Through the ages, the pursuit of a great house has propelled great architecture. Palladio specialized in villas. Thomas Jefferson made his mark with Monticello. Frank Lloyd Wright cantilevered Fallingwater magically over a stream. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson built glass-walled jewel boxes as beacons of modernist ideals.
Over a tumultuous decade, Frank O. Gehry developed what promised to be the world's most extraordinary dwelling. The bold design included slashes of glass, waves of metal, slumping organic forms and stolid, almost prehistoric towers. But when the projected price tag hit $82 million, the client, Ohio auto insurance magnate Peter B. Lewis, faltered. Only a model was built.
The saga of the Lewis house is preserved as an architectural film noir, "A Constructive Madness." (It will be screened at the National Building Museum next Saturday.) The subtitle -- "Wherein Frank Gehry and Peter Lewis Spend a Fortune and a Decade, End Up With Nothing and Change the World" -- sums up the design folly.
The film begins in 1987, a decade before the titanium facade of the Guggenheim Bilbao museum would catapult Gehry to mainstream renown. Lewis had attended a lecture by the designer and called the following day. The request seemed simple: Design a $5 million trophy manse in a suburb of Cleveland. But the project took on a life of its own.
With Lewis pushing and paying, the architect was encouraged to pursue ever wilder dreams. Boxy structures gave way to squiggles and blobs inspired by fish, horse heads and flocks of birds. The "house" morphed into a 35,000-square-foot village, with unexpected geometries set around a courtyard where Lewis, a contemporary art collector, could entertain. Scribbled drawings and elaborate models suggest a final design with the explosive qualities of Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles combined.
Lewis blanches on camera as he calculates paying $40 million, but he proceeds. After the amount doubles, he calls the whole thing off. Because Lewis hired a camera crew to document every meeting with the architect, viewers can join Gehry as he gets the bad news in a surreal sequence around a conference table. Lewis reveals that he "couldn't understand the spaces," but says, "We had to carry it over the top in order to kill it."
Gehry carries off the role of genius easily (the film portrays him as the Jimi Hendrix of architecture, complete with scenes of the guitarist in concert). Lewis, now 70 and chairman of the board of Progressive Corp., comes across as an eccentric Medici for our time. In interviews over the years, Lewis has explained his motivation as a love of the creative process and of people who challenge the status quo. He also had the means to be a serious patron. A son of the company's founder, Lewis's share was estimated to be worth more than $400 million in the mid-1990s. (Forbes magazine's 2004 roster of billionaires calculated his net worth at $1.6 billion.)
"A Constructive Madness" has been making the rounds of museum screening rooms since a 2002 debut at the Aspen Filmfest. It is also available through www.aconstructivemadness.com. The script was written by Jeffrey Kipnis, curator of architecture and design at the Wexner Center for the Arts and a professor of architecture at Ohio State University. Thomas Ball and Brian Neff directed. Narration by Jeremy Irons adds drama. Modernist icon Philip Johnson has a cameo role as supreme mentor. There is even a scene from "Gladiator" in which Russell Crowe stands in awe before the Colosseum, as many people do before a Gehry building.
Whether the Lewis project went sadly wrong or brilliantly right is debatable. The film asserts that the commission served as a valuable incubator for Gehry's evolving vision. Instead of expressing ideas through a private house, as Mies did with his iconic glass Farnsworth House, Gehry incorporated his concepts into public and commercial projects.
Paul Goldberger, architecture critic at the New Yorker, says in the film, "I know of nothing else in architectural history quite like it, where there's a single project that serves as a laboratory paralleling other built works all along."
The original modeling for the Lewis house resembles the tumbling geometries of the Vitra Design Museum in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany, which Gehry was then designing. Later schemes reflect the landscape of curves in the Guggenheim Bilbao, which opened in 1997. Elsewhere, fish shapes became bus stops, undulating glass turned up at the Conde Nast Cafeteria in New York, and a room-size structure abstracted from a horse's head emerged as a sculptural conference room in the atrium of DG Bank in Berlin.
Lewis expresses regret that "this wonderful project ended with a bang." But his support of Gehry did not end. The patron gave tens of millions of dollars for a Gehry-designed business school at Case Western Reserve University and science library at Princeton. Lewis also became chairman of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and shortly after the Bilbao museum opened gave the foundation $40 million. He also pledged $250 million toward a Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum envisioned on the East River in Lower Manhattan. That project has been dormant since Sept. 11, 2001.
"A Constructive Madness" excels at conveying the messy creative process in Gehry's Santa Monica, Calif., office. Modelmakers and assistants struggle to keep up with a master who draws inspiration from the entire span of art history. By the end of the project, Gehry is draping waxed red cloth inspired by Old Master paintings. The forms suggest structures so exotic that one can only hope there will be a sequel.