The Devil Wears Guggenheims

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Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain - photo by Tony Hisgett, 2009

This article was originally written in 2007 but never published — nowhere to publish it back then–when Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao was the hot new thing. Since then, I’ll confess I have little idea what impact artwork from a New York museum has had on a Spanish harbor town, but the building itself landed like sticks of dynamite in the architectural community. Since then, it even has a Jeff Koons funny ha-ha Puppy.

But the question remains valid: if all that can be said about architecture is that architects should build on the work that precedes them, is it sufficient? Or should we always seek the next great new thing–like Koons but with more sobriety?

In the early 2000s, walking Venice Beach, I happened on Frank Gehry’s beach house and doubled over laughing — it looked like a poorly constructed chicken coop in one of LA’s priciest beach fronts. He’s come a ways since then, though he’s always had an affinity for the grand joke, er gesture. Maybe he and Koons deserve each other.

Gehry Venice Beach House — photo by LLPo’s Sojourn, 2007

In a movie of seasons past, “The Devil Wears Prada”, I watched Meryl Streep play Amanda the Fashion Devil while young Andy (Ann Hathaway) struggles to find her passion and claim her own identity. It received middling reviews, though Meryl Streep rarely disappoints (Mamma Mia being an exception). Meryl could read snippets from USA Today and entertain just by her arching eyebrows and imperial tone of voice.

What had held me initially from seeing the movie is a personal skepticism; high fashion seems a bad mix of public neuroses and private fantasies, or vice versa. Hardly the stuff of major import, unless one happens to make a living at it.

Yet I finally got around to renting the movie, (mind, this was 2007) and while waiting for the screenplay writer to develop why fashion might be important, I had a nagging sense the premise was familiar. Andy is young, bright and ambitious to do something of value, say writing. But she needs a job to cover her rent (known as ransom payments in the Big Apple), so she takes a personal assistant’s position at Meryl’s haute couture magazine. Slowly, resisting as any dark-eyed heroine should, over the course of the movie’s middle build she’s caught up in the intoxicating design vapors. Fashion seems so like a desert pastry, poof and it’s gone.

The audience recognizes the staid moral from the outset and only hangs around for the eye candy (Ann Hathaway again). And to see how Ann will slay Meryl and stand triumphant atop the dead dragon’s body. But the screenplay’s author made only the weakest attempt to argue for fashion design, that despite what the audience could see with their own eyes, this work Meryl and her cohorts were engaged in–assuaging fragile egos–was really important. There’s one cleverly extended monolog where Meryl, er, Amanda, argues but for the fashion industry last season’s cerulean (the color blue) would never have made its way from the runways to the bargain rack acrylic sweaters like the tacky one Andy was then wearing. By god, fashion — that’s telling her and how.

But it was familiar. Substitute architecture for fashion, buildings for clothing apparel, centuries for fashion seasons, and you have a possible parallel. Admittedly, one is ephemeral and the other lasts through millennia and down to the last archeological tailings. Fashion? Just a whiff in the breeze. Does anyone claim something is morally unjustified with a Roman temple to Dionysus? Maybe they should, but we’re so much in awe of its surviving in any manner this long. Besides, Dionysus wasn’t as bad as the Italian press made him out.

Recalling how Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin–or Pugin to his friends–thought he and his disciples would remake the Western world by Gothic Revival, it seems ironic. In the Middle Ages, Gothic followed Romanesque, following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire–the Eastern Roman Empire continuing to hum along as Byzantium–happening all because the medieval union workers lost the skill to build round arches. Europe had been overrun by illegal alien hoards–again.

Pointy arches were as far as the Goths and Visigoths dare gravity, not having structural design software and only monks and bishops for design consultants. Centuries passed, armies were raised, cities were razed, peasants enslaved, and re-enslaved, and after setbacks with plagues and rats, crusaders, Henry verses the Pope, somewhere after, Italians then the rest of Europe rekindled a passion for ancient Rome–en voilà, la Renaissance. Gothic became passé; worse, it was literally built over by the new fashion in many instances, putting a silk dress over the peasant pig perhaps.

Truly gorgeous works sprang from that revival in the arts. When he wasn’t chipping marble, Michelangelo was no slouch at cascading stairs, and Bernini did a mean pair of doors. But the word ‘renaissance’ does mean revival or re-emergence. So when Pugin came along and re-revived the Gothic, having previously been replaced by the revived style of the ancient Greeks and Romans, one has to wonder if Pugin saw the repetition if not the irony of this loop, or if any of our pale imitators since get the joke. Certainly not the Washington area’s housing developers–can you say Federal Style?

Tourists find Gothic villages charming when on their Viking cruises down the Rhine. The semiotic image is one of the old county in the good old days as viewed in passing from the deck by retirees.

And wealthy American art patrons still build in the Gothic style when they want to be taken really seriously–e.g. the Washington Cathedral, Yale’s campus or Duke’s, or in the style of olde Espanola in the case of Stanford and Coral Gables outside Miami. What an effort to build pretend brick arches and shape precast to imitate stone. Houses to churches to government buildings, all count various revival styles in their lineage. Still, the nagging thought: is it sufficient, this reliance on long dead cultures? Is it anything more than design fashion with a longer shelf life?

On the other hand, one might argue the Modern movement–based on a nostalgia for things nautical and in motion–is already repeating itself. Art Moderne ran to Streamline, and so on. Lets all be like the Italian Futurists and lean those smokestacks back.

I recall a classmate in graduate school who, to impress his thesis jury, built a model of his modernist twin high rise towers from canary yellow matte board, square-planned and set corner to corner in homage to Yamasaki and Philip Johnson. A rather blatant imitation, although where the yellow came from, or how he proposed it might be achieved by an actual building, I don’t recall. He might have wanted a decent cerulean.

Back in the ‘70’s, high rise construction was considered passé by all right thinking, morally-conscious young architects (unless you made your living at it), so I expect he was shooting for a career in New York City. Though ever since Vince Scully’s lectures on Shingle Style and Venturi’s “Learning From Los Vegas,” Post-Modern was roaring its eclectic roar.

But getting back to the classmate, along with the champagne and strawberries he offered for nourishment, in preparing for the jury the boy re-dyed his crew cut very yellow, found very yellow slacks and a very yellow shirt and sweater vest to complete his ensemble. Yellow, in his mind, set the bar. The strawberries were pretty tasty, and no one laughed out loud, so did it work? If you can’t be famous, as Winston once said, be infamous.

Another classmate by name of Duany not too many years later, in a lecture on Alvar Aalto at Catholic University,would argue borrowing from what comes before is how architects take their design to the next level. Though that would depend on what is being appropriated.

Which finally brings us to Bilbao, to Frankie and his outsized floral bouquet done up in titanium on the banks of the Nervión River. Despite the flamboyance–or in large part due to it–Gehry’s building is one for the ages.

It is beautiful; it is outrageous. The full image takes time to absorb, how magnificent, its power and form. Gehry managed, well beyond previous attempts, to break from the straitened geometries that have bound Western architecture. In one sense he’s warped Bucky Fuller’s crystalline logic, and in another he’s taken clay out of the hands of sculptors and shown them how it’s done. Echoes of Gaudi, Le Corbusier and the Sydney Opera House, are all reflected in its sheen. Even Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim. Only planer shards, like pale yellowish facets, are what’s left for the eye from what had come before.

The software Gehry’s team works with was evolved from CATIA, a 3D modeling software originally invented for airplane design. Which is pretty cool in the abstract. But because his twisted, organic forms require twisted, organic steel frameworks, and sheaths of penalized metal, the joints of which are tortured, the manufacturing requirements, not to mention the costs, are exotic.

“The problem is that these gestural shapes are challenging to construct as actual, stable architecture. They also tend to be very expensive to build. For sheet materials such as glass or metal, a unit with double curvature (for example, shaped like a saddle or dome) can cost up to five times as much as one curved in a single direction (for example, shaped like a cone or cylinder), which, in turn, can cost up to five times as much as the flat material. Flattening and standardizing a design saves money — but for projects whose aesthetic impact stems from complex geometries, orthogonal and regular forms just won’t do.”

from The Software Behind Frank Gehry’s Geometrically Complex Architecture

Indeed, they just won’t do! To nitpick, there is the issue of the singularly flat, very level ground plan which Gehry seemed to overlook; he didn’t pitch the floor to one side or the other? Why oh why must the floor be flat? Does it matter if people fall down when it’s high art? The ground plane (that it is a plane) gives lie to the image.

The staler argument over whether a museum should dominate the art it contains is largely pushed aside at Bilbao, dismissively so; if museum architecture cannot be art, then what use is art? One frowns at the extravagant use of a precious alloy in service to a mere patina or hue, but again–high art! Stainless steel is insufficient to the task; titanium it is.

Is Bilbao an important architectural movement; can it point to a coming direction? Now that Gehry had marched this far in a Quixotic search for individuality, what can one derive from his work other than to imitate it? Is it repeatable without being repeated? How does Gehry himself go beyond it?

Is it really necessary to transcribe what has been until now a reasonably efficient way of packaging buildings in tight, urban places? Unless you study complex mathematical modeling for a living or have a taste for fractal geometries, why should it matter? Should we all get familiar with titanium alloys so our building can pretend to flower?


I have accused Philip Johnson of being a dilettante, dabbling at being an architect; is Gehry his free form disciple? Yes, that’s a question of ethics, where many argue there’s no place for moral judgments in art. They exclaim: when is art / design / style / fashion ever more than passing entertainment? That extravagant and ephemeral things merit appreciation on aesthetic terms alone. But by making the claim there should be no moral judgment, they’ve made one nonetheless. Is fashion all we can hope to achieve in a world burdened with ugliness and cruelty?

Having spent the better part of a life engaged in the creative process, I probably know which side I stand on. Authenticity is needed in architecture–in all the arts–or we’re just poseurs like Amanda.

Though Meryl rocks, I have to say.

Written by

A practicing writer and architect, he is now squandering hours making a mess from writing.

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