Frank Gehry at LACMA – The Possibilities and Limitations of Assemblage

Frank Gehry’s impact on the general public is perhaps more evident than that of other Architects.  The general public is fascinated by his work, and his buildings attract awe and respect from our culture as a whole.  His relationship with design professionals, however, is much more contentious.

We tend to see his work as sensationalist and without intellect.  So, it is with an open mind that I wanted to absorb the fascination with his architectural “effects” at the exhibit.  ( A year ago he responded to criticism of his new Louis Vuitton Foundation building with the retort that “98% of what gets built today is shit,” and a curse finger.)

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As other Architects have assumed the use of curving forms, Gehry stays one step ahead, pushing the boundaries of his seemingly unbridled forms, stoking the fascination of the general public.  But why?  What are they feeling that I am not?  Do I block myself from simply enjoying his forms, as one would enjoy the art of a sculpture, only because his geometries do not seem to relate to functional references?  Yet at LACMA, here Gehry sits proud, somewhat an outsider in his own profession.

Architects are taught in school that we cannot simply “like” a building.  We have to analyze what the underlying themes are that make a building favorable to us – the general public has no such limitation.  For them, entertainment and experience are the primary engagement methods with architecture.  Though, I don’t believe that if every building looked like Disney Concert Hall, the general public would feel the same way.  Perhaps that is another reason why Architects do not seem to mimic or speak lovingly of Gehry: we consider him a “one-off” type of designer.  Once somebody did that type of architecture, it was done.  If anyone else was to emulate that aesthetic, since it is the definition of “stylistic,” we would be copying his work.  And hence, no one has.    And where do his ideas come from anyway?  In one of the videos, Gehry explains that he pointed to the wastebasket when a reporter asked him where he finds inspiration: “You can look anywhere and find inspiration.”  That’s not something you can mimic.

Of course, another reason no one has copied Gehry’s work could be that he is a singular genius, and I’m sure the exhibit would agree with that statement.  Gehry may embody the word “starchitect” more than any other, and for wikipedia that term and his “Bilbao Effect” are practically synonymous.  He has an ability to create culturally magnetic effects with his projects.  Or, as my friend Brook Campbell alludes, Gehry’s work is “like a flower, designed primarily to attract as many bees as possible.”

I have never read extensively on Gehry, though my own observation of his work began with a visit to the then just-built Guggenheim Bilbao in 2000, while I was travelling with Cornell University for a summer studio.  To me, his form was indeed whimsical.  But, it didn’t relate effectively to the pedagogy at Cornell where I don’t think the professors were equipped to evaluate his work or describe how to design it in the first place.  We were taught to design with cohesion and with strong ideas, not with sensation.

 

EXHIBIT AS A TIMELINE

The exhibit is organized to show the progression of his work.  The origins of his career fit into the “chain link era” where he played with materials to deconstruct the preconceived notions of what a house or a typology was.  It is explained that Gehry’s experimentation was a product of availability – ubiquitous and economical materials were the easiest to employ.  Gehry was playing with the ideas of space, trying to break down the boundaries of defined program with the deconstructivist vocabulary.  He was not alone in this battle, in the 1950s-1960s, many Architects were rejecting the public’s continued expectation of historic looking buildings.  “He segmented the individual elements of a building’s geometrical structure based on program and functionality, creating dynamic tensions between what was closed and covered, visible and hidden.”

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“He then inserted elements of local 1930s architecture but disregarded their functions.  Stairs, a fireplace, and an outsized gable window become hollow forms to be manipulated shifted and recontextualized.”

He deconstructed the elements of program to reassemble them in ways that had other meanings – sometimes apparent and sometimes, i’ll just guess here, purely aesthetic.  I don’t believe that Gehry is shy about using visual sensation to his advantage, whereas most architects feel guilty when pandering to that element of human nature that is attracted to the “shiny thing.”  A staircase employed to decorate the parapet of a building is reactionary but ultimately superfluous and not productive.

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By 1990 . . . “Conscious of the aesthetic limitations of assemblage, Gehry sought to revive the principle of continuity in his structures.”  Basically, he added a continuous element, such as a roof, to help define the assemblage as a gathered entity.  A simple architectural move that would allow his buildings to become more whole.

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Interestingly, if you look carefully, his original fascination with assemblage never really dissipated, and this is an important link to his work.  This is perhaps why I was never really drawn to his work: his predisposition for “assemblage” ignores any attempt to create a cohesive experience, replaced instead by his propensity for happenstance.  To me, there is a lack of precise thinking to the geometry, a laziness.

“Gehry’s focus on interstitial spaces led to a fascination with tension and attraction.  The architect created contradictions, clashes, abrupt changes, and conflicts that referenced the heterogeneous nature of the city.”  To me, that’s putting lipstick on a pig.  There is never a purpose to creating tension and contradiction in architecture; buildings are for people.  You can create attraction without the messiness of discomfort if you so desire.

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The Guggenheim Bilbao is a masterful bait and switch, really.  It works as a museum because the galleries are mostly within regular boxes at the base, and where the museum fronts the street.  The curvy announcement is primarily that, a place signifier.  But, that is a great example of the difference in interpretations between Architects and the general public.  Gehry is forthright about the juxtaposition of the curvy metal form and the rectangular base units.  He is content to provide both the shiny thing and the functional objects in adjacency.

But, this adjacency creates its own problems throughout his career.  Another observation I had in Bilbao was the deplorable detailing.  Those crazy forms needed steel, and lots of it.  The base of the building needed tons of limestone cladding – the two clash so consistently, they develop their own chaotic collage.  One fault I will give the exhibit at LACMA is that it completely ignores Gehry’s disregard for organized detailing.  In his progressive efforts for advanced forms, he sidesteps the intellectual process of linking those forms with construction techniques.  There is no representation of the one-to-one scale at the exhibit, as if models are all that is important for a building’s success.

 

MOST RECENT WORK

Since 2000, Gehry began to experiment in his designs with repeating proportions and shapes to link his forms.  This effort began to allow his montage architecture to express itself more rhythmically.

His office has been run by 100s of architects at a time, so it’s possible there is much influence in his work from other designers, but to what extent would never be clear. While his new Foundation Louis Vuitton is a gratuitous mess in my opinion, he provides a professional’s touch with his proposal for 8150 Sunset, only two blocks from my apartment.

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I was also drawn to this project (below right), which unfortunately, I did not write the name down.  Here he uses a pixelated “brick-like” reinterpretation of his curvy facades.  That technique isn’t unique, but his deployment of it in conjunction with his typical unfettered fashion allows for a more human, textured, approach.

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The adaptation of his aesthetic over time – both the curvy part and the assemblage of pieces – creates some amazing hits and some forgettable misses.  I’ve always been drawn to his IAC on Manhattan’s westside.  Ironically, it is actually the materiality that controlled his form-making there.  The use of molded glass required a maximum of 5 degree change over the course of the plane, meaning he was mathematically restrained.

 

MEDIA CHOICES

There was an obvious decision to omit photography of Gehry’s completed work.  In many ways, this prefaces the work of the Architect as a professional, utilizing only the tools of design to display his work.  There are two documentary videos on constant loop, both of them made prior to the exhibit.  But, they are about an hour each.

There are many sketches framed for the exhibit.  At Cornell, we were taught to utilize single line drawings, which forces a designer to think more carefully about the lines they are expressing.  That technique worked for me and my classmates.  The multi-line sketch, which is really in essence what creates the “sketchy” look, can relay the indecision of the designer through the visual material.  And, for most of Gehry’s sketches, that is abundantly clear.  There are no diagrams to be found, only evolving visual sensations.

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