Frank Gehry's Complex Legacy

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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 30, 2008

If you call a building "Gehryesque," even people who don't follow architecture closely will know what you mean. It is a building by Frank Gehry, the world's most famous living architect, and it probably looks like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, a curved and sinuous space wrapped in Gehry's trademark shimmering titanium. Few architects are so easily reducible to a visual idea, and so completely defined by their name and their style.

But as two new buildings open -- one a library at Princeton University, the other an expansion of a major art museum in Toronto -- it's clear that the biggest threat to Gehry's legacy may be the Gehry brand itself. As the architect ages -- he will turn 80 in February -- and as observers attempt to sum up his career and project his legacy, there is a growing sense that his most acclaimed work, buildings made in the style of Bilbao, have turned out to be dead ends. Rather than open up new possibilities for the architect, they seem to have left him in a rut. And as his most recent projects suggest, Gehry's best work today may be his least "Gehryesque."

Last month, the Gehry-designed Lewis Science Library opened on the campus of Princeton University. It immediately satisfies what, all too often, seems to be the first request of Gehry's clients: that their new building look like other Gehry buildings. It is sculptural, a complex and cascading flow of shapes and gestures, dominated by a curvaceous steel-clad tower. But it is a mess of a building, hard to negotiate and decipher, filled with bizarre spaces that seem designed more for a frisson of architectural delight than any straightforward use as a library.

The Gehry addition and renovation project for the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, which opened to the public on Nov. 14, is a very different space. And arguably, a much less overtly Gehryesque space. With a block-long sweep of glass that splays up from the street, it faces the world with the architect's signature exuberance. But its best feature, a plain blue box elevated above the older museum buildings, which have been reordered and tied together with a new logic, is not Gehryesque in the usual sense. It is Cartesian and rectilinear, a light-filled box that hovers above the city like a Platonic solid, or a child's toy.

Two different buildings, two very different senses of Frank Gehry. Taken together, they confirm the rather erratic track record Gehry has had since Bilbao. That building, certainly his greatest and one of the most important buildings of the past century, inspired a chain of knockoffs of his own work. A few of them were fabulous, compelling, enchanting. The Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which mimics the exuberance of Bilbao, works very well as a concert hall, and has transformed a patch of downtown Los Angeles that desperately needed some whimsy. But the smaller concert hall Gehry built for Bard College in Upstate New York is a disappointing and silly building, with cavernous dead spaces but little room for social interaction in the front of the hall. Gehry was also criticized for his Experience Music Project building in Seattle, which was called "blobitecture" -- and not in a good way.

As Gehry's fame grew, a fame fueled by these buildings and their clones, each subsequent plan looked a little more vitiated. Plans for a Gehry addition to the Corcoran will not, very likely, be lamented, now that they have fallen through. And one wonders if Abu Dhabi, the wealthy Persian Gulf emirate that wants to build a massive Gehry Guggenheim museum as part of a new cultural district, should reconsider, given the weak and uninspired early plans -- a jumble of desert "wind towers" worked out on a gargantuan scale.

There was always a lot more to Gehry's architecture than any simple-minded notion of the Gehryesque. The deconstructed, almost aggressively unfinished look to the remodeling of his own house in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1977-78, falls well outside of the popular conception of Gehry's architecture -- confirmed and disseminated to a wide audience most notably by Sydney Pollack's film "Sketches of Frank Gehry." Gehry's home renovation used plywood (a material he returns to with little flourishes in the new Princeton library and the Toronto museum expansion), corrugated iron and sheets of chain-link fence at crazy angles. A new, 76-story tower he is building in Manhattan also falls outside of Gehry's popular image; it's a building more in dialogue with the great towers of the 20th century than yet another exercise in Gehry's formal free play.

And so perhaps it was telling when Gehry presented two ideas for the south face of his addition in Toronto. According to Matthew Teitelbaum, the director of the museum, one plan was for something lively and complicated. And there was concern that top supporters of the museum might feel that a Gehry addition should look like a Gehry addition. But Gehry expressed preference for the more minimalist blue-box idea, which helps the museum integrate with another building nearby, Will Alsop's jazzy and Dalmatian-spotted rectangular box on stilts built for the Sharp Centre for Design. Gehry said the less-Gehryesque design "was a better building," according to Teitelbaum. And he was right.

The museum project also contains another clue that even Gehry may be aware of the flagging energy left in his signature style. The front facade of the building, which occupies an entire block, is made of curving glass, secured by steel and wood supports. The form is less free and fluid than the shapes of Bilbao. Except for some broken, fanlike sails on the ends, it resembles a tube that has been stretched with a gentle sweep around the front of the building. This is a less-is-more reminiscence of the old forms, but with two key differences: It is transparent rather than shiny, and it is highly functional. The glass covers a long and inviting arcade that connects the galleries at the front of the museum. And it allows light to flow into gallery spaces, beckoning the visitor to come up for air -- little glimpses of the outside world -- while wandering through the art spaces. But its transparency also unmasks Gehry's old shapes, the staginess of the Bilbao-derived forms, by making them see-through. "Here's how it's done, the curtain is off," it seems to say.

It also raises and dismisses the central question of every new Gehry building -- will it be Gehryesque? -- at the very front of the museum. The trademark style has been reduced to a transparent flourish, which allows the visitor to move past it and discover more important and compelling architectural details. Such as the ergonomically appealing railings -- which protect the paintings while allowing visitors to lean in and study the art. And then there is the old courtyard space -- the centerpiece of the existing museum and a beloved feature -- that has been opened up to allow sunlight in, and radically transformed with a sculptural, spiral staircase that connects the old building to the new "art box" above. It will be controversial, given how aggressively it dominates the old courtyard. But Gehry may be channeling a little Le Corbusier, who achieved striking effects with curvaceous stairs juxtaposed with planes and boxy spaces.

Gehry's real accomplishment in Toronto is the reprogramming of a complicated amalgam of old spaces. That's not sexy, like titanium curves, but it's essential to the project. Just ask anyone who has visited Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum expansion by Daniel Libeskind, which may be the most perverse and disastrous museum expansion in living memory.

Unfortunately, the inner thinking that distinguishes the Toronto project is not in evidence at Princeton's Lewis Library. From the outside, the building is self-consciously an assemblage, with fan-shaped roof panels, a tall double-bent side "tower" and brick forms meeting the street level, thrown together with such force that the entrance seems to be placed in an accidental cleavage in the structure. The aggressive quality that made Gehry's private home remodel so muscular and challenging has been uneasily applied to the more luxurious, sensuous ideas of the Bilbao style. And the result feels unfinished, unresolved and uninviting.

But it's the interior that really disappoints. The "front desk," which in old-fashioned libraries has often served as a kind of altar, or portal, to the books beyond, is now an afterthought. You enter the library through its accidental front door, and then immediately descend into a lower gallery that allows you to pass straight through the building without ever really feeling like you're in it. The main research desk is located on this lower floor, and it is designed more like an upscale coffee bar than the central, intellectual nodal point of the university's science facilities. Perhaps that's a comment on the destabilizing effects of the digital age, in which housing information no longer requires building large houses for dusty tomes.

The main appeal of Gehry's interior lies in the reading and study spaces, which are located in the tower (with views of the chaotic roof of the building) and in a pleasantly open and windowed reading room that seems to hover in a leafy canopy of trees. But while Gehry has created a powerful sense of direction and destination in his spaces in Toronto, the access to these most appealing spaces in his half-baked library isn't obvious. They are secret spaces, accidental nooks, hiding in plain sight.

At a tour of the Lewis Library last month, university officials stressed that they had learned the lessons of the Stata Center -- a building Gehry designed for MIT, which sued Gehry last year when it was discovered the 2004 structure was plagued by leaks, mold and other problems. Princeton was forced to fire the same construction company that built the Stata Center -- an expressionist fantasy of deformed boxes and other traditional forms that looks deliberately raw and unfinished. But Princeton officials insist that they've done their homework, and that models and scale mock-ups of critical building parts should solve the problems that MIT has had.

"Buildings under construction look nicer than buildings finished," Gehry once said. (To which a cynic might respond, and what about buildings under repair?) But Gehry's comment is canny about his own aesthetic. Buildings under construction have a seeming chaos, a seeming disorder, but in many ways, they also reveal their logic more clearly. And that's the key to the best of Gehry's work: a superficial sense of chaos, which never overwhelms a real sense of order. Playful but serious. The problem with the aesthetic unleashed by Bilbao is that it threatened to make the playfulness into something grand, final and polished. It objectified Gehry's thought into a "style" that was, in many ways, superficial to Gehry's thinking and his real power as an architect. As Gehry has attempted to keep working in that vein -- largely, perhaps, because the public wants him to -- he has failed to find the same balance.

Is that why we see him now trying to get back to some of his original materials? Why the reading desks in the Princeton library are made of plywood? Why the support structure for the glass canopy in Toronto looks more like the inner bones of a fish -- a powerful iconic fascination throughout Gehry's career but hidden, one might argue, beneath the opaque metal skins of his most famous work? Is there, perhaps, a reengagement with the history of architecture, with nods to Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn, and perhaps less engagement with the history of Frank Gehry?

There's another possibility. Gehry may simply be moving on. And the "Gehryesque" may not be so much an aberrational tic in the history of Gehry as a style that he can now hand off to other people. One of the most curious buildings to open this month is a brand new, 81,000-square-foot museum in downtown Roanoke. The new Taubman Museum of Art (formerly known as the Art Museum of Western Virginia) is designed by Randall Stout, a Los Angeles-based architect who worked for seven years in the firm of Frank Gehry. Even before its opening, on Nov. 8, Stout's design -- a metal-clad, sculptural building with a large glass atrium and roof lines and balcony structures that are meant to echo the profile of the surrounding mountains -- has taken some full-frontal snark for being too Gehryesque. One magazine commentator even asked if this was a case of plagiarism.

But it's not a bad building. The pointed, peaked glass atrium opens the building up to the city, and the use of heavy, grayish blue local stone gives the interior spaces a solidity and gravity that feels just about right for this provincial but ambitious museum (it wasn't easy building an unapologetically contemporary museum in Roanoke, locals said). The art spaces are divided between square rooms laid out in a sensible, updated classical style, and more eccentric spaces for contemporary and visiting collections. It includes the usual amenities -- a street-level cafe, bookstore and lots of educational space -- and the art floor is laid out along a short, arcing corridor that connects the front and back of the building. It's not a perfect work -- the main auditorium is badly joined to the atrium and feels a bit like a generic hotel ballroom -- but it's a perfectly serviceable museum that makes a strong statement in this small city of early-20th-century masonry architecture.

And it cost only $66 million. Compare that with $231 million for the cost of the Gehry project in Toronto. Or the $274 million it cost to build Disney Hall. So is Roanoke doing Gehryism on the cheap? Is Stout a plagiarist, a willful pilferer of the master's brand?

Or is it just the usual evolution of style? Truly successful ideas can't be held by any one artist or architect except in a limited, legal sense. Stout's museum in Roanoke is a progress marker for aesthetic ideas and stylistic trends that can no longer be seen as the hallmark of Frank Gehry. Paradoxically, what he offered the world, architecturally, never really worked that well for him, with the exception of two or three buildings. And now it's leached into the vernacular and is being used by younger architects who can no more be accused of plagiarism than any architect working in the tradition of Mies van der Rohe. Or Palladio.

Over the years, there's been endless speculation about the inconsistency of Gehry's work. He has run out of ideas. He is a victim of his own reputation. He fancies himself an artist, not an architect (despite his avowals to the contrary). In "Architecture of the Absurd," a scabrous and cranky little book attacking Gehry and other forward-thinking architects, John Silber suggests that Gehry needs the "restraint of an intelligent and determined client sophisticated in economic issues."

All of the above may be true. Or none of it. But what he definitely needs less of is the old Gehry glibness, which dominated his work for two decades, often diminishing it to triviality. The Gehryesque can be left to other architects, who may make more sense of it. What Frank Gehry needs now is a new chapter, a last act, a purifying of his life's work into something final and thoughtful. A summation. For all its virtues, Toronto is not that building. And the Lewis Library most definitely is not. But one building points forward, while the other is locked in the past.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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