buildings often do not have much to do with the spaces inside, but that's only partially true in this Washington design. There is a lot of glass between and behind those sheet metal sails, so a passerby would get a lively sense of the interiors.

And then, folks would pass through the doors and into the spaces themselves. Whammo. Stacks of giant boxes, some with right-angled edges and others with curves, rising from below-ground levels to shadowy roof trusses high above. Moving through and across these spaces in the process of getting from gallery to gallery would undoubtedly have been an enchanting (and possibly dizzying) experience. This would perhaps have been the most dynamic of all of Gehry's interiors.

The third thing I love -- maybe appreciate is a better word -- about the Gehry project is that it represented a creative response to the very real needs of the Corcoran for additional gallery space and larger and better facilities for the school, now known as the Corcoran College of Art. And it was a visionary approach to the Corcoran's perennial identity crisis as an underfunded private institution in a sea of publicly funded federal museums.

Gehry's new galleries, both the conventional, rectangular ones and the curved ones, would have been splendid additions to the Corcoran's existing supply of rectangular rooms, especially that superb enfilade of high galleries behind the long 17th Street wall of Ernest Flagg's 1897 building. The project also would have freed up the galleries now misused as storage spaces or offices.

The school facilities, though still located underground, would have been a major improvement over today's rabbit warren of studios. In configuring the spaces, Gehry took great care to ensure that important parts of the school -- namely the lobby, the main entry and the cafe -- were directly connected to the public spaces up above. The rebuilt school, in other words, would have been a participant in the building's spatial dynamics.

This connection is more than just symbolically important. Keeping the school and the museum in direct physical contact was a major part of Levy's strategy from the beginning. He believed that physically separating the two functions would be "the first and really irrevocable step of a divorce." This is a judgment the Corcoran's current leaders will have to consider carefully as they chart their new strategy.

Gehry's design is wonderful but not perfect. For all the grace of the exterior, the interior connections to the Flagg building are poor. You would have to have traversed narrow hallways, or made your way through a store, or, in a singular instance, across a thrilling, if narrow bridge.

And the undulating metal skin, though immensely alluring, would nevertheless have been more impressive, more surprising and more Washington had it been designed in marble -- perhaps from the same quarry as that used on Flagg's splendid building. Levy and Gehry said it was considered, but then dropped because of cost. In hindsight, they should have gone for it.

Still, the bottom line is that Gehry's Corcoran joins the short, unhappy list of highly significant modern buildings designed for Washington but not built: Eliel and Eero Saarinen's competition-winning 1939 design for a Smithsonian Gallery of Art on the Mall; and Frank Lloyd Wright's Crystal Heights, the stunning mixed-use project he designed in 1940 for the spot where the Hilton Washington stands today.

Both of these potential modernist masterpieces were staunchly opposed by the city's architectural establishment. By contrast, Gehry's building won widespread approval. Not that it helped.

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