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.
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.
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