M A D I S O N _G R A Y | deep_SIGHT
"Before trying to explain [or evaluate] anything, one should first find out what it is."
--- Victor Erlich, Russian Formalism: History--Doctrine
 
The Ontology of FORM: Metaphor and the Camouflage of Abstraction
 
"One learns to look behind the facade, to grasp the root of things. One learns to recognize the hidden currents, the prehistory of the visible. One learns to dig below the surface of things, to uncover, to find causes, to analyze" --- Paul Klee
 
WHALE STORY: The LEVIATHAN and the WATER LILY
 
 
Frank Gehry, a genius, and how,
Formed a Melvillian shiny whale—a fish—in Bilbao.
And now for Manhattan
Proposes a flower (or fountain . . . or cloud?)
Causing the world again to say, Wow!
madison gray 9.16.00/10.10.00
1 Guggenheim Bilbao; Bilbao, Spain. Frank O. Gehry and Associates, Completed 1997 (photo above). This building is what I refer to as the LEVIATHAN (or Whale); however, due to the phenomenon that I term the camouflage of abstraction, it's basically impossible in see this all-important marine-animal aspect of the building's representational identity without stepping back....
 
2 Guggenheim NYC; Proposal for the East River, Lower Manhattan. Frank O. Gehry and Associates, 2000 (photo above). This building is what I refer to as the WATER LILY; however, due to the phenomenon that I term the camouflage of abstraction, it is difficult to see this all-important aquatic-flower aspect of the building's basic representational identity without moving around...
1. Few of us ever experience the frisson of awe and humility that accompanies pure genius, but fortunately there is art---which allows us to experience it vicariously through the works of others. And there is little doubt that such a feeling strikes all, except perhaps those with ice in their veins, who step into the large room on the second floor of the Guggenheim Museum in NYC to behold the digital-age wonder of Frank Gehry's architecture.
 
The ongoing exhibition, "Project for a New Guggenheim Museum in New York City," features two projects: Guggenheim Bilbao, the celebrated project completed in 1997 (the end of the last century, as it were) in Spain; and Guggenheim NYC, a proposed Y2K project, on the East River of Lower Manhattan, which, if realized, would mark Gehry's first presence in the Big Apple. No small feat (or feet, as I'm fond of saying). Although in my estimation the project is not without perplexing deficiencies (it's a tough nut to crack), nonetheless such an event would be cause for inhabitants of the great metroplis, which has contributed surprisingly little to the record of the avant-garde in architecture, to celebrate.
 
The overall spirit of the exhibition? Exhileration! The kind inspired by the presence of an abundance of signs of relentless labor, daring poetic spirit, and the realization in material form of what one might have considered possible to construct only out of the impalpable stuff of the imagination. The high-ceiling room brims with energy. You see raw study models, pristine final models, a proliferation of process drawings, including digital modeling studies, and an extra large, stunning (and revealing) photograph of Bilbao on the wall where a silent video of the project plays on a flat screen monitor .

The words of architect Raymond Hood leap to mind: "Genuine, vigorous beauty." That's how Hood described his own project, one of New York's best, the soaring limestone-clad steel structure that functions as the Queen on the chess board of Rockefeller Center, the 1933 RCA (now GE) Building. And though cut from radically different aesthetic cloth, Gehry's exhibition and Gehry's architecture could be summed up the same way.


"You can observe a lot by watching." _Yogi Berra
 
2. Funnily enough, I found myself thinking of the theatrical phenomenon I experienced at the underappreciated Broadway production of Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Jesus Christ Superstar." There are two moments in the show when an upstage cross comprised of hyper-incandescent lightbulbs is turned up full. It is literally a blinding light. You have to turn away. Or close your eyes.
 
At the Guggenheim, there is no doubt that you are surrounded by tremendous artistic gifts made manifest in inhabitable form. Dazzling light. But there comes a moment when you realize that you need to open your eyes and see. Which is of course the job of a critic. And no doubt, professionals---practitioners of architecture, as well as educators---and everyone inclined to consider the deeper problems of art, would want to do the same.
 
And when we open our eyes, what do we see? Ah, where to begin . . .
 

"The breaking of a wave cannot explain the whole sea." _Vladimir Nabokov
 
3. Well, perhaps Vladimir Nobokov's assertion that "the breaking of a wave cannot explain the whole sea" could function as a suitable mental anteroom to our detective work. Especially if we could determine what the breaking of the wave is. And I would suggest that it is the idea of . . . expression.
 
"What I am after, above all, is expression," wrote Henri Matisse in 1908, during the unique period of explosive chemicalization of modern art at the beginning of the twentieth century. A seismic thought-shift that (1) released artists from the presumption of representational verisimilitude; that is, from the idea that the purpose of art was to be a camera-like mirror to the exterior world of Nature; (2) produced the radical idea of formal autonomy---what the British critic Clive Bell, in his 1913 book Art, called "Significant Form"; that is, form that has value and meaning---significance---in its own right; and (3) introduced the idea of integration and ambiguity of Figure and Ground; that is, the blurring of the difference between an object and its field---such that a building and its site, for example, might have the same density, complexity, and reciprocity of forms and spaces comprising the aesthetic field as the still underappreciated Cubist paintings of Braque and Picasso. The upshot was to give rise to abstraction and the formulation of the idea, which has descended principally from Cézanne's perfectly balanced optical-intellectual approach to art, of art as research into form. Matisse's paintings contributed in substantial ways to various aspects of all these phenomena. They were his means of achieving the "expression" that he was after most of all. And, though the conceptual and connotative basis of Gehry's art is very different from Matisse's in many ways, the object is the same. What Gehry is after, above all, is expression.
 
Perhaps more than just "above all." Which calls to mind Cézanne's succinct commentary on the degree to which Monet's lovely paintings, such as his 1906 "Water Lilies," are evidence of deeper things: "Monet is just an eye---but what an eye!" And raises the question: To what degree is it justifiable to similarly conclude that Gehry is "just expression---but what expression!"?
 
Ultimately, the answer to this question requires determining what comprises not only the visceral essence of Gehry's architecture but its ontological essence as well. In other words, what is Gehry expressing? If expression is the "breaking of the wave," what is "the whole sea"? Or is expression itself all there is? Architecture, some inner empirical and intuitve thing, as expression, pure and simple. And, if this were in fact to be the case, so? What's wrong with the idea of art as pure visual expression? Does this in any way devalue its cultural worth? What more does there need to be in art? What more is there? What's wrong with Monet? Or those drip paintings of Jackson Pollock?
 

"Different kinds of lines, straight and curved, and among the straight the horizontal and vertical, and among the curved those that are closed and those that droop and rise, have different immediate esthetic qualities . . . lines express the ways in which things act upon one another and upon us . . . For this reason lines are wavey, upright oblique, crooked, majestic . . . they seem in direct perception to have even moral expressiveness." _Roland Root, The Psychology of the Curve," Camera Work (1906)
 
4. Given that Gehry himself has little to say about his work, perhaps not the most encouraging sign of its profundity, we are forced to infer its meaning and intentions from the visible evidence. Which is fair enough. And, rather propitiously, within days of seeing the Gehry Guggenheim show, while mulling over the kinds of questions posed above, I stumbled upon an unusually satisfying and didactic exhibition of drawings and paintings at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) in Williamstown, Massachussettes. The quote above by Roland Root is stenciled on the wall, by way of introduction.
 
The exhibition, "The Lines of Early Modernism: American Works from the Collection," organized by Vivian Patterson, associate curator, with Jennifer A. Greenhill, provides a simple, intital framework for classifying Gehry's expressionism. A framework consistent with my own earlier work on the relationship between Gehry and the music-paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, which I will recap in a moment (see Section 10, below). Leading us, ideally, to uncover in this flamboyant, iconoclastic architecture what Paul Klee described as the "the prehistory of the visible."
 
Though only on view through December 17, the thoughtful one-page gallery guide by Greenhill, and the quotations stenciled on the walls, which I was sure to write down, will fortunately endure. Ultimately, it is an Art 101 lesson, presented with insight and intelligence. on a fundamental dialectic in visual structures between straight and curved lines (i.e., linear and curvilinear). It's intended to convey the "expressive power" of line, as well as its dichotomous sources, associations, and emotional and aesthetic impact. And to remind us that this was the subject of international discourse on form early in the last century. (In contrast to the recent exhibition at the nearby, more renowned Clark Art Institute, which offered an art-as-cultural-history-and-ethnography lesson on the influence of Orientalism in 19th-century American art, this exhibition's unambiguous emphasis on intrinsic issues of form is refreshing.)
 
"Line is fundamental to almost any artistic expression," starts the gallery guide, "When an artist puts pencil to paper or paintbrush to canvas [or mouse to mousepad . . . or makes an architectural model], it is through line that his or her ideas first find their form. Yet, for American artists working in the first four decades of the twentiethc century, line was far from simply a means of recording artistic impluse. Its expressive quality was a prominent topic of debate in art and even scientific circles. . . . Above and beyond being central to art making, line could have even moral implications."
 
The general consensus was apparently that curves are more beautiful than straight lines because they are less demanding on the eyes and/or they evoke associations, for example with a smile or natural landscape, that are innately more statisfying, natural, "moral," and, therefore, superior.
 
Works by John Marin, Lyonel Feininger, Irene Rice Pereira, Alfred Stieglitz, Theodore Roszak, and Joseph Stella, derived from the angular geometries and often complex linear networks of the built (i.e., "architectural, structural") landscape are juxtaposed to works by Marsden Hartley. Arthur Dove, André Kertész, Charles Demuth, and Georgia O'Keeffe, derived from delight in the sensuous forms of the natural landscape. In other words, the sources and images of machine-Culture, exemplified by straight-lines, are viewed in opposiiton to the sources and images of biomorphic-Nature, exemplied by curves. Art inspired by the aesthetic properties of other human-made artifacts versus art inspired by innocent Nature herself. Moreover, as the museum guide explains, "several images, such as the Hopper [Morning in a City, 1944] and Charles Demuth's 1917 Trees and Barns: Bermuda, bring architectural spaces and organic forms together, showcasing both the harmonies and the conflicts between the two."
 
If the paintings of Hopper and certain precisionist works by Demuth represent, not unlike those of Matisse, the dialectical confluence of these two archetypal aesthetic sensibilities, then the works of O'Keeffe and Feininger represent, like those of Kandinsky and Mondrian, non-dialectical extremes. And the defining moment of the show is represented by the calculated placement of an oil by each painter on either side of the dividing wall. Stenciled on the wall adjacent to Feininger's taut, straight-edged, angular-kinetic Mill on Atlantic, 1932, is this 1910 quotation by Sadakichi Hartmann:
 
". . . the relationship of lines, so confused and intricate in scenes like a railroad station or a machine shop, factory, derrick or skeleton structures of a building . . . need special consideration. The variety and the irregularity of such lines, in which the straight and angular will predominate, may be compared to the unresolved discords, unrelated harmonies . . . of the modern French composers. Debussy mastered these apparently incongruous elements sufficiently well to construct novel combinations of sound that, after all, are pleasing to the ear."
 
On the wall to the left of O'Keeffe's 1922 "Skunk Cabagge" (shown below, 2nd image from left) is a quotation by Lewis Mumford. By way of preface to this quote, Greenhill notes in her museum guide that "O'Keeffe also painted the rigid, piercing vertical structures of the modern cityscape, prompting Lewis Mumford to commend her versatility":
 
"The point is that all these paintings come from a central stem; and it is because the stem is so well grounded in the earth and the plant itself so lusty, that it keeps on producing new shoots and efflorescence, now through the medium of apples, pears, eggplants, now through leaves and stalks, now in high buildings and skyscrapers, all intensified into symbols of quite different significance ."(Lewis Mumford, quoted in Anita Pollitzer, "A Woman on Paper: Georgia O'Keeffe" (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), 195.)

"Seeing is in some respect an art, which must be learnt." _William Herschel, 18th-century British astronomer
 
5. You could easily imagine adding Gehry's projects to this exhibition of American art. It's as if the exhibition had been intentionally designed to function as Part 1 of a threshhold to his work. And were you to place Guggenheim NYC (model photos below) next to the Georgia O'Keeffe, even more would become clear. You would begin to sense that for Gehry it's not simply a matter of prefering the intuitive, aesthetic expressivity of idiosyncratic curviliear form, in the abstract. Affinity with the representational content of O'Keeffe's work is no less important or palpable. Were we to include his recent proposal for The New York Times building (vertical photo of b&w model below), the affinities between Gehry and the bio-botanical art world of O'Keefe would be equally obvious.
 
On the other hand, it's important to note that the Guggenheim NYC scheme's central "tower" (seen in the model photos above), amid the surrounding tremulous curvilinear metal foliage, provides an expressive linear counterpoint. Not part of the earliest schemes, this vertical structure, like a toothpick in an hors d'oeuvre, was added in order to provide a contextual reference to the prototypical highrises of the city in general and the ones across the street specifically. In its faceted angularity, this later component of Guggenheim NYC is more like Feininger than O'Keeffe---though only in terms of its form, not its metaphorical, biomorphic role in the composition, as I'll explain in a moment. You can see this even more easily when Gehry's tower is compared to Feininger's bluish "Baltic" landscape painting (above), which I've rotated from the horizontal to the vertical. Moreover, if Gehry's overall scheme is compared to another Feininger painting, his more anomalous, Robert Delaunay-like, proto-Cubist "Gelmerode" (last image in the sequence above), the underlying affinities (linear versus curvilinear) can seem, admittedly, all the more ambiguous and open-ended. Food for thought.
 
[Professional thought-experiment (as Einstein liked to say): If you put your abstract, lateral-thinking lenses on, you can see that the "Gelmerode," if looked at as a map, could be almost like looking at the Guggenheim NYC scheme from a helicopter right above it. In other words, it's almost like an architectural floor plan of Gehry's project, in which Feininger's luminous light-filled faceted shapes stand for Gehry's shiny titanium. I say almost, . . . because the Feininger, in its beautiful implications of asymmety, inequities, fragmentation, and incomplete enclosure around a central void, is a more advanced plan than Gehry's, which emphasizes the opposite attributes of circular enclosure and diagrammatic symmetry around a central solid. Moreover, the center of the "Gelmerode," again reading this irregular figure as a spatial void in plan, is further complexified and rendered dramatic, interactional, and conceptually advanced by virtue of two main gestures: (1) the building's open relationship to the street-side "cityscape" (the left side of the painting) versus it's closed, and therefore different, relationship to the water-side "landscape" (the right side of the painting); and (2) the thin linear cut that extends to the "building's" periphery at the top of the frame, which further denies any naive impulse to sameness and approximate symmetry. In short, the Feininger offers instruction in how to formulate an advanced, architect-painter minded floor plan; one that is inherently centrifugal in its forces, fractured, and spatially contingent with its site. In many ways, as I will note again later, Gehry's plan is the antithesis.]
 

"Would you like me to make it curly or straight?" _Hair Stylist overheard at Vidal Sassoon
 
6. In point of fact, the linear/curvilinear (Culture/Nature) dichotomy provides a base-level way of categorizing all four proposals for The Times (below). Of the four, only Gehry's is clearly in the organic-form camp. Affinities between Pelli's scheme (right) and O'Keeffe's "Skunk Cabbage" suggest the possibility of an ambiguous organo-prismatic formal realm in between, and cause us to see both building and painting in a slightly new light. I am more sure of which proposal to reject, Foster and Partners (second from left, a sad scheme indeed), than which one I favor. I need more information, and it's a discussion for another day. But suffice it to say now, that these proposals really make you reflect about the difference between advanced form-making and architectural styling. Plus they don't exactly exude intellectual profundity, do they? And surely any building for The Times should have an intellectual bent to it, one would think. But if I had to pick, while it would be difficult not to choose Gehry's project if for no other reason than that it is by Gehry, I like the promise of Renzo Piano's design (left). As seen in this model-view, it appears to respect certain conventions in architecture, such as site-influenced displacement (the vertical piece is shifted to one end) and differentiation of a building's base from the superstructure (though their interrelationship is up in the air, so to speak). And l associate it with the aesthetic sensibility of Irene Rice Pereira's beautiful drawing in the WCMA show, however unlikely that Piano himself would see his project in those terms. Most of all, there's the promise, though unlikely fulfillment I would suspect, that the four sides of the diaphonous planar tower would be marked with circumstantial visual and cerebral gestures that give unique but interrelated identity to the four different sides---perhaps a "writing of the walls," thereby suggesting a self-referential semantic dimension. [Follow-up note 11.14.00: Gehry has withdrawn from the competition. Additional views of Piano's design, as published in The Times, are disappointing. They reveal that, rather than tending towards an advanced aesthetic, the design tends in the opposite direction towards the ordinary and aethetically challenged. But we shall see...]
[NYT 9.14.2000, B10]
 
Listen to the language that Times reporter David W. Dunlap uses to descibe Gehry's project. Relying almost solely on references to nature, clothing, and food, Dunlap says it's "...a proposal for a tower with an undulating facade, wrapped in twisting, sinewy planes that blossom at the top and bustle at the bottom; not unlike pappardelle pasta on a colossal scale."
 

"I like nature but not its substitutes." _Jean Arp (1913)
 
7. So, in our search for the underlying motivation of Gehry's farout digital curvy-wurvy expressionism, for the origins of his form making, we have thus hit upon an important consideration, which situates him within a larger historical, even American, tradition. On the surface, it involves a simple aesthetic predilection. Deeper down it involves a philosophical problem, one that relates to the sources of form, and the origins and identity of art. One that ultimately relates to the structure of architecture's relationship to Nature.
 
In other words, as we look for ways to successfully traverse the contours of Gehry's mental geography, we find ourselves wrestling with the not insignificant question: To what degree are these architectures, Guggenheim NYC and Guggenheim Bilbao specifically, which are so uncompromisingly expressive and seemingly, at least on initial impact, the height of avant-garde abstraction, truly abstract?
 
And, to the degree that they are not purely abstract---to the degree that they are architectural expressions or representations of pant life or other biological forms, rendered inhabitable---have they truly been, to use Mumford's phrase, "intensified into symbols of quite different significance"?
 
What are we to conclude from the discovery that Guggenheim NYC, as the aerial photo of the model (full view and closeup below) plainly shows, is like a Water Lily, on a lily pad, with a retilinear block through its center functioning as the flower's pistil?
 
Crross section of flower: 1 filament, 2 anther, 3 stigma, 4 style, 5 petal, 6 ovary, 7 sepal, 8 pedicel, 9 stamen, 10 pistil, 11 perianth
[from Britannica.com http://www.britannica.com/mw/art/flower.htm
 
And what are we to conclude from the discovery that Guggenheim Bilbao, as this photo of the completed building (below) plainly shows, is like a whale---a Leviathan---tail (spout?) and all, stretched resplendent along the water's edge?
 
 
Surely, it raises important questions about the role of metaphor and representation in architecture. About the origins of Form. About the relationship of Form and Content. About the illusion and reality of abstraction. About poetry and profundity. About architecture's ontology . . . about the structure of architecture's relationship to Nature.

"Did I ever tell you that you look like the Prince of Wales. I don't mean the new Wales. I mean the old Wales. And believe me, I know a whale when I see one." _Groucho Marx to Margaret Dumont in the movie "Horsefeathers"
 
8. If Gehry has presented us in these two projects with a notion of architecture as a representation of larger-than-life plants and animals, metalicized and semi-abstracted, am I the first to notice it? Well, I am certainly the first, as far as I'm aware, to state it categorically and to aver that this is Gehry's unequivocal intention. Moreover, I am the first to question it. And ultimately to ask, especially at Guggenheim NYC, whether more shouldn't be expected of an advanced architecture.
 
Here's an example of the fuzziness and equivocation on the part of other observers with respect to the flora-fauna connections and Gehry's intentions. It involves an extended passage by Julie V. Iovine, a Senior Reporter writing on architecture and design at the New York Times, in Guggenheim Bilbao/Guggenheim New York, a small book that I bought in the musuem store. (The New York part of the book is about the original Frank Lloyd Wright building.) Iovine reports that associations with flowers (rather than a marine creature), are typically inferred from the form making at Guggenheim Bilbao:
 
"While the exfoliating titanium strips of metal that crown the atrium's exterior are routinely referred to simply as the petals of a blossoming rose," writes Iovine of Guggenheim Bilbao, "Russian constructivists, German expressionists, Italian futurists, and Fritz Lang's "Metroplolis" have all been invoked to describe the atrium's interior (Gehry himself told the artist Coosje van Bruggen that he'd been partially inspired by Henri Matiss'es paper cut-outs)."
 
 
As to the degree that Guggenheim Bilbao connotes a sea creature, Iovine starts out well:
 
"Perhaps it was no accident that fiercely independent Bilbao, once the salted cod fish capital of the world, would turn out to be the ideal site for Gehry, who was taunted as "fish-face" as a child before transforming the piscine insult into a totem of ebullient creativity in adulthood."
 
Only to miss the point in the end: "The Bilbao museum doesn't look at all like a fish," continues, Iovine, without a hint of irony.
 
"In fact," she says, "it purposely defies all easy descriptions. Stretched out along the Nervion River in an industrial neighborhood long past its prime, its quivering titanium flanks gleam when viewed from the surrounding hills or when glimpsed at the ends of steets lined with polite nineteenth-century buildings."
 
Then, describing observations that more nearly coincide with my own, Iovine says,
 
"Calvin Tompkins, in the New Yorker, called it first "a fantastic dream ship" and then a "prehistoric beast." --- Nice.
 

". . . almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me"
_Ishmael, Chapter 1, "Loomings," _Herman Melville, Moby Dick; or The Whale, 1851
 
"By old English statutory law, the whale is declared "a royal fish." Chapter 24, "The Advocate" _Herman Melville, Moby Dick; or The Whale, 1851
1 The Prison, from "Follies," 1983. Frank Gehry
2 Gehry-Serra Bridge, 1981. Frank Gehry and Richard Serra
3 Ship in Three Stages, 1984. Claes Oldenburg
 
9. The issue isn't whether Gehry had fish on his mind when he designed Bilbao. Or whether he draws inspiration from the kitsch "sculptures" of Claes Oldenburg, such as Oldenburg's Swiss Army Knife project Ship in Three Stages, 1984 (above right). Gehry includes Oldenburg's project, along with his own fish projects (including the two above), in an early monograph.
 
Bilbao, based on Gehry's earlier fish projects (see additional examples in the Addendum at the end of this article, below), was inspired by fish imagery, fish surfaces, perhaps even by fish structure, and obviously by fish organization---it is a piscine organism. It is organized in architectural plan like a fish, contoured and massed like a fish, has features that represent identifiable body parts of fish, and a shiny surface (metallic scales) like a fish. So, although Iovine contends, perhaps wishfully, that it "doesn't look at all like a fish" (I especially like the "at all" part), there is every reason to believe that Gehry himself would be surprised, if not disappointed, to hear this.
 
The issue isn't whether Gehry has made a building that looks like a fish. If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck . . . The issue is why. And whether it's a fish or a whale. A fish story or a whale story. Perhaps it's both---simultaneously a symbol of local industry, cod fishing, and universal meaning, leviathan. Ultimately, the remarkable tail, which is horizontally flattened, makes me think that it's more a cetaceous organism than a piscine one. (I never thought my limited knowledge of aquatic species would be put to such a test in architectural criticism. How shall we say, these are uncharted waters?)
 
And, if it is desirable that architecture function as simulacra of fish, whales, and flowers, apart from wondering what other plant and animal life we might expect to see in Gehry's upcoming projects, the issue is whether this would be a desirable thing to incorporate into one's own avant-garde work or teach students of architecture who are looking for inspiration for form, structure, and symbolism. Let's not forget, for example, that the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans obviously thought that literal representations of nature in stone were desirable, at least with respect to a building's minor elements, which their papyrus-like and acanthus leaf-like columns and column capitals reflected. For architects and architectural educators, these are, like fish, slippery issues, but they're important.
 

"The technique of art is to make objects "unfamiliar," to make forms difficult . . ." _Victor Shklovsky, Art as Device (1917)

10. I recently wrote a short article about the expressive power of abstract form in regard to Gehry's architecture and Wassily Kandinsky's paintings. I called the article "Frozen Music," as the eighteenth/early nineteenth-century German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe described architecture.

Kandinsky, the leading non-Cubist trailblazer on the road to abstraction during the first decade of the twentieth century, was among those painters and architects for whom music was the supreme art. Music uses an abstract language to express feelings. Its power is visceral. Kandinsky wanted the same thing for painting: To use color, line, and form not to represent the external world but to express the "internal element" of the artist. And to stir the hearts of viewers in profound, spiritual ways. Wagner, Scriabin, and Schoenberg, the atonal Viennese composer, at least as much as Cézanne and Matisse, were the fountainheads of his art.

Schoenberg's new musical ideas emphasized what Russian Formalist literary theorist Victor Schlovsky would later (c. 1917) define as defamiliarizing, strange-making devices, such as discordant sounds, melodic-rhythmic tensions, disruptive cadences, unresolved dissonances, and formal complexities. "Composition V" (above) is one in a series of "compositions" and "improvisations" that reflects Kandinsky's interest in these artistic devices. It was painted the same year, 1911, that his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art and Schoenberg's book Theory of Harmony were published. (See Kandinsky: Compositions by Magdalena Dabrowski.)

Kandinsky's musical expressions in paint helped liberate visual form and unleash a revolution in the plastic arts. And I think we're now seeing paradigmatic reverberations in Gehry's architecture. You could say that Gehry is a master-builder of inhabitable Kandinskys---ninety years delayed. Forms first expressed in two-dimensional paint have been given three-dimensional life through the solid elements of construction. This isn't unique. From at least the Renaissance, painting has presaged aesthetic expressions in architecture.

I went so far as to maintain in the article that Gehry's architecture is the "visual equivalent of American jazz, which developed during the same time that Kandinsky and Schoenberg were working in Europe. "It is dense, aggressive, complicated, difficult, challenging, unsentimental, crowd-pleasing-and soul stirring, " I wrote, ". . . 'frozen music.' Like Coltrane playing 'Giant Steps' on the tenor sax."

And I would still maintain that the Kandinsky music-painting spirit genuinely infuses Gehry's work. In fact, in connection with the recently completed, and I think mind-blowing, Experience Music Center in Seattle, seen in the photo from Architectural Record, August 2000, below. Gehry is quoted as saying, "We tried to express music that comes from a totally unexpected place and changes you."

But now I see, or have reminded myself, that his architecture is sometimes, as at Guggenheim Bilbao and NYC, more dialectical. It fluctuates between the music-like expressive power of pure abstract form and the very kind of representational correspondence with nature that Kandinsky was trying, though not entirely successfully, to avoid. The Seattle project, which involves a cultural facility specifically about music, strikes me as largely unsentimental. But Guggenheim NYC is a different kettle of fish. The big flower (fountain or ribbon and bow) stikes me as big-time sentimental. You might say that it's imbued with what Colin Rowe, the twentieth century's most celebrated architectural writer, theorist, and critic, called the anti-modern "sentiment of sentimentality."

And, as far as Guggenheim Bilbao is concerned, well, I guess the question is: Is it frozen music or frozen fish?

Or both?


"The purpose of art is to disturb." _Georges Braque
 
11. Gehry asks us, and I suspect he does it knowingly, to wrestle with this very issue (frozen music, frozen fish, or both?).

Some years ago, he designed a project for Main Street in Venice, California, that included jumbo inhabitable binoculars (b&w model photo below). Built c.1986 for the Chiat/Day advertising firm, the Oldenburg-inspired binoculars function as the building's entrance and as a library for Main Street's occupants.[Gehry explains his close association with Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen in his monograph, "The Architecture of Frank Gehry," Walker Art Center, Rizzoli, 1986; pp. 152-53.] 

Perhaps it might be compared with Jasper Johns' Flag (1954-55; Encaustic, oil and collage on fabric mounted on plywood, 42 1/4 x 60 5/8 in.).

If Johns can make "great art" by painting the American flag, then it stands to reason that Gehry, or so the parallel assertion would be framed, can make "great architecture" by building binoculars, whale, or water lily. All are unlikely subjects of advanced form making, thus disturbing the viewer's assumptions as to what constitutes "art."

In both circumstances, Johns' painting and Gehry's architecture, the subject matter is made subservient to technical brilliance, if not also parody. It's a way of suggesting that technique is the subject matter. Technique applied to materials is content. Through the magic wand of the brush, palette knife, and glue, applied to paint, fabric, and plywood, by Johns. Through the hyperaerospace-engineering and manufacturing wizardry applied to sheet metal and glass, by Gehry. And, whereas Johns relies on the device that we might call the camouflage of representation, Gehry relies on the opposite: the camouflage of abstraction.

That is to say, Johns requires that we see through the veil of distracting representational content (a flag) to the masterful technique and expressive angst with which his paint is infused---which requires examining the painting up close. Up close his painting is abstract. Gehry, by contrast, impels us to experience the pure emotion that comes from seeing his masterful technique in the handling of the aesthetics of materials and light. We are forced to see through this mesmerizing veil of distracting abstract content to the banality of the representational content (whale/fish at Guggenheim Bilbao, flower at Guggenheim NYC)---which requires stepping back and examining the construction from a distance. From a distance, Gehry's work is representational. (The binoculars project is different; it's representational up close and from afar.)

With eyes at close range to a pointilist painting---a Seurat, for example---all you see are dots. Magnificent dots. Forming a field of dazzling abstraction. But then you step back. And you see that the painting is not abstract at all. It's a scene of bathers. Amazing bathers. But bathers nonetheless. So if you inferred from your myopic view of the fragments that the big picture (I've always wanted to use that expression in a literal way) would be more of the same, you'd be surprised.

Gehry's architectures for Guggenheim Bilbao/NYC have the same effect. When you step back, your focus undergoes a shift from emphasis on technology, technique, and materials, to less physical realities, including aesthetic structure, formal-spatial organization, subject matter, and symbolism. Bigger things, requiring diagnosis and prescription. You discover that the amazing expressive abstraction seen up close is not part of an amazing larger abstract structure, but of a representational one. You find yourself looking at the equivalent of an American flag, as it were. And you have finally found out what it is.

In other words:
 
If, as I suggested at the start,
 
Abstract expression = "the breaking of the wave."
 
Then,
 
Representational expression = "the whole sea."

"Now the Lord prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah." _Jonah 1:17
 
12. On first glance, it would seem that given a choice between binoculars, knives, marine life, and plant life, one would be hard-pressed to know which one to choose for a building design. But all things considered, there are reasons, though they may well have little to do with Gehry's intentions, why the whale was the right choice in Bilbao. And if Bilbao got a whale, then NYC, as I see it, deserves a whale, too (whale 2?). What with Herman Melville being from Manhattan. But most importantly, the whale is a better analog for organizing a post-Neoclassical, Y2K site-specific architecture. Because the linearity and longitudinality of Bilbao's organizational schema is successful as an advanced architectural enterprise, whale or no whale. In other words, it succeeds as an architectural organism.
 
Like a fractal thread, it weaves through and into the urban fabric, and it does so with remarkable drama, power, and grace. This leviathan defines the eventful and extended edge; its forces are inherently centrifugal, fragmentary, and contngent. Okay, it has a head and a tail and fins, but as an architecture, as opposed to technological taxidermy or biomorphic styling, it nevertheless has sequential intelligence, rich and harmonically dissonant relationships to the existing physical context, implying potential for almost infinite extension into the city.
 

"All great books are symbolical myths, overlaid like a palimpsest with the meanings that men at various times assign to them." _Clifton Fadiman
 
13. Still, while others would typically employ the whale, to the degree that their project were about whales, as a conceptual analog for the project's organization, not as a perceptual metaphor for its physical imagery, there is another way of "reading" Gehry's project that endows it with novelistic meaning.
 
As I intimated earlier, instead of the idea of architecture as fish . . . you could look at the project as being about the idea of the world as whale. The dormant Bilbao whale, straddling the flank of the river, ethereally reflected through metalic and aqueous surfaces, evokes associations not only with the majesty and freedom of the deep blue sea, far away, but also with all that history has endowed the Leviathan. From Jonah to Hobbes to Melville. Moreover, it allies itself with the indigenous, ever-present stirrings of the literary tradition of Spain, in the person, specifically, of the inventor of the novel, Cervantes. Bilbao is a fish story. Conjuring fanciful and woeful associations with the windmills, sagas, humor, heroism, imaginations, and inventions of story-tellers on both sides of the Atlantic. Evocations of a grand narrative tradition, in which whales are celebrated as symbols of profound human drama, redemption, and refuge, breathes poetic life into this techno-creature.
 
"The greatest books arise from a profound level of wonder and terror, a level common to all humanity in all times and climes,
but a level so deep that we are only at times aware of it, and none of us can ever glimpse it whole.
From time to time a man---Cervantes or Dostoevsky or Melville---lets down into this deep well the glorious, pitiful bucket of his genius,
and he brings up a book,
and then we read it,
and dimly we sense its source,
and know that source to be something profound and permanent in the human
imagination.
The mysterious liquid drawn from this well is never crystalline.
Rather does each man, as he looks into it, see mirrored a different set of images,
reflections,
points of light,
and layers of shadow.
All great books are symbolical myths, overlaid like a palimpsest with the meanings that men at various times assign to them."
 
_Clifton Fadiman (Introduction (1940) to Herman Melville's "Moby Dick; or The Whale," 1851)
 

"I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights."_Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (1939)
 
14. On the other hand, there's Guggenheim NYC. Gehry's early study models show that after an early phase of making various creature-like buildings---they look suspiciously a lot like architect Lebbeus Wood's work---the scheme settled down to a basic organizational parti (i.e., schematic diagram) that involved making a ring around a central void. Presumably intended as a takeoff on Wright's spiral ramped atrium of the existing Guggenheim. Eventually the scheme developed to the present point where what was originally a void in the center became solid, ultimately in the form of the tall flower-pistil intruder. As if a broken piece of a neighboring highrise had fallen through the glass dome of Wright's atrium.
 
But if you look at the chessboard, Gehry's attempt to establish some formal-spatial echo of Wright's Guggenheim by adopting a similar wrap around, ring-toss organizational scheme is the wrong move. Flower plans have no meaning in this game. It's not a game for flower plans.
 
But cod and whale plans, that's another story. Guggemheim NYC's flower arrangment is not an advanced response-strategy to the linear circumstances of the river's edge. But Guggenheim Bilbao's marine animal plan is. It's a funky chess piece in an expert chess game. It makes the right moves and reflects the understanding that, in the game involving building and site, position is everything.
The NYC project displays virtuoso views that, when the flower-imagery yields, evoke clouds and cyclotronic Mobius strips and Kandinsky paintings. It's like Gehry has cloned Wright's museum, transported it to Lower Manhattan, turned it inside out, so that the interior spiral ramps form the exterior surface of the new museum, then sent 50,000 volts of electricity through it causing the whole contraption to morph into Bloomingdale's gift wrap. It's an imagistic way to refer to Wright's architecture. And it makes sense. All the more reason to toss the ring-toss plan. To deform, strrrrrrrrrrrrretch, warp, and send it throught the spin cycle in the same way. To play it, for example, like Feininger's "Gelmerode," as I suggested above (Section 5). You'd still have a cool chess piece. In a game with the right moves. A winning game.
 
As it stands, the iconology of the flower is bullying the floor and site plans. Causing them to conform with archery-target type organizational diagrams that are easy to achieve but which Y2K hypermodern architectures would typically do everything to avoid (incidentally, archery targets are a favorite subject of Jasper Johns). Causing them to be insufficient as conceptual and logistical propositions on important architectonic and urban levels beyond the purely metaphorical. It's a curious design methodology: Select a wild-life form or consumer object, super-enlarge it and position it on a site according to empirical criteria. Sometimes make it in-your-face and obvious, like the binoculars project. Sometimes complexify and disguise it, such that its representational identity is difficult to discern unless viewed from the proper angle or distance, like Guggenheim NYC. Sometimes adopt an in-between strategy, like Guggenheim Bilbao. Whichever way, the principle is the same: It's not unlike, I think, arranging the pieces on a chess board in the shape of a knight. You may think it's poetic, even deep. Or you may think it's silly and shallow. Some may not even see it. But poetic or silly, deep or shallow, discerned or not, such a move, or sequence of moves, has ultimately little to do with the game of chess. With what Le Corbusier described equivalently as "playing intensely the architectural game."
 
It's interesting to note that Medieval cathedrals are based on a not dissimilar architectural metaphysic: Their floor plans assume the shape of the cross---hence the term Latin-cross churches. They make function and connotational meaning---as well as form-space relationships--subservient to this one self-referential metaphor in stone. Such architectures as these (which are not limited to Gehry's buildings and cathedrals) tend to treat form as idealized preconceptions. As autonomous figural entities. As shapes and configurations---such as a cross, binoculars, and flowers---that respond primarily to the internal forces of their own reductive logic. They are generally immune to the repercussions of external forces, such as site-specific physical circumstances. To circumstantial events outside the "frame" that might introduce (desirable) disruptions into the organizational equation. Form, rather than emerging contingent, nuanced, and figurally complex in part from a strategical analysis of the plastic relationships of the site, is imported to the site---whole and autonomous. Like John's American flag painting. It's not a fragment of a larger whole. It's complete. There's nothing that exists outside the frame, as in a Degas or a Mondrian painting. As a form-space phenomenon, it knows only its own identity. In such a mental system, form isn't invented. It's copied. And again, literalism is the underlying methodology. The fact that cathedrals are self-referential raises various questions about Gehry's work. The cross was the central emblem of the Medieval Christian church. Cathedrals are literal translations of this idea into inhabitable form. That is, they are buildings that convey, in the most simplistic representational terms, the idea that the Cross is the Church. So, with respect to Gehry's Guggenheim NYC, can we say that it is similarly self-referential? That the water lily is the central emblem of a museum of modern art? That the Water Lily is the Museum? Or, that Gift Wrap is Manhattan? Perhaps this is precisely what Gehry would have us consider, however unpersuasive or inchoate such an ostensibly screw-ball idea might strike us. And, again, it raises this underlying question: Is such a method of arriving at the general form of a building a desirable way to make radical, didactic architectures today? For some, perhaps. For others, it may well be, ironically, and however unintentionally, too much an expression of an all-too familiar hostility to abstraction.
 
In the end, there's something fishy about this Guggenheim NYC architecture-as-flower scheme. (Or not fishy enough.)
 

"Architecture isn't about truth, it's about choices. Some choices are better than others." _Renée Shadowoire, 17th-century French cartographer

15. The final model of Guggenheim NYC includes miniature abstract scultptures and paintings. They are positioned at strategic visual moments in the interior. The drama of looking out from the museum to the river, or vice versa, in which fragments of art dot your visual landscape, would no doubt be thrilling. And of course, were the project to be built, all the art works would be relatively miniature compared to Gehry's titanic art object, the building itself.

One of the sculptures in the model is a Richard Serra. Longitudinal steel plates, gently warped, undulating and quasi-parallel. For me, the juxtaposition of the Serra to the Gehry is telling. Up close, viewing only the immediate juxtaposition of building to sculpture, distracted by the camouflage of abstraction, it is poignant and stirring. But, stepping back, and considering the totality, I was all the more convinced that an architecture based on an alternative organizational parti and symbolism would be far superior. In contrast to the centroidal shape of an inhabitable flower, I imagined a building with the centrifugal forces and longituidnal disposition of a mega-Richard Serra abstract sculpture---or Bilbao Whale II, if you must---gone completely and marvelously haywire.


"The Universe is built on a plan ...which is somehow present in the inner structure of our intellect." _ Paul Valery
 
16. You might say that completed buildings are a record of reflection---reflection not only of an architect's thought, but also of the thought of the client, and sometimes the society, that produces it. In a very real sense, architecture is a record of what matters most to those associated with its realization.

This record is at least two-fold: visual and ontological. These intermingling constituents infuse all buildings with life either shallow or profound, and everything in between. For all architectures, no matter how consciously or unreflectively, reveal "the inner structure of our intellect." They function as an implicit representation--- i.e., re-presentation---of the world. That is, as a representation of reality.

It's not insignificant, I believe, that the word building comes from an Indo-European word meaning to be. That the first architectures were temples, sacred spaces cut out, template-like, from the profane space of the everyday world. That the first architects were astronomer-priests, who marked out this sacred space for a purpose: The observation of reality. Architecture began as the ineffable precinct set aside for the contemplation---the con-temple-ation---of the problem of being itself. And from its inception, architecture took the form of buildings that were consciously made to mirror an image of the cosmos, to the best of people's ability to construe it---such as four-square, domed, and supported by giant tree-like columns. We've come a long from such non-scientific, literal views of the construction of the world. But is architecture any less inherently ontological? Any less intrinsically cosmological? Any less a philosophical mirror? Might it not be, still today, that every work of architecture---in ways that are unavoidable---is, implicitly, an image of the cosmos, of reality, as the architect best understands it to be? How could it be otherwise? Architecture is, inextricably, the world as meditation, made manifest in inhabitable form.

There are those, such as Le Corbusier, the greatest architectural form-maker of the twentieth century, for whom the ideal in architecture is an equilibrium between advanced visual and deep ontological forces. Between the self-sustaining plastic properties of original aesthetic systems. And the deep poetry that springs from the fountainhead of architecture's own history and myth. For whom the structure of architecture's relationship to nature is multivalent and metonymic, as opposed to univalent and metaphoric. A palimpsest of underlying and overlaid gestures that evoke secondary, tertiary, and sub-tertiary associations, on yet another multiplicity of levels. (For a discussion of the difference between metaphor and metonym, see "Collage Reading: Braque|Picasso," by Jef7rey Hildner.)
 

"For the invisible things . . . are clearly seen . . ." _Romans 1:20
 
17. For example, Le Corbusier's Assembly Building at Chandigarh, India (1953-63), is clearly about a mountain, as his early sketches show (below left). It is a reference to the surrounding landscape. It is the poetic heart and soul of the building. But the building itself is not a mountain.
 
 
The muscular truncated conical form, emerging from the earth and reaching for the sun, functions as the principal public assembly chamber within a larger complex and multifarious building. It is hierarchically the most important event of the building's formal-spatial and symbolic identitiy, to be sure. But this mountain-like chamber, shifted off center, surrounded by a metaphorical forest of columns on the interior, is subsumed within a larger geometric organism. An organism that is inherently dialectical. Le Corbusier doesn't refrain from making symbolic form inspired by nature, but he doesn't allow it to determine either the aesthetic system or the representational essence of the architecture. The expression of the metaphor is regulated by the aesthetic system. It is a principal theme within a dense and abstract larger entity, which complies with the imperatives of form on numerous other subtle and contingent levels.
 
If anything, the principle assertion is not of a mountain per se, but a landscape---at the level of the roof. A human-made larger-than-life still-life, as out of a Cézanne painting, in poetic dialogue with the surrounding landscape to which it refers. And again, this magical and powerful landscape, including references to the sun and celestial phenomena, is not the building per se, but merely part of it. Moreover, it is self-referential. That is, it evokes associations with architecture's origins and mythic past. The pyramid refers to the first significant desert buildings, those of the Egyptians. The tall rectilinear vertical element can be construed as "the image of a universal pillar, axis mundi, which at once connects and supports heaven and earth," which is how Mircea Eliade describes an idea that was important to ancient societies (seeThe Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, 1957). Eliade explains that "the mountain occurs among the [ancient] images that express the connection between heaven and earth; hence it is believed to be at the center of the world." The "sacred mountain is an axis mundi," too, continues Eliade, ". . .consequently the territory that surrounds it, and that constitutes "our world," is held to be the highest among countries . . ."our world" is holy ground because it is the place nearest to heaven." Le Corbusier's architectural mountains and columns refer to primoridal elements of the archetypal construction of the world. Elements involved in marking out a sacred place to be. It is a multivalent architecture that resonates with deep universal meanings arising out of multiple connotative elements. And the organizational structure of the plan is equally didactic and mature.
 
The worldview is anti-pop. Anti-profane. Anti-reductive and anti-univalent. Le Corbusier, too, is after expression. Perhaps above all: Expression of artistic freedom, formal-spatial invention, and serious commitment to the ancient-new idea that architecture "continually resanctifies the world, because it at once represents and contains it."
 

"In a complete and successful work there are hidden masses of implications, a veritable world which reveals itself to those whom it may concern." _Le Corbusier
 
18. Other examples of modern architectures rich in symbolic meaning, in which the over-arching identity is not defined by a single and univalent representation of nature, but by visual-intellectual systems that support an edifice of ideas, include: Antoni Gaudi's 1910 Casa Mila aka La Predera (2nd and 3rd photos from left below) [see also my article on Gaudi]; Giuseppe Terragni's unbuilt 1938-40 Danteum (4th image from left below), which is based on Dante's Divine Comedy; and Le Corbusier's metaphysical landscape on the roof terrace of the Unité d'Habitation , Marseilles, France (horizontal b&w photo below). (The vertical b&w photo below, first image on the left, is another view of Le Corbusier's Assembly Building at Chandigarh.)
 
 
Gehry's architecture is no less a worldview. That of an existential naturalist. Or literal materialist. Whose heart is aligned with pop art. The knives, binoculars, and flora-fauna that spark his form-making imagination are no doubt susceptible to reverential and poetic interpretation, as I and others have chanced to say. But, if beneath the surface of things as they are is an ontological (cetological?) enterprise largely inchoate and resistant. If his work is less than a didactic source of emulation for other architects, on certain fundamental and primordial levels, including organizational schemata. It is no mean achievement that aspects of his work, smashing the barriers to creative freedom, shimmer with lightning-like brilliance.
 

"My ideas are mine. No one has a right to them except on my terms." _Howard Roark, from the screenplay of "The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand
 
19. To me, what's most important is that Gehry has given us a great gift. Perhaps the greatest gift of all: The words that few architects have ever been in a position to declare of their work. Words that ring with the sacred trust that what an architect, or any artist, gives to the world, no matter how short of a perfect "10" it may fall, may at least be assumed to be uncompromised and pure. They're the words of Ayn Rand, spoken by Gary Cooper (aka Howard Roark) in Rand's screenplay of her novel "The Fountainhead":
 
"My work done my way."
 
The next line? "Nothing else matters to me." And, in the end, nothing else matters to me either than that Gehry's work is done his way. After all, architecture is not about truth, it's about choices. As an abstract painter, hypermodern site strategist, figure/field theorist, and metaphysical idealist, interested in heightening perception of architecture's original, ontological relationship to literature and astronomy, I would obviously make very different choices. And as I've said, I'd also recommend that Gehry---and Guggenheim NYC---make different choices, while continuing to work within the context of his adopted aesthetic system and worldview.
 
But his work fills me, and I'm sure other architects as well, with the promise that in our own little Bilbaos we, too, might experience something of the same unfettered creative freedom and abundance of technological, financial, and political support. That we might, like the "eternal priest of the imagination," Stephen Daedalus, in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Frank Gehry, "discover the mode of life or of art whereby your spirit could express itself in unfettered freedom."
 
"Yes! Yes! Yes! He would create proudly out of the freedom and power of his soul, as the great artificer whose name he bore, a living thing, new and soaring and beautiful, impalpable, imperishable."

IN PROCESS FROM HERE . . to eternity . . .
 
 
"Just look." _Galileo
 
"You mean, he makes a hyperbole of everyday things? And you can live in them?" _My mom
 
© 2000|MADISON GRAY
e-mail MadisonGray@thearchitectpainter.com

_9.21.00

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ADDENDUM: 12.22.00
Additional images of Gehry's work reveal the extent to which fish were central to his developing architectural form-making philosophy prior to Bilbao:
 
Left: Study in fish-scales metal skin + fish-like skeletal structure; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (1986).
Middle: "Fishdance" restaurant. Kobe, Japan (1987).
Right: Barcelona (c. 1992)
 
Drawing of the North Elevation, Bilbao (c. 1994)
Quotes:
1. "Mr. Gehry said he tried to apply abstract "fish-like shapes" in his buildings. "Slowly, I learned to abstract the essence of movement," he said" (The New York Times, November 29, 2000).
2. ""The important urban idea is to make a building like this [Guggenheim NYC] fit into the fabric of this great city," He added, " It has a persona, and it is important that the new building fit into that persona, not mimic it, not copy it, but become a good neighbor to it"" (The New York Times, November 29, 2000).
3. ""I wanted exuberance," he said. "And I wanted it [Guggenheim NYC] to make people who make art proud to be in it"" (The New York Times, November 29, 2000).