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Is too much Gehry never enough?

Cleveland Clinic for Brain Health, Las Vegas, designed by Frank Gehry (roof addition by Netti & Rosebank)

There are literally dozens and dozens of Frank Gehry-designed buildings scattered across the globe and more in the pipeline. Even Sydney’s University of Technology has acquired its own Gehry.

As brilliant and talented as Frank Gehry is, there’s a sameness about all those leant-over facades, distorted planes and bug-eyed windows. A handful of highly distinctive buildings by a great architect is brilliant but too many that look too alike is too much. They almost warrant their own collective noun, perhaps a Jaded of Gehrys.

I wonder if in twenty years we’ll look at his buildings in the same slightly baffled and embarrassed way we look back on other era-specific icons like platform shoes. And perhaps in forty years we’ll look at them with reverence again.

Frank Lloyd Wright was far more prolific than Gehry, yet he doesn’t induce the same sense of fatigue. He designed more than a thousand buildings and built around 500.

I think a lot of that is because most of Wright’s works were detached houses rather than major public buildings. They were (relatively) modest and simply don’t get the same exposure.

Another reason is while Wright’s buildings were distinctive, their raison d’être wasn’t to astonish or amaze. They present themselves more as a Finesse of FLWs. The shock of the new is finite and short – the impact of high drama soon runs out and weariness (Gehryiness?) sets in.

Wright also displayed considerable versatility – look for example at the difference in appearance between the NY Guggenheim and the proposed Arizona State Capital. Or compare and contrast the Robie house, the Rookery, Falling Water and the Ennis house.

It’s arguable, but I don’t think he was as predictable as Gehry. The problem for Gehry is that when your schtick is to be astonishing, it’s pretty hard to be anything but predictable.

The exhibit shows the Gehry-designed Cleveland Clinic for Brain Health. It’s a fantastic looking building in many ways (although I hope the medicos thought through whether its fractured form is an appropriate image for patients with degenerative brain disease).

It’s much better looking without the bicycle helmet – some wag added the headwear with photo processing software (H/T Michael O’Reilly). He also added this comment:

Other officials at the scene were surprised this happened despite the use of reflective materials, which experts agree reduce the risk of collisions. No witnesses have come forward to confirm who or what collided with the building. Mahoney added, “Well at least the facility had a helmet on, who knows how much worse it could have been without one.”

The image has been picked up by others who have something to say about the continuing bicycle helmet debate. I suppose the argument is that a helmet is about as useful for your head as it is for a building. Maybe also the weight of the helmet is crushing the building like helmets are crushing cycling?

I like Frank Gehry and at 82 he’s way too young to give up architecture. But I wish he’d find a new schtick. He might take note of these words by an artist who’s reinvented himself a few times over a long career: “My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet”.

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  • 1
    Dudley Horscroft
    Posted July 3, 2012 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    One assumes, of course, that whatever the outside looks like, the rationale of the inside is “fit for purpose”. If that is the case, then one can just dismiss it as “Blott on the Landscape”.

    One then thinks of a building designed the opposite way, gorgeous outside, inside “unfit for purpose”. This is, of course, the Sydney Opera House. Whatever the outside looked like, it should never have been built – it contravened the requirements of the competition and was too small.

    And on the same site, Fort Macquarie Tram Depot – outside vaguely in line with the surrounds (defending the First Landing Place in Sydney Cove, together with Pinchgut) and inside totally fit for purpose.

    Now which of the three was a ‘good building’? (Define this how you will!).

  • 2
    Alan Davies
    Posted July 4, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    A commenter on Facebook has suggested a ‘Bravura of Gehrys’ and a ‘Crumple of Gehrys’.

    She adds “(his) buildings seem to shout ‘look at moi’ which is OK when original, but after the 53rd, lose their lustre. His Guggenheim in Bilbao is a stunning iconic building, which may be diminished with all the subsequent variations on a theme.”

  • 3
    gapot
    Posted July 5, 2012 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    These buildings need their own space as is the case for the SOH because they are objects not architecture. Sydney needed the SOH and was a great investment paid for many times its cost, but the building in Harris St is stuck in a very dreary block of land in a very dreary area. If Sydney had some urban design, as all great cities do, we could get away with some more objects
    PS please leave the SOH alone and stop trying to make it work, its a wasteland at the moment.

  • 4
    michael r james
    Posted July 5, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been saying it for years. He is proving himself to be a one trick pony–and the pony isn’t really his either! Most starchitects are similar though Gehry is a bit extreme. Pure mannerism. There’s a lot of it about (Daniel Libeskind springs immediately to mind). This is not true for the greats. I think AD is right about Lloyd-Wright even though there are problems with his works too. I would say one should compare Gehry with today’s unarguable “great”, Norman Foster, whose varied output is breathtaking in scope, imagination and aesthetics (design to solve problems that also is beautiful).

    Let me bore further by reposting this:

    (blogs.crikey.com.au/theurbanist/2012/03/21/is-architecture-mostly-about-marketing/#comment-4934)
    michael r james Posted March 22, 2012 at 1:28 pm
    .
    Indeed there is much wrong with this whole starchitect phenomenon. I am very much in two minds about Gehry and his buildings.
    .
    Yes, the Bilbao Guggenheim is spectacular eye candy (though no way do I accept it as better than the SOH as some try to suggest) but as for its actual function: meh. Inside it has a sterile gargantuanism and as curators and art critics have pointed out, it cannot be used for anything other than equally gigantic artworks–which means a lot of very dubious stuff (eg Serra’s gigantic wavy rusting steel plates; left me unmoved; the only other thing I remember is Jeff Koon’s giant flower dog which was in an outside courtyard).
    .
    The other thing I don’t quite appreciate about Gehry is that he doesn’t really design “his” buildings. He does a bunch of squiggles on paper. If he gets a commission he then gets a team of experts to turn into something that can be built. While all modern architects have to work with large teams it is not the way of the architects I really admire, not just Utzon (is there anything Gehry has actually done himself, even conceptually, that compares with either Utzon’s original vision or his solution of the shells, even if Arup want to grab a lot of the credit?) but especially Foster. But also, to take another controversial architect whose facades are famous for their quirkiness, Gaudi; however his buildings are truly marvellous, inside and out, and very carefully designed and crafted–neither is true of Gehry buildings no matter how many computer hours are expended in working out to build such impractical shapes.
    .
    And I agree about the cost issue: it is merely for two things, fancy cosmetics when viewed from certain angles, and the recursive nonsense of having a building designed by a starchitect. And there are other costs too. MIT are currently suing Gehry over their Stata building (a mere $300M, no doubt partly funded by a rich benefactor who was wooed partly by promising a starchitect building) because of structural problems. An example: “Mr. Gehry had rejected (the) formal request to revise the design for the center’s 350-seat outdoor amphitheater, whose poor drainage has been a large part of the problem. The suit says that within months of the center’s opening, it essentially started coming apart, with “considerable masonry cracking” in the amphitheater’s seating areas.”
    .
    The Disney auditorium in LA which is a clone of Bilbao, has had to put drapery over some of those titanium walls because they were so reflective at certain times of day that the buildings around it ended up suing Disney over it (they were being blinded).
    And now it is not just Gehry but the whole army of imitators in his footsteps. For all the wrong reasons as Alan says. Merely the desire to be “different” (though copying a style is hardly that) and essentially ignoring the most important thing in a building, its function, or at least always compromising function over a dubious form.

  • 5
    Geoff
    Posted July 6, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Frank Gehry is to architecture as Andre Rieu is to music.

    Gehry’s work has been shallow and glitzy for a very long time, but clearly a lot of people do enjoy culture-lite.

    The problem with buildings is that they hang around. Unlike junk art, they are hard to hide when they become embarrasing. While we can ignore Jeff Koons, or Andre Rieu, we have to deal with the fall out from an inadequate building for a very long time.

    Frank’s work is likely to be very dated very quickly, (remember Michael Graves?) and of course, most of it has suffered from serious functional issues and significant cost overruns. UTS may yet live to regret their foolish decision to commission Frank to design their new Business School.

    While ever clients demand a recognisable design brand, instead of a commitment to a design process, we will have starchitetcts producing buildings which are only vaguely functional and barely acknowledge their site or social context, just as we will have more Louis Vuitton luggage and more Alessi kettles.

    That this is not a good model for the design of buildings (or suitcases) should be self evident, but unless clients develop the self-confidence to differentiate good design from flim-flam, Andre Rieu, Jeff Koons, Frank Gehry, Louis Vuitton and their profits are all safe for now.

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