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Is Gehry an apt metaphor for diplomacy?

Former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton says the ‘architecture’ of foreign relations needs to look more like the work of Frank Gehry than the formal Greek of the Parthenon

Fisher Centre for the performing arts, Bard College, NY. Architect: Frank Gehry

The mainstream Australian media don’t appear to have picked up on it, but in her “farewell tour” speech last week to the Council on Foreign Relations, Hilary Clinton gave us an intriguing architectural metaphor.

According to this report on Politico, she said the foreign relations administrative ‘architecture’ dominated “by the United Nations, NATO and several other large organizations, (is) the equivalent of the Classical Parthenon in Athens.”

What’s needed now according to the former US Secretary of State is “a new architecture for the world (thats) more Frank Gehry than formal Greek.” (Nice alliteration!).  She continued:

Some of his work at first might appear haphazard, but in fact, it’s highly intentional and sophisticated. Where once a few strong columns could hold up the weight of the world, today we need a dynamic mix of materials and structures.

Politico reports she used the “emergence of the G-20 during the financial crisis, the creation of international groups working on climate change and U.S.-Turkey cooperation on counterterrorism as examples of this new, varied architecture.”

Sam Roggeveen at the Lowy Interpreter didn’t miss Hilary’s metaphor though. If she wants to make comparisons between diplomatic ‘architecture’ and Gehry’s work, he says, she invites comparisons with his flaws.

For instance, do these new diplomatic structures aim for the spectacular at the expense of the enduring? Do they fit naturally and work seamlessly within the existing environment, or do they tend to stand brashly and boldly outside the local vernacular? And were they commissioned by governments as marketing tools simply to make a bold statement and garner lots of attention?

These are pertinent questions (see also Is too much Gehry never enough?). I’d add another question to Sam Roggeveen’s list: Would these diplomatic structures make intuitive sense to other cultures, or are they specific to the cognitive elite of advanced western nations?

I think Ms Clinton has in any event got her metaphor back to front. The Parthenon isn’t held up by “a few strong columns”, but rather by dozens of closely-spaced ones (46 outside, 23 inside).

The Greeks couldn’t span large distances with stone. So in terms of how the loads are carried to the foundation it’s actually highly distributed.

The more spectacular of Gehry’s works on the other hand are heavily reliant on structure. Compared to the Parthenon, they have huge spans supported at many fewer points.

Moreover there’s more redundancy in the Parthenon. Those columns could support many, many more times the weight they are actually called on to carry.

But I should cut her some slack – she’s a diplomat not an engineer. What she might mean is the Parthenon is a simple and clear visual idea that’s easy to take in.

In contrast, much of Gehry’s work appears chaotic and hard to pin-down – it’s difficult to get a clear idea visually of how it works. There’s lots of complexity and ambiguity. Yet despite the lack of legibility it still functions effectively and fulfils its purpose.

However when it comes to diplomatic organisational structures and processes, I’d expect Gehry-like complexity, chaos, turmoil – call it what you like – is the last thing you’d want.

Gehry isn’t about precision. It wouldn’t matter much if the radius of curvature of a panel was a few degrees either way, or the whole panel was moved forward or backward a metre or two, or even if it were a different size.

There’s degrees of freedom in most Gehry buildings. In fact each finished design is one of a family of closely-related potential solutions that would be readily interchangeable. But not so something like the Sydney Opera House, which in comparison is a simple and clear visual idea.

I’d expect diplomatic structures, in contrast, need to be very clear and predictable. Diplomats might need flexible minds, but imprecise administrative systems when dealing with a range of cultures, languages, histories and sometimes animosities don’t make much sense.

Actually, I’m not convinced a really good architectural metaphor for the sort of multi-channel diplomatic arrangements Ms Clinton favours exists. But I’d give modernism a head-start over Gehry.

‘Form follows function’ is a good principle for organisational design. ‘Less is more’ captures the subtleties, understatement and restraint of diplomacy.

In comparison, Gehry and most starchitects are more like a loud shout and a thump on the table.

Can anyone nominate an architect who’s style best captures the foreign relations principles endorsed by Ms Clinton (or perhaps the reality of what actually happens)?

Would some of ARM’s work qualify? Some of its buildings certainly look to my eye like a collection of disparate elements, each seemingly fighting desperately against the idea of a dominant unifying idea for fear they’ll be lost or ignored.

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  • 1
    Tim Churches
    Posted February 7, 2013 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    The relevant question for Sydney residents is whether the new Gehry-designed UTS School of Business will be an apt metaphor for post-modern neo-capitalism. Is it an excrescence of Fukuyamaist end-of-history triumphalism, or does it hint at a new, more complex post-Marxist dialectic?

    http://www.fmu.uts.edu.au/masterplan/projects/drchau.html

  • 2
    Alan Davies
    Posted February 7, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Tim Churches #1:

    The perfect question for Elizabeth Farrelly to tackle!

    (I’ve written about the Dr Chou Chak Wing building before).

  • 3
    Alan Davies
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 12:01 am | Permalink

    Sam Roggeveen at the Lowy Interpreter takes this intriguing subject further in More on ‘Frank Gehry diplomacy’. He looks at it from the perspective of China as a rising world power.

  • 4
    Greg Blain
    Posted February 13, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Hi Alan, interesting article. I’m constantly amazed at how Gehry seems to achieve success (apparently). Yes, architects like him demand the world responds to their “loud shouts and thumps on the table” (great analogy, I use similar words myself for this type of pretentious and egotistical architecture).
    I have to disagree though with your comment that his buildings “still function effectively…”. It can be readily proven that the more architecture diverges away from straight line and 90 degree junctions demanded by the natural laws of manufacture, construction and human habitation, the lower the performance of the building. Unfortunately I guess that about 0.5% of architects are willing to face this reality. Keep up the good work and again, interesting article.
    Greg Blain Architect, Brisbane

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