Art and architecture critic

By the spring of last year, it looked like Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial was dead. Congress had zeroed out funds for construction, President Obama had reached across partisan lines to appoint a conservative former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities to serve as an obstructionist voice on the memorial commission, and the Eisenhower family was still adamantly opposed to the project, no matter how many revisions Gehry made to the design. Today, the prospects are much brighter. Former senator Bob Dole (Kan.) has stepped up to serve as finance chair of a private campaign to build the memorial, which now has the necessary approvals from the two main design oversight groups in the District. And the Memorial Commission has attracted a blue-chip list of advisory members including former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and former secretaries of state James Baker and Colin Powell, along with a bipartisan roster of four former Senate majority leaders.

What a difference a year makes. Earlier this month, Gehry appeared at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to mark the opening of an exhibition surveying the arc of his career since the 1960s, including major projects on the drafting board or under construction around the world. It was midmorning on a sultry day, and the 86-year-old Gehry was moving more slowly than when he first started coming to Washington a few years ago to explain and defend his design for the Eisenhower project. But he was upbeat and feisty. A new Gehry biography by architecture critic Paul Goldberger had just been published, and Gehry was still fresh from the high of having opened one of his highest-profile projects in years, the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, a glass-encased, shiplike structure finished last year.

He took questions from the audience, and seemed undaunted by the latest controversy in his long and controversial career: News had recently leaked that Gehry has been asked to oversee a master plan for redeveloping the 51-mile Los Angeles River, and some prominent longtime advocates for the river’s restoration were angry by the choice.

“If we do it right, we can really make the High Line look like a pishy little thing,” said Gehry, comparing his still nascent plans for the L.A. River to the linear park in New York that has radically remade a substantial stretch of west-side Manhattan.

And with that, Gehry unwittingly made his career, his personality and his legacy a bit more comprehensible in all its contradiction: He is competitive; he is idealistic (his work on the river project is being done pro bono); he has a particular affinity for narrative, or the linear experience of buildings and place; he is of and always inseparable from Los Angeles and its peculiar urbanism and aesthetics; and he all but confessed to loving the political and intellectual struggle of complicated and contentious projects. Gehry has now reached what the critic Edward Said once called “late style,” which isn’t about mere wisdom or reflection, but “a nonharmonious, nonserene tension,” a heightening of the essential conflicts that spur an artist’s productivity.

Architect Frank Gehry attends a press preview of the exhibit "Frank Gehry" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in Los Angeles, California on September 9, 2015. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
Beyond labels

The curators of the LACMA exhibition, which was first seen at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in October 2014, seemed to agree, though they desperately wanted to bring an order to Gehry’s career that it fundamentally resists. The exhibition, which features 66 large models, hundreds of drawings, photographs and film, is sprawling, and to give it some kind of coherence, the original French curators created sexy dichotomies as chapter headings: From 1965 to 1980 the work is about “Elementarization/Segmentation,” from 1980-1990 it is concerned with “Composition/Assemblage,” and so on, to the present moment, which is about “Singularity/Unity.” Some of these labels were tweaked for the Los Angeles exhibition (which was expanded to include works-in-progress), and sometimes they make sense, though even the American version of the show falls prey to a familiar French love of over-subtle taxonomies.

Certainly in the early years of his career, Gehry was interested in breaking apart and reconstituting not just the geometrical forms of architecture, but its basic functions as well. The unbuilt Wagner Residence, from 1978, was designed for a hillside in Malibu, with an elevation drop of some 20 feet. Protruding modules, a floor plan that divides the structure into three levels, and external sunshades made of chain-link fence create a sense of fragmentation, amplifying the drama of its basic rectangular, boxy form. But only a year later Gehry was at work on a far more daring project, his “House for a Filmmaker,” which divides the basic functions of domestic space into separate, disconnected pieces — tower, colonnade, garage — tied together only by the visitor’s or inhabitant’s motion through the property. It feels a bit like a studio backlot, a jumble of places and references, awaiting activation by the linear sensibility of film and narrative.

His interest in breaking things apart, and then fusing them together again, continues throughout his career, with the “fused together” tendency reaching its apex in his most famous buildings, the flowing forms of the 1997 Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the 2003 Walt Disney Concert Hall (designed before but finished after Bilbao). These are the buildings that critics have long described, and often derided, as “sculptural,” with the implication that architecture must be functional and purely rational, while sculpture is decorative and emotionally indulgent. But while these buildings are a high point both in the public perception of Gehry’s career and the exhibition, the interplay between centripetal and centrifugal thinking continues to the present day, with the long-delayed Guggenheim museum in Abu Dhabi (on which design began in 2006), a grandly scaled, monumental summation of many of the forces and tensions at work throughout Gehry’s more than half-century of work.

These Gallic taxonomies don’t really hold up chronologically, and long before you’ve finished walking through this otherwise compelling exhibition, they become distracting. More useful than rational categories are interpretative strategies borrowed from non-verbal art forms, particularly music. Among the striking things about the vast body of work gathered here is how it interrelates rather like symphonies and string quartets are often intertwined in a composer’s oeuvre. Houses, for Gehry, are string quartets, where ideas are worked out on a relatively intimate scale. The large public buildings follow from the houses, incorporating elements of what worked there into more coherent and rhetorical forms. And rather like some great symphonists — Beethoven and Mahler, for example — his big public buildings frequently fall into clusters or groupings, sharing DNA and variations on common themes. In Los Angeles, Gehry said he is “afraid I will repeat myself,” and doesn’t like to look back at past work; but he clearly likes to exhaust ideas before moving too far forward.

Eisenhower Memorial in context

Ultimately, tying Gehry’s work together proves almost impossible, and one is better served by looking at the questions he is asking about architecture. Most of them are fundamental queries about tradition, history and received forms. What is the difference between a wall and a roof? What is a facade? What lies inside, and what outside? What spaces do we pass through, and where do we linger? Perhaps the most consistent element in his work is his impatience with the standard answers to these questions, and his willingness to find either middle ground, or blow up the very premise of the distinction. But this impatience with standard thinking isn’t destructive. In Goldberger’s biography “Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry,” the author quotes the fashion designer Alexander McQueen succinctly stating what could be the architect’s motto: “You’ve got to know the rules to break them. That’s what I’m here for, to demolish the rules but keep the tradition.”

Sustained encounter with the LACMA exhibition helps put the Eisenhower Memorial in context. The memorial design includes large metal tapestries, a traditional form for memorialization with long historical precedent. But the tapestries have been hung outside, which is a striking refusal to accept them as an interior art form. The massive columns from which they are hung — one of the sticking points for many critics of the project — aren’t just arbitrary concessions to their weight. These columns are also found in projects such as Gehry’s design for the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles (begun in 1978), where huge concrete columns without capitals or bases are freed up from structural duty and allowed to exist independently as an allusion to classical form. The memorial celebrates the heroic accomplishment of the 34th president like a traditional monument but breaks with tradition by contextualizing that accomplishment as part of lifelong narrative of ambition and success.

Very likely, the commissioners who in 2009 unanimously selected Gehry’s design for the memorial were surprised by how sharply it contrasts with other, more typically “sculptural” Gehry projects. And many observers were surprised that Gehry entered the competition for the memorial in the first place, given that he had never designed one before, and it was sure to be a contentious project. But the memorial makes a different kind of sense when seen next to the high-rises and densely urban projects that Gehry has recently undertaken. It is part of an ongoing effort to think particularly about urban forms and context, how to fill awkward or constrained spaces, and how to open urban sites to greater public access and pleasure.

Navigating a dry river

In an interview after the Los Angeles press conference, Gehry laughed when asked if moving from the Eisenhower Memorial to remaking the Los Angeles River wasn’t a frying-pan-to-the-fire decision, a bizarre late-in-life willingness to step once again into the political fray. He then made the project sound like an exercise in urban anthropology rather than landscape design: “We are looking at the sociology — not just the hydrology — and the impact on the inhabitants.” The river, it seems, is a new way to think about Los Angeles, about politics, about social justice, about linear urban forms. It will cost billions of dollars, and there’s little hope that one could create 51 miles of beautifully landscaped park along its often bleak reaches (much of the river is a concrete-encased flood-control conduit, without much water in it most of the time). But Gehry has often talked about his talent as a kind of “jujitsu,” a turning to advantage of the facts one finds, subtly overcoming obstacles by deflecting them into something different.

If the Eisenhower Memorial is indeed moving forward, if Gehry in the end overcomes the fierce resistance of the Eisenhower family and a well-funded opposition to everything he does on principle, it may turn out that Washington will be remembered as a place where he brought his jujitsu to a new level. And the older he gets, the more he relishes a challenge.

Frank Gehry will be on exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through March 20. For more information, visit www.lacma.org.