Saturday, September 12, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "How Should a Building Look?' (on Frank Gehry at LACMA)

how should a building look?
by Douglas Messerli

Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, in association with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (organizers) Frank Gehry / September 13, 2015-March 20, 2016 / the preview I attended was on Wednesday, September 9, 2015, with the curators, LACMA director Michael Govan, and architect Frank Gehry speaking / Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

In a short discussion prior to the press preview of the wonderful new Frank Gehry exhibition which opens today to the public at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gehry talked about his early days when he felt that New York architects were busy hotly competing against one another, warring, at times, more about architectural tendencies than being focused on the buildings they actually created. Meanwhile, in the nascent but very active art, music, and literary scenes of Los Angeles one had the opportunity, he argued, to experiment, to focus on the artistic activity itself without the judgmental reactions that one might receive elsewhere. 
    At the same time, he argued, Los Angeles had a very sophisticated gathering of individuals, including the many German and other European writers, musicians, filmmakers, and philosophers who had escaped Nazi Germany, settling into the Los Angeles basin as they continued their careers. Just as important, Gehry argues—particularly for his own development—was the influence of all things Asian, particularly Japanese., he observed that as in Japan itself a great deal of the Los Angeles architecture consisted of smaller buildings of wood, the so-called “ticky-tacky” houses of wood and stucco that had sprung up throughout the region.

     It was within that vast urban setting, working with just such materials as wood, corrugated metal sheeting, cardboard, asphalt, and even chain-link fencing, that the architect first experimented, one of the most memorable of architectural examples being his own Santa Monica residence built from 1977-78, and revised in the early 1990s. That construction and the various other homes built throughout the region, often deconstructed the Bauhaus-influenced block entity, by breaking up the various “parts” or rooms of a residence into its constituent parts.

     Indeed, one might even argue that Gehry was also influenced somewhat by the Spanish style of building, where the various rooms were strung about a kind veranda or plaza, allowing the daily sun and pleasurable temperatures to permeate the entire residence.

     Yet the various “boxes” obviously resonated with the Japanese sense of stacking, placing things within other things, while the walls clearly served almost as the flat moveable surfaces of Japanese residences that, over time, might allow development and growth of the residence itself. 
         That same sense of the urban relationship of the various parts of a building permeated others of his structures, including the Loyola Law School (1978-2003), the Nationale-Nederlanden Building (1992-96) in Prague, the Chiat/Day Building (1985-1991) in Venice, California, and other works.

     Already as early as the the Nationale-Nederlanden building, Gehry had begun exploring another dimension of structure that had to do not only with the variation of size and interaction of the various parts of the whole, but hinted at a startling transformation of what was considered the basic unit of construction, formerly the rectangle or box. Suddenly in the Prague construction of two interrelating towers, now nicknamed “Fred and Ginger,” suggested by the impression that the two buildings, appearing as humanoid spherical structures, appeared almost ready to lean into dance (as one faced the front of the construction), a bit like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Here the disparate parts found a new integration into a whole that would be paralleled by numerous other designs of the period, which featured radical reshaping of the constructs made possible by the architect’s development with Dassault Systèmes to create a new Computer Aided Three-Dimensional Interactive Application (CATIA) developed originally for the aeronautics and automotive industries.
     The Gehry show, displaying a large array of designs and scale models, presents a dizzying panoply of architectural forms. To help the audience to assimilate all of this visual stimulation, the original organizers from Paris’ Centre Pompidou have broken down Gehry’s architectural variations into six categories: “De-composition | Segmentation [1965-80],” “Composition | Assemblage [1980-90]”; “Interaction | Fusion [1990-2000],” “Conflict | Tension [1990-2000],” “Flux | Continuity [2000-2010],” and “Unit | Singularity [2000-15].” To these, LACMA curator Stephanie Baron has added yet another section, “In the Studio Now,” which is of particular interest for the Los Angeles public, since several of Gehry’s current projects involve plans for buildings and spaces throughout the city.
     While one finds these various categories useful in attending to the various focuses throughout Gehry’s now long career, I think it equally possible to simply see his work as a ongoing series of shifts, particularly after his original deconstructive activities, in conceiving how a building or even series of buildings might be shaped, what materials might be used in their making, and how they interact both in relationship to each other and the surrounding environment. The overreaching link might be described as Gehry’s own attempt to create an art, which, he claims, he first perceived while traveling in Greece where he first encountered the sculpture of Demeter, that might make something that would literally transform the viewer, changing the way he or she sees the world. 
     Whether it be his sail like forms of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (1991), the conglomerate of glistening winged and hooded elements of the beloved Walt Disney Music Center (1989-2003) (which I first attended at concert with a group that included its architect), the amorphous shaped Lewis residence (a marvel of a work that was never built), or the recent Leviathan-shaped Foundation Louis Vuitton in Paris, Gehry’s architecture is a constant exploration of all the categories which the curators have come up with, and are not simply delimited to one period in his ongoing, ever-transforming career.

    In a show is so vast that one wants to pick and choose from the favorites, but quickly realizes, in this case, that to do so is an impossibility. Even if one prefers some designs over others, nearly all of Gehry’s projects seem interesting and most are as “transforming” as the Greek sculpture he so admired. Moreover, one recognizes that as stunning as the 66 models and 200 drawings of this show are, the actual buildings and their surroundings further astound one. So one needs to comprehend that even these amazing images of the real buildings do not truly reveal the creations in real time and space.     

     I was particularly interested in several news projects, the multi-colored campus of buildings of the Biomuseo, Museo de la Biodiversidad of Panama City, Panama, the 2012 Quanzhou Museum of Contemporary Art in China, and the vast (unbuilt) proposal for the Brooklyn, Atlantic Yards (2003-08). I was equally intrigued by the petite Pierre Boulez Concert Hall in Berlin, The Facebook campus in Menlo Park, California, the reconstruction of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (a museum I know very well) and, locally, by the models for the Jazz Bakery in nearby Culver City, the human-scale Children’s Institute to be built (pro-bono) in Los Angeles’ Watt’s neighborhood, and the stunning multi-building complex at 8150 Sunset Boulevard, all in what has become the home city for this Canadian born genius. Equally fascinating were Gehry’s beforehand comments on what we might expect the Los Angeles River Project on which he and other city leaders are currently working. The possibility of downtown railroad tracks being arched over with parks and gardens and that the mad river’s rush to the sea during our occasional rain storms might actually be allowed to collect and redistribute its water represents a world “devoutly to be wished."
     Even more than the memorable Heatherwick show this year at LACMA’s Frank Gehry show promises a future that we can only hope will be allowed to happen by the legions of unimaginative city leaders and inferior, competitively-inspired architects, and committed to by short-sighted local development groups. I would be wonderful if Los Angeles, which has bred some very remarkable architects over the years, who, unfortunately, did not successfully alter the often brutal skyline that dominates the vast stretches of the city, would now be asked to help recreate the Los Angeles and other dynamic urban landscapes.

Los Angeles, September 12, 2015