Without the Frank Gehry Addition to the Corcoran Gallery, Washington Misses an Opportunity

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

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.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company