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Evolution of a Superstar

New York exhibit showcases architect Frank Gehry’s spiraling success.

by Mark D. Johnson
May 25, 2001

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Evolution of a Superstar_Mark D. Johnson-New York exhibit showcases architect Frank Gehry’s spiraling success. The last architect to become a household name, one could argue, was Frank Lloyd Wright, who died in 1959, and the landmark art museum he designed, The Guggenheim in New York City, is now displaying the past and present work of California architect Frank Gehry, who is on a path to similar fame. It is no coincidence that The Guggenheim is featuring Gehry’s work this summer: Gehry is now the world’s foremost architect in large part due to his widely-acclaimed design of the Guggenheim’s museum building in Bilbao, Spain. Furthermore, Gehry was chosen to design an ambitious structure for the Guggenheim’s new headquarters on New York’s Lower East Side waterfront. While this exhibit is in part an advertisement for that proposed project, the impressive collection of the architect’s own large-scale models is a fascinating look into Gehry’s design process and a new wave of architecture.

A wavy Gehry-designed panel has been mounted above the smaller rotunda of Wright's building for the exhibit. Click image to enlarge.
In a break from the more traditional Post-Modern look that dominated new large buildings in the eighties and nineties, Gehry’s distinctive style is very much sculptural, full of distorted shapes and unusual materials, and has quickly grabbed both the public’s attention and its admiration. The Guggenheim show traces his development from the design of his own house in the seventies up Wright’s magnificent spiral to his most recent projects, and as his work becomes more extravagant, so do the models. Though Wright’s Guggenheim is not considered a great design for the purpose of viewing art, the space works fine for the nature of this exhibition, where one is more interested in getting close to the models, as opposed to standing back from a painting for perspective. However, Gehry designed several large decorative mesh panels for this exhibit that are hung from the ceiling in the main atrium and nearly reach the ground. While it adds some interest, I found myself wishing they weren’t there so I could better appreciate Wright’s design, even though the small chain-link material is essentially see-though.

Since he wowed the world with the Bilbao Guggenheim, his buildings have become status symbols for cities around the world fortunate enough to possess them. With such high demand for his work, one might wonder if Frank Gehry’s success might lead to excessive saturation of his ideas, which some may regard as fleeting novelty. Like Wright before him, though, Gehry pays close attention to a building site’s surroundings, and his tendency to weave in more “organic” sculptural elements are grounded in his dedication to work with the site’s environment. Perhaps it is too soon to call Gehry a visionary, but upon seeing the thought that goes into his projects, he seems more than just the flavor of the month. Most of the projects include models from various stages in the development process, some of the wavy sculptural sections represented in early versions by twisted paper held in place with transparent tape.

Despite his prominence in the world of architecture, it is notable that Gehry has not a single skyscraper on his resume. The exhibit does include his entry into the New York Times headquarters design competition, and this provides a glimpse of what a Gehry skyscraper might look like, and of course it is unlike any other skyscraper you’ve ever seen. (Gehry pulled his entry from the competition two days before a winner was announced.) I think we can expect more skyscraper attempts before too long, and his smaller high-rise projects also hint at the direction he will take.

While most of his newer projects generate excitement, like the upcoming Millennium Park Band Shell in Chicago and the Disney Music Hall in Los Angeles, one recent building in particular fails to measure up: the EMP (Experience Music Project) in Seattle, which opened up in the summer of 2000. Supposedly inspired by a wrecked electric guitar, this ugly structure tries unsuccessfully to integrate several different colors and materials on a site near the Space Needle that does not allow pedestrians to get a sense of the overall effect. It just doesn’t work, at least on the outside.

Gehry is a bold architect who is willing to take risks, and his design for the new Guggenheim (see below) in New York, as viewed against the New York skyline, is sure to get a lot of attention when it is built in a couple of years. It is a large complex that will likely become a new jewel for a city that has it all, though it is so bizarre that it can only achieve that status with a good measure of controversy in a town that loves to argue.

The model for the new Guggenheim museum headquarters. Click on the image for a larger view.

Photos by Mark D. Johnson

Comments (1)

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JWilson from Chicago writes:
May 30, 2001
Dear Editor,

I very much appreciate the article about Frank Gehry, and Johnson's praise and critique demonstrate much care and reflection. However, the picture shows me a twisted hunk of scrap metal. I have no idea how a museum fits inside this. The fire codes and handicapped accessibility problems must be tremendous. I guess I prefer square corners, round edges, and conical points. The simplest things might not make a statement, but they they sure are pretty.

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