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Frank Gehry’s winning egotism

A retrospective in Los Angeles examines the architect as artist

Jonathan Griffin | September 15th 2015

Last year, at a press conference for an architecture prize in Oviedo, northern Spain, a journalist politely asked Frank Gehry the question that many of us would like to ask him. How does he respond to the critics who accuse him of making “showy architecture”?

Gehry, who is 86 and, these days, a rather wizened version of his former self, simply extended his middle finger.

The journalist’s question echoed some common criticisms of Gehry: that he is self-serving, that his buildings are indifferent to their usage, that they are humdrum boxes adorned with cheap and flashy effects—the coloured undulating metal surfaces of his Experience Music Project in Seattle, for example, allegedly inspired by a smashed Stratocaster. In short, the criticism runs, Gehry thinks he is an artist.

It is a view that Gehry reinforced last week. At a press conference before the opening of a retrospective of his work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he described an early visit to Delphi with the artist Ed Moses, where he realised that his mission was to do what Greek sculptors had done with bronze: “to create feelings, hopefully good feelings, hopefully feelings that are uplifting…Whether you’re an artist or not, I don’t care what you call us, I think we’re all in the same boat.” But as everybody knows, a building is a collaboration between the architect and his client, between a huge team of partners, office staff, contractors and planners. What sense does it make to cling to the idea that it is an expression of one man’s will and vision?

The LACMA showcase is, on one level, a hagiography for Gehry, whose studio was deeply involved in the curation and exhibition design. He wasn’t meant to interfere, but the curator Stephanie Barron has divulged that, in every meeting, “Frank just happened to walk in and sit down”. The show presents his output, from his early houses and studios in the 1960s through to as-yet-unrealised proposals, almost entirely through maquettes, drawings and photographs. There is a marked lack of documentation of what these buildings feel like from the inside, of how they engage their inhabitants and visitors. The videos on show, which might have presented walk-throughs of some of the buildings, instead mostly consist of panning slideshows of exterior photographs. Interactive CGI is now standard fare in architecture, but the exhibition is dominated by scribbled sketches on paper and models made from card and foam. Is this how Gehry sees his work—as sculpture, drawing and photography destined for a gallery?

The evidence suggests so. Gehry cites the influence of the painter Giorgio Morandi, whose images of jugs and bottles are studies in volume. That is an interesting way of looking at, say, Gehry’s famous Chiat/Day Building in Venice, California (1985-91), which assembles several distinct volumes, one in white concrete and another clad in rusty red steel, alongside a giant sculpture of binoculars by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.

A chronological series of thematic sections, running from “Elementarization-Segmentation (1965-80)” through to “Singularity-Unity (2010–15)”, show Gehry’s progression from a deconstructionist punk—his use of inexpensive materials like chain link fencing and corrugated metals being a case in point—to the designer of outlandish profiles that ripple and curl, as with the 2003 Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Showiness, for Gehry, equates to drama; Chartres Cathedral (which he has repeatedly acknowledged as an inspiration) is showy, but that is scarcely a criticism. Gehry rails against banality, and by using cheap materials he shows that drama in architecture need not only be for the rich.

The exhibition’s themed spaces are arranged around what the curators suggest is Gehry’s central concern: urbanism. In one sense this only supports the charge of egotism: when an architect gets as powerful as Gehry now is, he graduates from making mere buildings to whole cities. But seen more generously, Gehry’s “showy” buildings deliberately create logos for cities and neighbourhoods that could use a little rebranding. His titanium-skinned Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, lauded as the most important building of the last half-century, is a perfect example. Its impact on the economy of this formerly overlooked Basque city generated a neologism in urban regeneration: “the Guggenheim effect”.

This theory of deeply buried altruism is supported by recent reports of Gehry’s pro bono involvement in the redevelopment of the cheerless Los Angeles River. Mayor Eric Garcetti, said Gehry at the press conference, invited him to consider how the river could be turned into Los Angeles’ own High Line, referring to New York’s miraculous transformation of a derelict railway track. After considering the environmental and economic possibilities for the river, Gehry became convinced of the project’s capacity to lastingly reconfigure the entire city. “If we do it right,” he said, with characteristic bravado, “it will make the High Line look like a little pishy thing.” Sometimes a city needs an ego like Gehry’s.

Frank Gehry Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to March 20th 2016

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