Deconstructing an Architecture Icon

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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 2, 2006

Just when Sydney Pollack's new film about super-architect Frank Gehrythreatens to get really interesting, Pollack, perhaps unconsciously channeling about 100 years' worth of bad movies about great artists, reverts to fallback mode: Two neurotic guys kibitzing about the fear of creativity, the threat of the blank page, the power of critics and the need to have faith in oneself.

Even so, Gehry should be pleased to have someone of Pollack's visual gifts commemorate him in "Sketches of Frank Gehry," a major new feature-length documentary (Pollack's first). Pollack has an eye for visual space. The loving, even voluptuous way his camera captures the surface of Gehry's architecture reminds one of Edward Weston's black-and-white photographs of peppers. In the film's most poignant moment, Gehry is heard talking enviously about painters and bemoans his own inability to create "a painterly surface." Pollack's responds with a wry "Oh, yeah?" and then fires off a brief but brilliant display of cinematography, capturing bits and pieces of Gehry's work in vivid colors and rich textures -- each shot an exquisite moment of abstraction.

Thus the filmmaker says: I have found the hidden painterly beauty in Gehry's architecture, which is itself a product of Gehry finding the sculptural potential of three-dimensional, built spaces. It's a small moment of one-upmanship, and to his credit, for most of the film, Pollack is happy just to be Gehry's equal, laughing and joking with him on camera about the frustrations of being creative.

Sadly, this banter, along with Pollack's earnest efforts to capture Gehry at work (staring at paper models, cutting them, hating them, tweaking them), leaves one wondering if film can ever possibly capture anything interesting about the creative process. The parameters of Gehry's genius, as suggested by Pollack, are essentially the same as those captured in generations of cliched artist biopics, from the 1945 "A Song to Remember" (about Chopin) through and beyond the 1984 "Amadeus" (about Mozart). The artist is inspired by simple things; he struggles against rules; he fights his own insecurities; he suffers from perfectionism; he suffers for art; he's restless; he's childlike; he prevails over the herd and common taste.

At its worst, this film suggests that Gehry's career has been a single psychological rebellion against the boxy, functional forms of classically inspired architects. "What bugs me are these goddamn rules," Gehry says. This ignores the obvious fact that you don't have to do seductive curves to make breathtaking buildings; see the minimalist masterpieces of Tadao Ando, for example.

At its best, "Sketches" captures the full arc of Gehry's career, from his days as a truck driver, to his uncertain ambitions in school, to his first, highly innovative use of common materials (chain-link fence made him infamous) to breakthrough buildings like the 1989 Vitra museum in Germany, where an exotically curved staircase seems to presage everything to come in the 1990s.

It also gives small hints at what made all of this possible. One of Gehry's partners is interviewed about how computers set the master free. Until digitization could be brought to bear on Gehry's free-form models, designing was a frustrating process. But the ability to scan in his shapes and create three-dimensional pictures was a major step forward, allowing, among other things, his shop to create the paper pictures required by contractors and all the legal types who have to sign off on new buildings.

It's a small glimpse inside the way technology has aided and perhaps abetted Gehry's vision, and it's remarkable that Pollack, a filmmaker, didn't ask an obvious question. The same technology has hardly been a boon to Hollywood's artistic integrity. Special effects, ginned up in computers, have, in many ways, become a meaningless, stultifying addiction for filmmakers. Will Gehry's computer-aided spaces feel as hollow once the technological magic loses its first appeal? Will they seem very much part of a cultural moment, defined by the ephemera of video games and movies like "The Matrix"?

Pollack does allow at least one detractor his say. Hal Foster, a professor at Princeton, raises some troubling issues about what is often considered Gehry's masterpiece, the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain. Is it a space for art, or a vast, overbearing sculpture that competes with art? Pollack's camera stacks the deck against Foster's argument, capturing a Richard Serra sculpture serenely nested inside Bilboa, looking as happy as a steel bug in a glass rug. And he also quotes the artist Julian Schnabel, a buffoon in a white bathrobe with a ciggy and drink in hand, saying, "I want to stick my stuff in there . . ." Perhaps it's meant as a joke.

Gehry himself is heard repeating a criticism oft leveled at him: that his work has become "logotecture," a kind of high-priced, globalized architectural branding project. That Gehry mentions it is proof of its sting. And Pollack builds a case for the "logotecture" criticism with the talking heads he consults: Barry Diller, Michael Eisner, Bob Geldof and Michael Ovitz, some of the entertainment industry's most powerful men, are all quoted saying meaningless things about how wonderful Gehry's work is.

So the film comes down to a set of questions that Pollack ducks. Is Gehry's architecture, as the architect suggests, about the productive, exhilarating chaos of democratic societies? Or is it sculpture paid for, and collected, by fabulously rich people? Can it be both at the same time?

Here's a quote not in the film: "The uniqueness of Frank Gehry's work is the blending of the functional with the artistic to create an innovative product."

That was Jeffrey Skilling, Enron president and CEO, in 2001 -- when Enron was funding a huge Guggenheim show devoted to Gehry. Skilling, now a convicted felon, went on: "This is a quality Enron relates to every day as we question traditional business assumptions and embrace innovative solutions. We are pleased to help showcase Frank Gehry's genius."

It's not fair to do guilt by association. The point is, Skilling's description of Enron parallels Gehry's architecture very closely. It always questions traditional assumptions; it always embraces innovative solutions. And to some, it suggests a giddiness that seduced many Enron investors: It seems to stay up, as if by magic, hiding its inner structure, glistening on the outside, exuberant and strong.

It's difficult, today, to sort out the image of democracy sold by corporate America, and the real tumult of democracy itself. Fans of Gehry might ask themselves (and pressure the architect to consider) whether his art will be remembered for capturing a particular technological, economic and corporate moment in American life -- or will he be remembered more fondly for doing something independent of all that gleaming money and power?

Sketches of Frank Gehry (83 minutes, at E Street Cinema) is rated PG-13 for brief strong language.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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